Birth of an Abomination – Beck and the Ironic Persona
By Wallace Wylie
The two most common characteristics of the “indie” persona these days, at least in North America, are an aversion to overt seriousness and the ability to find everything “awesome”.
These characteristics often intermingle and feed off one another, creating the voracious indie devourer who is able to simultaneously enjoy every kind of music while at the same time not particularly caring about anything. They are the ultimate consumer, willing to embrace and discard bands at a moment’s notice while never questioning what led them to lose interest in one band and embrace another. Awkward inquiries about almost any subject can be dealt with in a detached and deliberately ironic manner — following trends is awesome, selling out is awesome, being shallow is awesome, sweatshops are awesome. When it comes to fashion, trashiness battles against both vintage store retro and American Apparel chic as the dominant form, and everyone thinks that everybody but themselves is a hipster. How this persona was birthed is a relatively straightforward tale, as suburban America fell in the love with the vulgar commercial product of its youth. An ironic approach was already somewhat popular but something, or in this case someone, happened in the ‘90s to turn what was a mere aspect of American culture into the dominant personality trait of American teenagers, twenty-somethings and, at this point, thirty-somethings. That someone was Beck.
Now, before everybody has an aneurysm, I’m not saying it’s all Beck’s fault. I mean, I blame Stephen Malkmus too. In reality, though, there have to be untold variables in place before a trend catches on, and then all it takes is the right social carrier to throw petrol on the fire. In this instance what were those variables? For starters, throw in some Cramps-style b-movie reverence. Add a pinch of John Waters bad taste mixed well with some John Hughes nerd-love. Simmer lightly over an emerging indie-crossover MTV audience and, voila! You have the perfect recipe for indie-loser geekdom. Not that I’m suggesting Beck planned this all in advance. He was as much a product of his generation as anyone else. But something about his image struck a chord and accentuated what was already in place.
Soon enough Beck clones were everywhere and in their wake they rendered passionate feeling an embarrassing personality trait. Even something as natural as sexual urges appears to be a source of crippling shame, with any sexual words or phrases seen as clichéd, artificial and cringe-inducing. The idea of trying to be naturally “sexy” seems absurd. So, as indicated by Midnite Vultures, sex and sexual urges are reduced to ironic gestures of overstatement and hyperbole, though presumably Beck is able to make non-ironic sexual suggestions in the comfort of his own home. Did I say Beck and his followers do not take anything seriously? I take it back, there is one notable exception. Beck’s lyrics are nonsensical unless he is talking about his own sadness. With unhappiness no fear of cliché exists. Beck is more than able to indulge in singer-songwriter triteness in order to squeeze out some emotions about a failed relationship or generalised despair. Beck became the mirror image of a whole generation who felt the need to poke fun at everything except their own sense of sorrow (though disclaimers such as “God, I’m so emo” do occasionally follow emotional outbursts).
A more disturbing element to the Beck phenomenon is his treatment of music from African-American sources. When Uncut asked Beck for a record that changed his life he chose Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy, going on to say:
“A lot of the rap I’d heard previously was all kind of [sings] ‘I’m the kind of rapper that’ll be real hard/Step to me and I’ll pull your card’.”
What’s striking about this statement is that Beck’s parody rap sounds like exactly the kind of thing he himself would write. I think the question deserves to be asked: why is it that when Beck is in full-on ironic mode he chooses to incorporate hip-hop (Mellow Gold, Odelay) or R & B (witness the aforementioned Midnite Vultures), but when he wants to be serious he limits himself to more white-influenced “classic” influences? Does he, and the ironic persona in general, see African-American music to be more a source of amusement than a serious musical endeavor? Among most “indie” people in their twenties and thirties, hip-hop and R & B seem to be appreciated on the same level as “I’m On a Boat” or “Bed Intruder Song”. It is called awesome and quoted for comedic effect, while serious discussion is saved for artists such as Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes or even Lady Gaga.
