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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.
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.
“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.
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