In Defense of Beck Hansen:
*Who's* A Sell-out?

In several conversations I’ve had recently with friends and acquaintances, and while browsing the web, I’ve discovered, to my dismay, that many folks who used to be Beck fans are now suddenly calling him a “sell-out.”

First of all, I’d like to begin by stating that I’ve probably never used the term “sell-out” to describe a band or artist in my life.  I know full well its definition - or proposed definition -  but I can’t help but feel that it’s a pretty flaccid, pompous buzzterm created by a bunch of frustrated elitists.  Let’s define the term “sell-out” for those who may not be familiar with this term that’s been bandied about so much during the course of the rock era.

A sell-out, in my estimation, is supposedly a band or artist that abandons or compromises their original artistic vision or integrity in order to sell more records and therefore make more money.  In essence, they convolute their message in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience.  Those who contend that Beck is a sell-out contend that the only “real” albums he made were pre-“Odelay” (1996), and that the albums after and including “Odelay” are “not Beck.”  They insinuate that, commencing with “Odelay,” Beck seemed to abandon some sort of artistic ethic he used to exhibit so that he could sell more records.  That he watered down or commercialized his original sound - exhibited on albums like “Mellow Gold” (1994) and the indie “One Foot In The Grave” (1994) - and joined the mainstream.

Michael Watters, photographer and Devo-tee, offers the following rebuttal to the “sell-out” argument:

"There's a certain element of folks who like to think they are part of some elite group and ENJOY the fact that nobody's heard of the groups they like ... as soon as a band starts getting a little popularity  and actually sells records they get accused of selling out. That's BS,  they're just upset because their little clique has been perturbed.  The fact of the matter is that groups DO change over the years for one reason or another (unless you're the Ramones) and that's because over 10, 15, 20 years they are just different people. They have different interests,  thoughts, priorities.  You also have to just plain realize that this is how those folks make a living.  They're gonna take that into account from day one."

Let’s look at the facts, shall we?

Beck released “Loser” and its accompanying video in January of 1994.  The song was oddly catchy and just left of center enough to catch the ears of the alt-rock scene at the time, but in fact, when you think about it, fit in perfectly with the time period it was released.  By 1994, grunge was breathing its last gasps - Nirvana had just released “In Utero,” arguably their most experimental record to date.  Alternative was splitting into different sects with groups like Radiohead and The Breeders getting some mainstream recognition.  “Punk” was poised to hit the mainstream, this time in the guise of ear friendly, angst-ridden power pop.  Hip-hop was getting more popular and reaching more people.  Grunge bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were branching out into different textures.  Power pop was coming back with songs like “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” reaching the top 40.

When Beck appeared on the scene, he was proclaimed the king of slackers.  Clad in plaid flannel, much like Seattle-ite contemporaries Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Beck delivered a power-grunge hip-hop anthem that, while somewhat incomprehensible, bespoke of a lighter side of alienation largely ignored by the press who had jumped on the Seattle uber-angst train and milked it for all it was worth.  Beck’s sense of humor was evident right from the beginning.  “Loser” was refreshing, but also undeniably part of the same gene pool as its contemporaries.  It immediately garnered heavy radio airplay - thanks to an EP release before the album “Mellow Gold” was released - and eventually became a mainstay of MTV’s alternative airplay that year.  I’ll be the first to admit that when I first heard/saw “Loser,” I enjoyed it a lot, but quickly dismissed Beck as nothing more than a one-off.  In high school, we were assembling a list of '90s trends to put in a time capsule, and I said “Beck’s ‘Mellow Gold’ album, seeing as how he won’t be around ten years from now.’”  (I’d live to eat those words faster than you can say “Anbesol.”)

The album “Mellow Gold” itself was definitely creative, but still sort of struck me as just a vague sketch of what the man could really do; a blueprint, if you will.  Immensely enjoyable, no doubt, but also slightly lethargic.  The album alternated between otherwordly folk ballads (“Pay No Mind,” “Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs,” “Blackhole,” “Nitemare Hippy Girl”), dirty powergrunge (“Mutherfu*er”) and obtuse hip-hop (“Soul Suckin’ Jerk,” “Beercan,” “Loser”).  While creative and groundbreaking in some ways, "Mellow Gold" also sounded tired and sedated to me.  It was probably mainly due to Beck's voice, which sort of resided in his sinuses and in his cheeks, if that makes any sense.

