Back in 1998, when the U2/Negativland imbroglio was still fresh in memory and sampling in music was still a hotly debated matter, the Illegal Art label released Deconstructing Beck, a compilation of culture-jamming remix artists running Beck’s music through the wringer. The purpose was to call attention to a sticking point in the debate over sampling in music - while major artists like Beck, who had the corporate backing to pay for clearances, could release whole albums cobbled together almost entirely from scavenged material, that sort of remix culture was effectively outlawed for all but a rarefied few, and a non-wealthy independent artist who worked with similar methods but for the purposes of cultural commentary rather than mere entertainment could conceivably be screwed for life by one rapacious mega-label lawyer. And in an age when pop music is blared at us, whether we want to hear it or not, in public and open-to-the-public spaces like grocery stores and bus stops, how is such matter not fair fodder for the ministrations and jabs of artists seeking to comment on it? As Steven Shaviro wrote in a 1998 issue of ArtByte:
An anonymous group known as Illegal Art recently released its first commercial product: an underground CD called Deconstructing Beck. The album is a brilliant exercise in guerrilla art-making. Deconstructing Beck is built entirely out of samples taken, without authorization or payment, from music by the alternative-rock hero of the moment, Beck Hansen. The samples have been manipulated electronically in various ways. The resulting thirteen tracks, by a number of different pseudonymous artists, have a do-it-yourself feel. Most of them were made on Macintosh computers, with relatively inexpensive software. By the standards of the recording industry, this makes it low-tech. The CD’s sound varies from track to track, but overall it is far more abrasive than Beck’s original music. Some of the pieces work as witty commentaries on their source. Others change the music unrecognizably, breaking it into abstract formal patterns.
Such critique and analysis is the major point of Deconstructing Beck—though the critique is carried out by musical and commercial means, rather than discursive ones. The whole basis of the album is musical piracy: the deliberate appropriation of copyrighted material. There are good reasons for this. We live in a world of ubiquitous images and soundbytes. The electronic media are to us what ‘nature’ was to earlier eras. It’s the background against which we live our lives, and from which we derive our references and meanings. In such a framework, the distinction between high art and popular culture becomes ever less viable. For any cultural work must come to terms, one way or another, with the mediascape that’s always Out There. That’s why appropriation is the major aesthetic form of the postmodern digital age. It’s everywhere, from rap records, to film and video, to installation art. Everyone now understands what Andy Warhol was perhaps the first to enunciate: that our lives have to do, not so much with fruits and flowers, or rivers and mountains, as with cans of Campbell soup, and images of Marilyn and Elvis.
What’s too often left out of this scenario, however, is the question of ownership. Who owns the images and sounds that are all around us? What does it mean to own one, anyway? What are the implications of reproducing one? For that matter, how do we even delineate a single image or sound? Where does one end, and the next begin? Given a pre-existing visual or sonic source, how radically must it be changed before it is turned into something new? Should the notion of authorship apply to images and sounds themselves? Or only to the uses to which those images and sounds are put? Or should it not be utilized at all? These questions are both theoretical and pragmatic. They touch on legal and economic issues, as much as on aesthetic and conceptual ones. Advances in digital technology have only made them even more urgent than they were in Warhol’s time. Internet utopians like John Perry Barlow argue that the current ease of digital copying and dissemination makes the very idea of copyright obsolete. But the property owners will not give up control without a fight. Big corporations are becoming increasingly vigilant about alleged electronic piracy. New legislation is being proposed to tighten the definition of intellectual property. And new technologies are being developed to make more difficult the free reproduction of sounds and images.
It was in this context that Deconstructing Beck was set loose into the world. As Geffen’s attempts to suppress the release ultimately came to nothing, it’s still available via Negativland’s Seeland Records label. The compilation features a mixed bag of sound collage and remix artists, from obscure practitioners to the more prominent (in that scene) likes of Steev Hise and The Evolution Control Committee. The ECC’s contribution, predictably enough if you know that entity’s work, is one of the most insane pieces on the album:
Steev Hise’s offering, “Stuck Together, Falling Apart,” is a disorienting patchwork of some of Beck’s most well-worn tropes, often sounding like the product of a restless and angry child who can’t decide which radio station he wants to listen to:
Some pieces preserve Beck’s groove-orientation, like Hromlegn Kainn’s satisfying “Doublefolded,” and some work to frustrate those kinds of expectations, like Jane Dowe’s “Bust A Move.”
Other highly worthy contributions include the WONDERFUL noisescapes “Fat Zone,” by J. Teller, and “Killer Control Enters Black Hole” by Huk Don Phun, which very nearly render their source material entirely unrecongizable.
It’s easy to believe that had Beck not been the hugely famous rock-star target of that compilation, he’d be the kind of artist who’d have participated in it - which may very well have been partly why he was chosen. He has, in recent years, been orchestrating deconstructions of his own, with his “Record Club” series of videos, wherein he collaborates with other notable musicians to re-imagine and re-record entire albums, each in a single day. Here he is with St. Vincent and Liars’ Angus Andrew, among others, remaking Kick by INXS!