Before music went digital, genre borders meant something different. A decade before streaming technology changed the musical landscape forever, Intersect headliner Beck gave the world a taste of its sonic future.
If you read back through old reviews from when “Loser” dropped, it’s clear that critics didn’t know what to make of Beck when he first came on the scene. Most of them were too caught up in trying to parse exactly how ironic his lyrics were supposed to be, and debating whether or not he was the Voice of Generation X that the grownups were looking for in the heady early days of the alternative boom, to pay much attention to the music itself. The few who did acknowledge it sounded like early explorers trying to describe an exotic animal they witnessed during their travels: the beat of a hip-hop song with the slide guitar of a Delta blues song and an indie-rocker’s lo fi nonchalance. What, they asked, did it all mean?
Audiences weren’t nearly as perplexed. “Loser” may have sounded like nothing else that had ever been on the radio before, but they didn’t need any help figuring it out. To critics, piling indie and folk and hip-hop together was a conundrum. To listeners by the millions, it didn’t matter that hip-hop and folk blues and indie rock weren’t supposed to go together–they understood intuitively that they simply could.
From the very start of his long and storied career, Beck has been one of music’s greatest modern entertainers. But he’s also been one of it’s great thinkers–or rethinkers, to be more precise. Like the many tech visionaries getting started at the same time he did, he saw a sea change (no pun intended) coming in the way we think about music and created a catalyst that sped it into being.
As we all know now, “Loser” was only the beginning of Beck’s genre explorations. Over the course of 13 studio albums and a vast number of smaller releases, he’s touched on dozens of distinct musical styles. He’s found new life in pop sounds like New Wave, disco, and sleek synthesizer R&B that once ruled the pop charts decades before but had fallen into irrelevance–Rolling Stone called the album, Midnite Vultures, “a twisted time trip back to a decadent era.” He’s plugged into esoteric styles like krautrock, go-go, and noise that were mostly known to hardcore record geeks. He made an entire album steeped in Sixties Brazilian tropicalia, and one entirely of songs inspired by Depression era American folk music.
For musicians and listeners in the 21st century, this kind of stylistic hopscotch has become so everyday that few people even question it. When you have easy access to just about every recording that’s ever been released, listening to only one kind of music doesn’t make sense except as some sort of perverse exercise in self-denial. We’re all musical omnivores these days.
But things were much different before this endless musical library became available. When music was still bound to physical formats, scarcity bred specialization, and specialization bred snobbery. It was the peak era of the elitist record clerk, where it seemed like the more passionate a music fan was, the more purist they were about whatever particular style they were into. Just listening across genre lines was looked down upon in certain corners as showing a lack of seriousness and focus. Musicians who dared to cross them for inspiration got it even worse.
“To critics, piling indie and folk and hip-hop together was a conundrum. To listeners by the millions, it didn’t matter that hip-hop and folk blues and indie rock weren’t supposed to go together–they understood intuitively that they simply could.”
From the start, Beck acted like a musician who’d stepped over from a different world, where no one had ever thought to divide different kinds of music from each other in the first place. The way he did it was full of fun and play–two other things music snobs at the time were allergic to–but it raised some serious questions about the way our musical landscape had been cut up into so many walled-off gardens in the name of authenticity. It asked us to imagine a world where genre didn’t matter. And then it sent us down that road.
Beck’s songs are intricate sonic puzzle boxes. For musically curious listeners by the millions, picking them apart was a crash course in pop esoterica, the types of rare and obscure sounds scattered across space and time. His sample-heavy 90s material was particularly educational; following back the sources on a track like “Get Real Paid” will lead you to old school heavy hitters like German synth pioneers Kraftwerk and psychedelic jazz drummer Idris Muhammed. When he introduced tropicalia to his audience on Mutations the vintage sound became a minor craze in the US, decades after the fact. Beck was the white rabbit who led a generation of listeners down a rabbit hole of music that seemed to have no bottom.
It’s no coincidence that it’s the same generation that went on to build the infinite digital record collection that we all now enjoy. Once you’ve had your ears opened up to the world of sonic possibilities that Beck showed us, going back to listening to one type of music doesn’t even make sense. Music has evolved in a similar direction, to a point where a hip-hop artist can cross over into rock music, or an indie rock drummer can branch out into house music and hip-hop, and no one bats an eye. Beck’s sonic revolution has turned out to be so successful that it’s hard to even imagine things being any other way. Looking back now, the only thing perplexing about the free-for-all sonic bonanza that Beck let loose on the pop music world is that anyone ever found it perplexing at all.