Earworm Weekly: Beck's “New Pollution”

I have a theory about Beck. I believe that his career illustrates the transformation of nerds into hipsters – in other words, the mainstreaming of geekdom. This transition began in the 1990s and has had profound effects well into the 21st century. Much has been written about how white men — who were socially marginalized in middle and high school or who liked computers and engineering and related subjects — have come to dominate the economy, imposing their vision of popular culture upon the rest of us. Some would suggest that this transformation began earlier, perhaps with the runaway success of the original Star Wars in 1976. There's merit to that argument. But for now, I'm sticking with the idea that this process reached its first full blossom when Beck cracked a bullwhip down the catwalk during his performance of “The New Pollution” at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards.
[jump] In another era, Beck would have remained an obscure, underground musician famed for his quirky lyrics and equally quirky sound samples. But he hit the sweet spot, culturally speaking, of the Web 1.0 generation. He was smart, he was white, he could dance, and he dressed sharp thanks in part to his professional stylist girlfriend. You may think that the '90s were all about flannel fashion-wise, but that look was passé by the end of the decade. Instead, the phrases “the new glamour” and “the new Gilded Age” (sound familiar?) were popping up in magazine fashion spreads full of glittery, slinky dresses and natty suits. Sometimes style is about constructing a look from scraps; sometimes it's about the size of your wallet. Beck's aesthetic papered over that gap. He wore quality clothes with personal flair. He made lapels, sideburns – and, incidentally, fedoras – sexy. He combined sharp fabric lines with a touch of dishevelment. You can already see the seeds of millennial fashion trends being planted here. All that's missing is some mustache wax.

Beck's success and his deadpan demeanor reinforced ironic detachment as the hipster pose of choice. Did he love funk and hip-hop or was he making fun of them? Did it matter? Beck's music acted as both commentary on these genres of music and as an accessible gateway to their appreciation. If a white boy as adorably awkward as Beck could sing about two turntables and a microphone, it opened the door to admitting you watched Soul Train religiously when you were seven. Sure, it's corny, but you can dance to it, right?

Everything geeky that you'd once nursed a secret passion for could now be outed without shame. Instead of quoting Monty Python lyrics at each other, the formerly nerdy could now quote lyrics from Odelay, the Beck album on which “New Pollution” appeared. They could execute “adorkable” dance moves. They could embrace low-fi and 8-bit nostalgia, perform mediocrity, and it would all be good. In fact, it would become the dominant aesthetic of the new century. The endgame? You're soaking in it.

What about the song “New Pollution” itself? The lyrics are practically word salad, evocative without actually meaning much at all. Beck claimed in 2008 to Rolling Stone that the lyrics are, in fact, completely meaningless: “Most of the vocals on the record were scratch vocals. We just grew attached to them.” The music is a collage of samples and references. The saxophone riff is lifted from “Venus” by Joe Thomas. The opening vocals are nicked from an obscure religious group. The drumbeat is from a Gus Poole track. In other words, the entire song is a meaningless contraption – catchy, but empty calories. “The New Pollution” performed solidly if not spectacularly as a single, but Odelay is still considered one of the greatest albums of its decade and remains Beck's highest-selling work.

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