Despite being an awards show junkie I make an exception for the Grammy Awards and usually avoid it. But thanks to Kanye West bumrushing Beck on stage it was impossible to avoid that part of the show. It was everywhere. At first I found West’s actions amusing and then not. The amusing part was Kanye seemingly poking fun at himself for his Taylor Swiftboating routine at the VMA Awards in 2009. Unfortunately, the funny part was quickly erased from my brain by West’s backstage comments about Beck being undeserving of the award, not artistic enough or something like that, and that Beyoncé should have won. Unless you’ve been on a media fast the past week, you’ve been exposed to West’s tiresome bullshit which essentially boils down to him disrespecting Beck’s worth as a musician and songwriter. West backed-down a bit when he claimed that “voices in his head” made him do it:
So the voices in my head told me go and then I just walked up like halfway up the stage.
Beck’s win for album of the year was a surprise to most people (they called it an “upset”). But really it’s one of the rare moments in Grammy history where the voters got it right. Morning Phase is a brilliant work on all levels: performance, production and songwriting. It’s an album every bit as good as another favorite of mine: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. Too bad West couldn’t recognize an artistic peer when he saw one. Beck did. He called West “a genius.” With one classy choice of words, Beck wiped the self-satisfied smirk from West’s ever-present and often intrusive face.
Last night Kanye West played an outdoor concert in the Flatiron district of New York City and was greeted by some Flatiron dwellers with an allegiance to Beck and a sense of humor. Ad agency PNYC and some anonymous neighbors had highly visible messages for Kanye. I’m hoping that West interrupted the voices in his head for a moment and looked skyward and realized that karma is a bitch.
Mass culture machines love the status quo—a salesman, after all, is fattest and happiest when he knows what’ll sell and how to sell it. So when a sudden zeitgeist shift catches them with their pants down, it can be illuminating to watch them try to pull them back up. When the reset button got pushed in the early ‘90s and cult figures whose worldviews revolved around aggressive abnormality suddenly became the new rock royalty, things could get pretty damn funny.
One noteworthy moment was when Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore guest hosted MTV’s late night alternaghetto 120 Minutes. In the 1980s, that show featured some legitimately outré artists, but by 1994 watching that show was no longer significantly different from listening to commercial radio. Because of Moore’s untouchable underground bona fides, featuring him injected a fresh dose of off-the-path credibility into that show, and his interview with the then newly-rising Beck was pretty hilarious. Watch it here, it’s worth a few minutes of your life.
But weirder still is this bit of insanity from the same broadcast—Moore, Beck, and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D collaborating on a noise jam. This is what happens when you let the freakshow into the big tent—Dada in mass media. Rigoddamndiculous.
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!
Skip Spence wore many a hat—drummer for the original Jefferson Airplane, founding member of the very underrated Moby Grape and madman running through the fields to record his solo opus Oar. Released in 1969 on Columbia Records, Oar features Spence on all tracks playing each and every instrument himself. This is quite a feat considering the songs sound like a full band playing together in a room rather than a slew of overdubs, and even more noteworthy is that just a few days prior to the sessions, he went off the deep end threatening fellow Grape Jerry Miller with an axe before retreating to Nashville to blow off some steam and record his masterpiece. Though the album came and went without a trace, rumored to be one of Columbia’s lowest sellers ever, Oar has come full circle with its own tribute album and many modern artists citing Spence and Oar as an influence.
One such fan is Beck Hansen, who has recently been assembling musicians to cover long lost albums in a single day. The recording process is documented and the finished songs are posted on to his website under the Record Club guise. Record Club featured songs from Oar redone by Hansen and his friends Feist, Wilco, Jamie Lidell and heavyweight drummer extraordinaire James Gadson. Check out their take on War in Peace to hear Wilco’s Nels Cline take you to unknown heights of guitar solo bliss. Of course, us LA natives know that Cline isn’t necessarily Wilco’s, but one of the fiercest guitarists LA has ever known!
The twin suicides of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan a few years back was the closing chapter to a story that somehow managed to combine all the darker elements of Hollywood, Scientology and the New York art world:
Duncan and Blake formed a popular couple on the downtown New York and Venice, Calif., art scenes. She was one of the first video game designers for girls, and his “digital paintings”—kaleidoscopic images shown on plasma screens—established him as a rising star on the circuit. The couple descended into a paranoid spiral when the artists developed a consuming belief that government and religious organizations were conspiring against them. She killed herself in 2007. Blake found her body on the floor of their bedroom, and walked into the Atlantic Ocean a week later, ending his life.
It’s a moving portrait of two people very much in love—as well as a harrowing depiction of how draining and hermetic the pair found the creative process. That their spiral downward came at a time when they were both poised for greater career success makes their twin suicides as tragic as it is haunting.
For abundant evidence of Duncan’s smarts and style, you can check out her still maintained website: TheWitOfTheStaircase. Blake is probably best known for his cover art on Beck’s Sea Change, and the “colorful undulations” used during the opening credits of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love.
But Blake himself was also a filmmaker. His Winchester trilogy, inspired by the story of Sarah Winchester and her family’s “Mystery House,” was shown at the San Francisco MOMA in ‘05. Century 21, the trilogy’s final installment, attempts to “explore the sickness—and the sexiness—of American violence.”