It could be argued that Beck’s associating of African-American music with irony and crass humour-value has convinced a whole generation to view the music as a joke. The assumption is often made that the post-NWA gangster rap of the 90s was popular for its shock value (which is true to an extent), while more serious minded hip-hop was forced to remain on the sidelines. In the case of ironic indie fans, though, the question should be asked: what purpose does hip-hop serve in their life? If it is to provide cheap laughs when quoting it at length, gangster rap (or indeed any sufficiently misogynistic or violent rap) fits the bill. In this context more intelligent approaches to rap just don’t work. A debate continuously rages about the decline of hip-hop. To those who see a decline, the next question is who or what is to blame: money, fame, violence? Perhaps then the question needs to be asked: what do most people listen to hip-hop for? If it is discovered that for many it is a source of amusement then we should not have to look hard for where this trend began.
What of Beck’s overall musical output? It is not without its charms, but even his most interesting period, the 90s, seems strangely unsatisfactory if one takes the time to go back and listen. Beck is either surface-level amusement or serious singer-songwriter. The 00s saw him trying to appear more earnest, with ponderous albums (and titles) such as Sea Change, The Information and Modern Guilt. He cannot escape his surface skimming approach, however, and even though the albums seem good on first listen they have a sense of hollowness that leaves the listener unfulfilled. They arrive, they are enjoyed in the most undemanding ways, and then they are rarely revisited. The historical importance occasionally afforded to Beck seems more a token gesture for how much on people’s minds he was for a while, as opposed to how cherished his music actually is. Although they created an impact, his songs did not come with the necessary depth to create staying power.
Beck’s ability to create surface-level impact with no depth also plays out in the actual sound of his CDs. He was one of the artists involved in the ‘loudness wars’, a term given to the ongoing trend of mastering albums louder and louder at the expense of sonic detail. Listen to Midnite Vultures, and then listen to almost any other album from that same year with the volume unchanged. The difference is more than noticeable. The subject came up in an interview with Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso, and Beck made some rather embarrassing excuses for having to go along with audience demands in regards to a problem that he helped create:
“On my recent albums, I’ve mastered them in a more traditional way and then in a modern way and played them sided by side. I personally like the traditional one that’s less compressed and less altered. But we end up putting out the one that’s more compressed because people now are so attuned to hearing music that way. I don’t know if they’d connect as much with something quiet and uncompressed. It would just sound like it’s not alive or something to ears that have been conditioned to a more exaggerated sound. There’s a need for a kind of stimulation. It’s hard to reconcile these elements. I know other bands have had the same problem. They say, ‘Well, I really like the naturalness of the instruments when it’s not over-compressed but the other one really leaps out of the speaker and gets peoples attention.’ I guess some people think it’s harder to get people’s attention now.”
The message is clear; he prefers attention-grabbing impact over more sonically satisfying detail. This approach permeates every aspect of his musical philosophy and will be his historical undoing, as future music fans fail to understand what the fuss was all about in regards to Beck.
Each generation, and each individual within that imaginary grouping labeled a generation, must at some point face something of a reckoning. This reckoning is the moment when a person chooses whether they will continue to believe in the notion of struggle in regards to preserving their individuality, or whether they will capitulate and buy into the mainstream. Attempting to preserve one’s individuality involves almost perpetual doubt in the face of overpowering societal forces. The mainstream seems to continually whisper to the individual that if they merely lay down their burden of ideals and standards, then a world of guilt-free thrills is theirs for the taking. Robert Kolker’s critical study A Cinema Of Loneliness examines the idea that American cinema in the late ‘60s and ‘70s was one born of struggle for artistic ideals in the face of commercial demands. Films such as Taxi Driver or Bonnie And Clyde placed their protagonists within the claustrophobic confines of a stifling, uncaring society that could only be transcended by desperate acts of violence. These films seemed to satisfy a yearning within audiences for romanticised dreams of taking a stand against the impersonal forces that pressure us to compromise. The directors of these movies, however, showed the consequences of such actions, snatching away the daydreams of the audience and instead letting them see the grim reality that lay in wait for those who attempted escape. For the post-Summer of Love generation, capitulation to mainstream demands threw up images of isolation and crushed hopes. For the post-Reagan generation, succumbing to the banalities of the mainstream played itself out in an ironic display of amused impotence.