With "Mellow Gold," Beck had cultivated a “King of the Slacker Generation” image that would continue to haunt him wherever he went.  “You’re either up to it or living it down,” says Beck.  “Ultimately, I think someone like Dylan just wanted to turn it up and blast through.  You know?” 2  This image was most likely made worse by the press, MTV and alternative radio.  In one interview on MTV’s “120 Minutes,” Beck, clad in sunglasses and a snowcap, seemed out of it, and ended the interview by playing with an annoying, high pitched white-noise maker.

Beck’s image, of course, was turned deliciously on its’ ear with the release of the brilliant “Odelay” in 1996.  That summer, I saw the classic video for “Where It’s At” and was floored.  This was the same Beck Hansen I had seen in 1994, but several things had changed.  The song had a tighter, arguably catchier groove than “Loser.”  Whereas “Loser” seemed to speak to one demographic in particular, “Where It’s At” seemed to invite everyone to the party.  Beck still looked kind of goofy, but somehow more sure of himself.  His voice, which originally sounded sort of nasal and half-hearted to me, suddenly sounded fresh, crisp and commanding.  In interviews and live performances, Beck often appeared in ill-fitting but swank suits, with short cropped hair...and he was speaking in complete sentences.  Had the man grown up in the two years since “Loser”?

“Odelay” took off like wildfire, with the help of “Where It’s At” as well as other memorable singles like “The New Pollution,” “Devil’s Haircut” and “Jack-ass.”  The album was produced by the legendary Dust Bros., not exactly widely known as “pop” producers, and featured denser textures and more intense sampling than its predecessor “Mellow Gold.” (Eels would follow this path two years later with the excellent “Electro-shock Blues.”)  It had a similar vibe to “Mellow Gold” - still revolving between folk, hip-hop and grunge - but this time the songs were snappier, tighter and altogether more melodic.  And of course, the main difference laid in the highly imaginative production, an incredible layering of different textures and sounds.

This is where Beck-ites proclaim Beck first “sold out” and stopped being himself.  Still, I defy anyone to tell me “Odelay” sounded like anything out at the time.  Yes, the songs were a lot more complicated than just throwing a drum machine on, playing a distorted bass and singing through a flanger.  They demanded more.  Why does that constitute selling out?  Frankly, the success of “Odelay” always mystified me.  Sure, the songs were catchy and well-produced, but beneath all that, weren’t they still fundamentally, well, jacked up?  “Odelay” went on to be nominated for “Album of the Year.”  I actually began to have a glimmer of hope for the music industry.

After “Odelay,” I kind of put Beck in the back of my mind for a while.  I had played “Odelay” too many times that summer.  I was aware that “Mutations” was released in 1998, but didn’t really clamor to buy it, as I never got the chance to hear any singles from it.  (Apparently, Beck considers this an indie album and didn’t want it released on DGC, which would explain its relatively low profile in comparison to “Odelay.”)  Then it happened.  In late 1999, I saw the colorful, funny video for “Sexx Laws” on MTV.  Beck was back, yet again, and this time had made yet another stylistic shift.  The song had the bounce of some of his “Odelay” material, but in addition there was an ultra tight brass section, spiralling synthesizers, a pedal steel guitar and banjo!  Over all this was Beck’s funky vocals, telling us he wanted to “defy the logic of all sex laws.”  The song was catchy, but in an odd way.  The video was comedic and colorful, yet disturbing.  I had never heard anything quite like it...something that sounded like a Stax RNB number but with country instruments and a Moog thrown in the mix.  Th’ hell?  I think anyone reading this would be hard pressed to tell me that they’ve heard a funk song with a banjo in it before.  Beck explained the stylistic shift to hip hop and RNB on “Vultures” by saying  “… There’s room for an emotional intensity and commitment but also a playful, absurd quality.  The declaration.  I don’t really hear that mixture in other genres of contemporary music.”  2

Needless to say, I purchased “Mutations” and “Midnite Vultures” in one shot and soon they became my two favorite Beck albums.  The two records are on opposite ends of the spectrum:  “Mutations,” a majestic collection of thoughtful acoustic-tinged folk, country and even latin ballads, with just a hint of psychedelia and sporting what are arguably Beck’s finest lyrics; “Midnite Vultures,” a colorful array of '70s soul and '80s electro-funk...the consummate party album.  Now then, compare the material on “Midnite Vultures” to that of 1994’s grungy “Mellow Gold” and tell me which of the two records sounds like a product of its time period.  While “Gold” was no doubt innovative, I think it’s definitely the one that sounds more like a period piece, in keeping with the feel, mood, and sound of the time.  I don’t know of anything out currently that sounds like “Midnite Vultures.”  If one reached far enough, one could even conclude that “Mellow Gold” was the true "sell-out" album of Beck’s career, and that he was merely jumping on a plaid-wearing, alternative, stoner/slacker bandwagon.  Well, it got him a record contract, didn’t it?

