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How Beck Used His Odelay-era Videos To Become a Superstar

On September 20, 2016

by Tom Breihan


Beck’s music video for 1993’s “Loser,” the song that made him famous, is the work of someone who can’t believe he gets to make a music video. The whole thing is a sloppy, slackjawed, grainy pileup of randomized imagery: A grim reaper squeegeeing blood off a car windshield in traffic, a stop-motion animated coffin drifting through a parking lot, two astronauts sitting in the bed of a pickup truck, Beck himself halfassedly breakdancing in front of a tiny audience. Beck’s friend Steve Hanft directed the video, shooting on 16mm film with a budget of $300. Through one of those gloriously ‘90s pop-cultural quirks, the video ended up airing in heavy rotation on MTV for months. It remains one of the most purely experimental hits ever to make it to music video -- a format that, at least in theory, thrives on pure experimentalism.

The power of “Loser” -- both the song and the video -- was a fluke. It wouldn’t be replicated. It couldn’t be replicated. And when Beck finally got around to releasing his masterpiece Odelay, the long-gestating follow-up to his 1994 breakthrough Mellow Gold, he couldn’t be the goofy thrift shop idiot-savant of “Loser” anymore. He had to become something else. He had to become an entertainer, and the videos from Odelay were a huge part of that.

Hanft returned to direct the clip for “Where It’s At,” Odelay’s first single. And in its washed-out color scheme and its love of randomly surreal imagery, the “Where It’s At” video is very much a cousin to “Loser.” (The shot of Beck, set against a purple sky, with a plastic Halloween-store hook hand, could’ve come straight from the “Loser” video.) But “Where It’s At” was also a grander, more straightforward vision than “Loser” had been, just as the organ-driven, hook-dominated track was more unselfconsciously funky than “Loser” itself had been. There was a framing device. Beck is spending a sweltering day picking up trash by the side of the road, probably doing community service, while a stern movie-cop type looks on. We then get to see Beck’s fantasies, which are about as rinky-dink retro-chintzy as we could imagine.

So: We see Beck on a stage in a car-dealership parking lot, barking out party-starting exhortations while a trio of breakdancers gesticulates behind him. Or: We see Beck and his band playing at a country line-dancing bar, the clientele putting on more of a show than Beck is doing. In maybe the video’s most iconic shot, we see three different versions of Beck, lit like ‘70s variety-show stars, wearing ruffly tuxedos and half-rapping on front of black backgrounds. Beck is playing at pop-cultural quotation there, just as his friends the Beastie Boys had been doing at the same time. But even as he’s chuckling at the general lameness of the pop-cultural flotsam around him, Beck is also getting off on it. There’s a genuine thrill in seeing those line-dancers at work, or in the sight of Beck and those breakdancers pulling off a synchronized leap.

In his live shows at the time, Beck was essentially doing a hybrid James Brown/Prince imitation, dressing in suits and joining his band for choreographed dance steps. He was playing at old-school chitlin-circuit entertainment, even if he was drawing huge quotation marks around all of it (and around his own whiteness). And with the “Where It’s At” video, Beck did something similar, though this time he made sure the quotation marks were giant blinking neon. “Where It’s At” was the first video ever to air on MTV2. It won a VMA. And it took itself just seriously enough that neither of these things seem like historical flukes, the way the success of the “Loser” video had.

And with the video for second single “Devils Haircut,” Beck made an even bigger leap. That time, he stopped working with Hanft and instead hooked up with a master of the form: Mark Romanek, still the person pop A-listers like Taylor Swift call when they’re attempting to communicate aesthetic reboots. Romanek filmed Beck strutting through a mostly-uninhabited New York, clutching a ghetto blaster and wearing a cowboy hat, leather jacket, and bellbottoms. The color palette is just as washed-out as in the “Where It’s At” video, but it’s also richer and deeper -- less like a random ‘70s UHF broadcast, more like a top-shelf ‘70s conspiracy thriller.

There’s still some silliness in Beck’s whole bewildered affect in the “Devils Haircut” video, but he walks with purpose and confidence. He looks like a badass, a persona he’d never felt comfortable putting forward before. And in the freeze-frame images of mysterious agent surveilling Beck, the video advances the idea that this might be a dangerous person, a person worth keeping tabs on. There’s no storyline in the video; it’s really just Beck occupying a cityscape. But for the first time, he comes off as a magnetic figure, not as a clown who somehow snuck onto MTV somehow.

“Devils Haircut” remains the single greatest video of Beck’s career. And while he’d return to clowning with the video for “The New Pollution,” which Beck himself directed, he’d absorb its sense of swagger with the new clip. There’s plenty of silliness in “The New Pollution”: Beck and his backing band dressing up like Motley Crue and like Kraftwerk, the studio audience full of cartoonish types, the guy with the beard chugging milk until it spills all down his shirt. But Beck also makes himself look more like a heartthrob than he ever had previously. He has a sense of cool about him that feels more than just accidental.

For much of the video, Beck and his band, all dressed impeccably, are playing in some sort of beautifully-designed swinging-’60s studio set, looking like the stars of their own Monkees-esque sitcom. They’re all dressed impeccably, like some half-forgotten British Invasion band, and Beck is dancing in ways that are awkward and smooth in equal measure. (In this video, as in so many others, his favorite dance is the robot.) There’s an antic goofiness to all of this, but there’s a stylistic grace, too, and that was new to Beck. Up until he turned deathly serious on Morning Phase, Beck always seemed happy to goof around with any old cultural signifiers that might float across his brain. But for that brief run of Odelay videos, he also gave some sense that he was enjoying surfing on the zeitgeist. By the time he’d get around to Midnite Vultures, his next major album, he’d be onto new forms of silliness, both musical and visual, and his MTV-crashing days were mostly over. But in his window, nobody was better at making fun of the entire entertainment-industry apparatus while, at the same time, serving as a grade-A entertainer himself.


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