Cinema in the 90s reflected this shift in taste, with the ultra-violence of Quentin Tarantino’s movies creating a detached, cartoonish reality that allowed the viewer to feel unconcerned as to the repercussions of the savagery on screen. The character’s brutal transgressions are played out for entertainment and amusement rather than illustrating any kind of painful struggle. Tarantino’s movies were also filled with pop culture references that allowed the viewer to feel like they were part of the director’s insular self-congratulatory world. If America in the 70s wrestled with moral dilemmas and a diminished sense of individuality and reach, then pop culture mavens in the 90s merely wanted to be in on the joke. To music fans who imagined themselves to be more alternative in their approach, Beck fulfilled this need. His music basked in the mindset of trash culture and knowing irony, of sneering at seriousness, of adopting hip-hop beats to play up the now utterly commonplace “look at me I’m a nerdy white guy rapping about ridiculous things” persona that has managed to all but reduce hip-hop to a comedy sideshow for those who need an occasional break from their Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend albums.
In Beck and the ironic persona, we see the crippling self-consciousness of the overly-domesticated American (though at this point the persona is not limited to America). Being nerdy is the ultimate achievement. Being sexy feels awkward so it is drenched in irony so that one may shrug and play it off as a joke if observed or rejected. Words such as ‘dude’, ‘awesome’, ‘epic’ and ‘totes’ clog up conversation and status updates. Rap lyrics are wheeled out for fun. The ironic persona allowed an entire generation (and those afterwards) to buy into the mainstream by imagining themselves above it. Beck provided the ironic persona with its archetype. Nerdy, sexless and trashy (but with an overflowing well of self-pity just below the surface), this mindset seemed to provide its adherents with the belief that an ironic appreciation gave them a victory over the powers of coercion as well as a victory over any form of criticism. If you could make a crass joke and appear unconcerned, then you looked like the winner in any argument. Despite being all but ubiquitous and a couple of decades old, the ironic persona at this point shows no signs of dying off.
In years to come, when cultural commentators examine this phenomenon, Beck’s name will inevitably be mentioned. His music will be seen more as an example of this persona rather than worthy of examination on its own terms. This makes sense in the context of the ironic persona where the music and movies most discussed are merely an extension of the person you imagine yourself to be rather than genuinely revered artifacts. Beck’s music is more reminisced about than listened to. He chose an aloof self-awareness that wallowed in facile cleverness and helped spawn thousands of passionless, smug clones who all but necessitated the creation of American Apparel so they could snap up every gaudy, shiny piece of pseudo-nerd attire.
Consumerism thrives on people getting excited about, and buying, things that they ultimately don’t care about. In this sense the ironic persona is the ultimate gift to consumerism. Mainstream music revels in easy sentiment and soul-crushing banality and can only truly be enjoyed by not paying attention to the lyrics. Beck’s meaningless babble trained a generation of young ears to seek out amusing sound-bites over articulate content and in doing so helped break down the last vestiges of ‘alternative’ music by making it as equally meaningless as, and therefore all but identical to, mainstream drivel.
Many would say those young ears were already trained to seek out amusing soundbites due to being raised in an overtly commercialised culture and Beck merely tapped into this surface-level appreciation. No matter – passivity is still passivity even with a smug grin on its face. The conceited impotence in the face of crass mainstream images that ultimately constitutes the ironic persona first became popular on a cultural level with Beck and despite his attempts at seriousness he remains tied to this illegitimate creation. When the ironic tide rolls back, his reputation will completely disappear with it and a whole generation of people will wonder why so many before them appeared so delighted to be powerless and superficial. Beck’s music will be the museum piece that provides cultural clues, but it will have no artistic worth of its own. Those who knowingly revel in the shallowest artistic waters deserve nothing less.