So why *wasn’t* “Mellow Gold” considered selling out by hardcore Beck fans?  If you think about it, Beck has never really been underground enough to warrant being called a sell-out later on in his career.  “Mellow Gold” made the top ten…everyone who gave even a casual glance at MTV or flipped through their radio dial in 1994 and 1995 heard “Loser”…it was in the minds and ears of the collective consciousness.  Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, when faced with the sellout question, offered some interesting food for thought:  "We signed to a record company in 1977."  Perhaps these Beck fans should look beyond "Odelay" and quibble with the day Beck signed a record contract.  But whether or not any of these fans were into Beck before he signed a record contract is highly questionable, which blows holes in their argument.  And furthermore, if "Odelay" marked the big "sell-out" move of Beck's career, then why didn't he just repeat the process and keep recording the same album over and over, like "sell-outs" do?  Instead, he chose to go a completely different route and release a stripped down folk album ("Mutations"), followed by a funky party album ("Midnite Vultures").  How can you label someone a "sell-out" who is consistently throwing us such musical curveballs?

After a while it became readily apparent to me that Beck is a true chameleon, and revels in that.  “Sometimes I have to go to solo from myself,” says Beck.  “I’m sure it confuses some people.  A few of them probably enjoy the confusion.  I’m sure some people love one half and hate the other.”  2  It’s never a good idea to get too comfy with the man, as he’s always got something new up his sleeve for the next release.  “‘Mutations’ was just a word that cropped up a lot when I tried to explain to journalists what my music was about,” says Beck.  1

The many faces of Beck

I think the artist that parallels Beck’s work ethic and ideal the best would probably have to be David Bowie.  In over 30 years, Bowie has ventured all over the musical map, never afraid to experiment with new ideas, sounds, textures, instrumentation and genres.  Bowie is almost unilaterally hailed as a musical genius.  Now then, would “hardcore Bowie fans” have been satisfied if the man had stayed true to his original musical vision, that of a somewhat hackneyed post-psychedelia acoustic folkster?  Or, better yet, as a mid to late '60s mod, churning out cheeky British pop ditties of little or no importance?  If Bowie had clung to this original vision and remained in the eyes and ears of only a handful of post-British Invasion mod enthusiasts, the world would never have been exposed to Bowie’s most influential records.  The rock world would have never experienced the jagged and beautiful “Aladdin Sane,” the post-apocalyptic and conceptual "Diamond Dogs," or the experimental, influential, minimalist synth odysseys of “Low” and "Heroes"...just to name a few...

I’ll go you one further.  What if The Beatles had never evolved past the teenybopper, sunshine-y, British Invasion sounds of “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”?  Does any deviation from that original formula - if even remotely successful in selling records - constitute the band being a sell-out?  In that case, perhaps The Beatles should have kept playing clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool and never signed a record contract.  Again, some of the most masterful and influential records of all time may not have been made if it had not been for The Beatles’ personal and professional evolution as both individuals and purveyors of great popular music.  Imagine a Beatles catalog with no “Rubber Soul”...or “Revolver”...or “Pepper”...or "Abbey Road"...

The whole "sell-out" argument is nonsense, isn't it?

The notion that the last few Beck albums are “not really him” is entirely preposterous for several reasons.  (1) It says Beck on the sleeve and on the disc itself.  Or haven’t you noticed? (2) the man has written or at least co-written nearly every one of the tracks he’s released.  How is that not Beck?  Did I miss something?  (3) do we really expect an artist to continue to churn out the same album over and over again?  Would we all be content if Beck had just kept releasing “Mellow Gold” over and over, or worse yet, "One Foot In The Grave"?  I know I wouldn’t.  Moreover, Beck is also one of the most prolific writers of our time.  At this point the man has something like over 60 songs that have not appeared on any of his LPs - just as b-sides or 7" singles.  With that kind of fecundity, it is no wonder that his career has taken so many stylistic shifts.  And like Bowie, when Beck sees scores of other people jumping on his train, he’ll be the first to jump off and hitch a ride on a new one.

