Beck Hanson, popularly known as Beck, was one of the standout musical artists of the 9 0s and continues to be regarded as a visionary today. He downplays his legitimate musical talent by burying it underneath techno synths and hip-hop beats. His droll delivery makes it easy to understand his lyrics while making it sound like he was not wholly invested in his own art.
He began his career as an independent artist, performing live on small stages and releasing albums on small labels. His major label breakthrough was a single called “Loser,” which was from the album Mellow Gold. The song came out during a very tense time in alternative rock. Kurt Cobain had just died, and while people were still interested in listening to intense, gritty rock music, the whole listening experience had become very awkward for some. Record labels’ attempts to launch the new Nirvana felt very cynical. The musical landscape was ready for a song like “Loser,” which was in line with grunge rock’s do-it-yourself aesthetic but also made fun of the entirety of Generation X. After all, Beck was clearly not a loser himself; he had just become a very successful musician with one foot in the mainstream.
“Loser” became something of an anthem for self-proclaimed slackers, the joke being that Generation X would go on to make millions of dollars in the early days of the Internet boom. Those people were not losers any more than Beck was. The only people who thought they were losers were their parents. By agreeing with that sentiment only to subvert it, Generation X set the stage for a particular brand of music-centric irony that persists today.
While “Loser” was very much a hit single independent of Mellow Gold, the follow-up album Odelay is regarded as an overall classic record. The video for “The New Pollution” positioned the singer as a lounge act on a retro sound stage. The song was a more polished version of “Loser,” featuring cleaner electronics without veering into dance music. In the video, Hanson sported a closely-cropped haircut and wore a tailored white suit. Against all odds, he had become a popular sex symbol. His music was too catchy for its own good.
Hanson pushed back against his success and natural mainstream appeal by releasing Mutations, a quieter record whose songs did not convey much immediate significance. The cover photo was deliberately awkward. Hanson was challenging his mainstream fans to keep finding him interesting. His next record, Midnite Vultures, served as a sign that Hanson could not help composing hi t records. Almost all of the 11 songs featured heavy sampling, some of the most inventive and difficult work of Hanson’s entire career. The record had a retro ’70s disco vibe. That the singles became hits is a testament to their quality, since they had nothing in common with the latest radio hits of the day.
Even though Hanson rose to prominence as a witty electronic artist, his most beloved record is perhaps Sea Change, a somber, quiet collection of acoustic songs written about a breakup. Sea Change was released with very little fanfare and thrived on word-of-mouth recommendations. Just as people talked excitedly about the “Loser” singer several years prior, people were now talking about the latest release from Hanson as if he were a hot new folk talent. “Lost Cause” was a particularly heartrending song about the inevitable end of a toxic relationship and the search for any reason not to end it.
Hanson continued to search for new ways t o communicate his musical ideas. Guero was a return to his previous upbeat form, with more obvious percussion and hummable choruses. Modern Guilt was a deliberately quirky effort. Album number 9 was very electronic without treading on the well-worn landscape of trance or house music. Hanson went for broke with those songs and made them as weird and unconventional as he wanted them to be, since he now had nothing to lose. At almost 39, he had fulfilled his contract and was free to pursue new projects outside of the 11 song long-playing format. The record’s title was another one of his tongue-in-cheek jokes, poking fun at how he found success by singing about being a failure.
He filled his 39 th year by writing songs for movies and collaborating with some of his own favorite artists, including Philip Glass and Jack White. His first post-label album was released in the most independent, nontraditional way possible: as sheet music. Song Reader was published with Hanson’s sincere wish that his fans would learn how to play the songs in their own unique ways and then make their own recordings. It is perhaps the most populist record ever released. He wanted to help other people express themselves.
Hanson shows no sign of growing complacent as his career moves forward. 2014 saw the release of “Blue Moon” and “Waking Light,” pulled from Morning Phase, a record that calls back to the beloved Sea Change. For all of Hanson’s quirks, it would seem that he cares about giving people what they want after all.