The Rapture, Beck, Jethro Tull, Ghostface this weekend–four nights in a row, all acts that, to some extent I’m told were better live (a) “when they were younger, had more energy, better voice, etc.”, (b) “before they killed dance-punk,” or (c) “before all the scientology shit.” What? Midnite Vultures tour, Beck arrived on stage floating down on a mattress; please, floating mattresses are totally within the realm of scientology.
Whatever. Beck I’ve always liked, and never understood why some people take issue with what they call his shrill or even insultingly ironic appropriation of hip-hop, disco, funk, country, or basically any outre musical genre that doesn’t involve dudes with guitars singing about manifest destiny, w/h/y. Some people say he’s disrespectful, dishonest, afraid–he wanted to make a full-on disco album with Midnite Vultures but hedged behind a permanent shoulder shrug.
On stage he does a few things like that, for sure. During “Sexx Laws,” Beck and his hype man played those frantic dueling banjo lines throughout, increasingly overblown towards the ending–then they stopped playing the instruments, the lines kept on, and turns out they weren’t “really” playing the banjos at all. While we’re on the hype man, I’d always heard about Beck doing his own dancing– looks like he’s essentially farmed out a guy to “be” his stage presence. And when Beck went into his Sea Change material, Beck’s “sad” album people hate for its coarse sentimentality, he himself mocked its singer-songwriterness, heart-on-sleevesness, etc: While he played the songs solo, his band members set up a dinner table on stage and ate what appeared from the mezzanine to be an actual meal. Beck’s irony is remarkably double-edged.
But I can’t take offense to it, and in fact love these gags all the more, because I don’t ever get the opinion the gags are the focal point, that parody–musically, on-stage, otherwise– is Beck’s main goal here. The parodist is a haphazard asshole, pouncing on things his audience will laugh at; the supreme ironist has more commitment to what seems=what is than most people think, follows the ways of things to their natural contradictions–for Beck, this means following the conceptions of genre, musical performance, even linguistic/syntactical constructions we never challenge, and rending them apart when people don’t expect it. Things we take for granted, Beck undoes them–he takes his musical projects seriously (I do believe this), but in a way, so seriously that he ends up unraveling them, finding their fissures, and he can’t help but share them with us.
That’s why, of course, Midnite Vultures and Odelay! and even Guero will always strike me sadder than Sea Change–actually tragic in a way, definitely more sincere than people have understood. Behind the laughs are an admittance of communication breakdown, Beck admitting defeat, surrendering to the expressive limits of word and sound.
Maybe Beck’s a better read than sight or listen–who knows. I was in the mezzanine, where audio is bunk and the waitresses walk around with midriff-baring white shirts that say “DRINKS” right across their boobs–all kinds of problematic. The crowd, like a lot of the shows I went to this weekend, had that one concert every six months vibe to them, and Beck gave them what they wanted: “Loser,” “Devil’s Haircut,” “Debra,” “Where’s It’s At,” “New Pollution,” “Girl,” “Mixed Bizness.” Leaving took forever, which meant a lot of us saw the Hammerstein crew dismantling the set, pushing the trash around the floor with these crowd control gates, taking down decorations, etc. It shouldn’t, but I bet the sight turned off a few.