My personal take on Beck has always been that he is a man who tries his hand at many different genres, often blending them all together, never getting them quite “right,” thereby creating art of the highest caliber.  It’s comparable to Talking Heads’ bassist Tina Weymouth’s comment about frontman David Byrne when he was writing the new wave classic “Psycho Killer”: “David started out to do an Alice Cooper song, but since he always does everything wrong, he got it different.” 3  While somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this comment goes a long way in describing what a uniquely bent songwriter can do once they try to grapple with a particular genre, or pastiche a particular artist.  “We're inundated by a universe of Britney Spears and Puff Daddy,” says Beck.  “That kind of music is taking over, like it or not.  So if you're going to make any kind of commentary, or if you're in a position where you're going to bear witness to that and raise questions about what is real art and what is trash, and play within that, then you're going to have to step into some of it. You're going to have to go be it.” As Elvis Costello - another constantly evolving artiste - said in an interview, “we learn by imitation.”

I believe that, at this point in his career, Beck is finally doing exactly what he wants to do, or is at least closer to it than ever before.  Maybe I’m overly romanticizing Beck’s musical vision, but I think that he is and always has been a man full of integrity and many creative ideas - so many, in fact, that one album, or even ten, could never contain them all.  Additionally, I believe that when he began writing and recording music, he had somewhat of a plan at the back of his mind of what he would be able to do had he ever the money, tools and time.  I’m not saying that in 1993 he was devising some sort of masterplan to conquer the world sonically, but I do think that he had big ideas and big dreams right from the getgo.  So why limit the man to one or two records?  Let him have at it.  “It's harder to sing a song that is maybe a little bit silly and still make it poignant,” says Beck.  “It's not quite irony.  I think I've moved on from the purely ironic, years ago.  I'm interested in something a little stranger, that place where what is genuine, and what isn't, isn't clear. What touches you and what makes an impact? What strikes a chord with you?” 1

Like it or lump it, the man has grown up.

But, most importantly, what I love most about the man is that he takes his music seriously but never takes himself seriously.  “It just seems like more music could take itself less seriously.  I think that in the hip-hop and R&B world, that’s not necessarily the case.  Mixture is allowed.  Ambiguity is allowed.”  2  The musicianship and dedication to craft of him and his bandmates has grown by leaps and bounds, but he has still not taken the route of the overly serious "singer/songwriter" type.  “When I'm onstage, and I'm singing these songs, I'm not thinking, ‘That line was really funny.’ I'm thinking, ‘I can pour my heart and soul into this.’  There is something about our requirement and our demand for sincerity, and our American belief in what is sincere and insincere, and I wanted to play with that idea on [Midnite Vultures].” 1

More food for thought.  The term “sell-out” often refers to an artist who takes a commercial turn by doing commercials, or television or film work.  Basically anything that might signal that the artist has allegedly compromised their integrity for a quick buck.  For all intents and purposes, Beck seems opposed to this.  "I don't really like to do those kinds of things," he says.  "I've never done anything for Miller or any of those corporations. We did a couple of shows for some computer firms around the time of Odelay, but only because I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from touring.  I tend to lose money on the road.  Most bands don't make money unless you're at the level of Dave Matthews or Smashing Pumpkins ...  When I'm asked to do stuff like the 'Austin Powers' soundtrack, things that just seem gross, I stay away.  I get asked to put my music in a Toyota commercial for ungodly sums of money, and as a rule, I stay away from most of it." 1

Beck also suggests that our times have become more commercialistic.  "I remember six, seven years ago, any move in that direction and your credibility would be brought into question. Bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth were bearing some kind of conscience and making people aware of that ... I'd have to have six platinum albums to make the kind of money I've turned down."  1

I think the main point is that the man shouldn't have to constantly walk some sort of imaginary tightwire of what is going to be acceptable to his fans, or the populace, or anybody.  “Where do you edit yourself?," asks Beck.  "Where do you define boundaries about what you should and shouldn’t do?  Most of me tends not to want to care about doing the wrong thing ... I really don’t want to be careful.  I’m confident in what I believe in and that I know the music comes from a good place."  2

In my humble opinion, Beck is not only far from a "sell-out," but also quite possibly *the* artist of our generation.

I leave you with a quote from the man from his April 20, 2000 concert that I had the privilege of seeing.  “There’s one more thing I gotta say.  There’s something going on in music right now...and it’s not good.  I encourage any able-bodied people out there to go out and play and wreak as much havoc as possible.  Just go rip some shit up.  Please, for me.”

Not the words of a "sell-out," to my ears.

1  “Beck's Bump And Grind.”  Kot, Greg.  CD NOW (  July 25, 2000.

2  “Beck: Notes on a Full Grown Man.”  Healy, Mark.  Rolling Stone Magazine;  Issue 827, December 9, 1999.  (Includes photos seen on this page.)

Talking Heads: The Band And Their Music.  Gans, David.  New York: Avon Books; 1985.

© 2000 Crapple Records, Inc.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article may reproduced without the expressed written consent of Crapple Records, Inc.

Back  |  Home