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Beck the Untouchable

[whitespace] Beck

Even one of the art world's most subversive groups couldn't start a Beck backlash

By Michelle Goldberg

IN A POP MUSIC world fractured into almost endless microgenres, Beck is a rarity in his ability to span scenes with his sampledelic brew of folk, hip-hop, rock, blues and funked-up craziness. He can grace the cover of Spin magazine, win two Grammys and still keep his street cred. Next week, he'll be appearing at the $100-a-head Silicon Planet party in San Jose along with Devo, Calvin Klein and TV geek David Spade. The event is described on the Silicon Planet Web site as "a high tech-meets-Hollywood Trend Show." For almost anyone else, playing such a show would mean the end of any reputation for underground cool, but Beck has the rare aura of untouchable hipness that only a few artists like the Beastie Boys and Bjørk even manage. Says the ultra-indie mag Raygun, "He's a bluesman, a soulman, a B-boy and a consummate showman, a trailblazer completely removed from petty West coast/East coast or new/old school rivalries. He's 'the enchanting Wizard of Rhythm.' Everybody listens to him--don't front that you don't--but Beck hasn't let his artistic success go to his head." Even Grooverider, Britain's most revered jungle musician, singled him out for admiration in his press bio: "I've got really into Beck lately--I wouldn't mind getting my hands on some of his stuff."

But other electronic musicians already have, and their feelings toward Beck are slightly more ambivalent. Several months ago, a record label called Illegal Art, run by a pseudonymous Dartmouth graduate student named Philo T. Farnsworth, released Deconstructing Beck, a 13-song compilation made entirely from Beck samples. The irony, of course, is that Beck's music is itself made largely of other people's samples. That's part of the point--Deconstructing Beck was meant to be a challenge to pop music's sampling hierarchy, where artists with money can afford to buy the rights to any sounds they want, but other artists are "really restricted in their palettes," says Farnsworth. Production of the CD was paid for with a $5,000 grant from ® ™ ark (pronounced "art mark"), an underground organization that funds acts of creative corporate sabotage.

SIGNIFICANTLY, THOUGH, even the people behind ® ™ ark and Illegal Art say that they're Beck fans. "It's probably just that Beck is very inspiring, and Philo may have wanted to give a forum to people who desired to use Beck's work in some obvious ways," an anonymous ® ™ ark member said. "And that's where the subversive aspect arose: They legally couldn't."

Said ® ™ ark's press release, "We weren't sure about this project at first, since ® ™ ark usually targets the crassest of mass-produced items. But while Beck may be a superb artist, his lucrative persona remains just another product that others get rich from, and one that we need to subvert."

Deconstructing Beck bears an obvious resemblance to the Oakland-based band Negativland's "U2," the infamous single that spliced Casey Kasem swearing on outtakes from American Top 40 with bits from U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." That disc prompted a legal assault from U2's label, Island Records, which nearly bankrupted Negativland. The group later published a book and CD about the whole debacle called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2. After Deconstructing Beck started getting media attention (including articles in The New York Times, Wired and The Village Voice), Negativland hooked up with Illegal Art, putting out Deconstructing Beck on their Seeland label and sparring via letters and emails with lawyers for Beck and Geffen.

But, wary of the negative publicity that U2 received in their battle with Negativland, Geffen lawyers largely maintained a hands-off approach, sending cease-and-desist letters, but not following up with legal action. Asked what Beck's response to the CD was, his publicist said, "None at all. Beck has a copy, but he's not really commenting one way or the other. I don't even know if he's had a chance to listen to it."

If he had, he would have heard an often dense, unintelligible melange of crashing electronic fuzz and spacey gurgles that has little in common with Beck's own loping, chilled-out dada funk. In fact, the whole incident can be seen as an argument for the artistic legitimacy of sampling--just as Beck takes other people's sounds and makes them distinctly his own, Illegal Art took Beck and created something utterly new. And while Deconstructing Beck is occasionally interesting, it's not nearly as compulsively listenable and multifaceted as Beck's own oeuvre, proving that cool samples mean nothing without skills and vision.


Beck appears at Silicon Planet on Oct. 10; FMC Defense Factory, 1125 Coleman Ave., San Jose. $100. To get tickets, call 408/297-9755 (or 650/624-9060) and ask for Silicon Planet info; when asked if you were invited, say yes and give the password: "Mutations."

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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