Beck Is One of the Most Revolutionary Artists We Have — and These Lyrics Prove It
When Beck took the Grammy stage looking like a nerdy dad to claim his win over Beyoncé for Album of the Year, the Internet went wild. The hashtag #whoisbeck went viral in minutes. And a flood of tweets lampooning the revolutionary songwriter's irrelevance filled Twitter.
No one was angrier than Kanye, who nearly snatched the mic in a repeat of his infamous 2009 Video Music Awards stunt involving Taylor Swift. Later, he said Beck should have handed his award over to Queen Bey because he needs to "respect artistry."
But Beck does represent true artistry; he's one of the truest artists we have. Admittedly, Morning Phase is far from Beck's most groundbreaking album. But the man has 11 others albums in his canon. Over the whiskey-drenched blues-punk of Stereopathetic Soulmanure and the R&B nastiness of Midnite Vultures, Beck has consistently created some of the weirdest, most poetic and mind-expanding sounds —and, most of all, lyrics. These are some of his finest lyrical moments:
1. "And everything's perfect / And everything's bright / And everyone's perky / And everyone's uptight / I love those videos"
"MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack"
"MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack" is Beck's very first classic single. Sung over lounge jazz, it provided Beck the perfect foundation to build a career as one of the most unassumingly subversive alternative acts.
2. "With the rerun shows / And the cocaine nose-job / The daytime crap of the folksinger slop / He hung himself with a guitar string"
"Loser" – Mellow Gold
This was Beck's first genuine hit. It crystallized a whole ethos of '90s slackerdom that Beck would own all through the era.
3. "So I started a solo career / And I won all the awards / And I drank all the beer / And I opened up the taco stand / Just to smell the smell / Cookin' with the devil / Fryin' down in hell"
"Satan Gave Me a Taco" – Stereopathetic Soulmanure
The song is as epic as the premise: the devil giving Beck a taco. He eats it and it drives him crazy. But just as he's about to be condemned to death for his madness, he snaps out of it and realizes he's a rock star. And the rest was history.
4. "Give the finger to the rock 'n' roll singer / As he's dancing upon your paycheck / The sales climb high / Through the garbage-pail sky / Like a giant dildo crushing the sun"
"Pay No Mind (Snoozer)" – Mellow Gold
Many of Beck's early singles are highly critical of mainstream culture and the music industry. Perhaps that's why the Grammys overlooked so many of his early hits and only gave him the coveted Album of the Year for a record that didn't even begin to approach this sort of weirdness.
5. "Monkey see, monkey die / Laminate your face / And paste it up into the sky"
"Bogusflow" – DGC Rarities Vol. 1
Another subtle critique of pop music, "Bogusflow" was once described as "surrealist soothsaying disguised as a coffeehouse trifle" by Stereogum.
Later in the song, Beck sagely prophesied how his still-young legacy would unfold: "California white boy sound / Rocket-powered and nailed into the ground / New age, old age — completely totally lame." He was right on.
6. "Call her name, she looks the same as you / Question marks stretched across her skin / She dangles carrots, makes you feel embarrassed / To be the fool you know you are"
"Asshole" – One Foot in the Grave
Beck's description of an inconsiderate lover's endless manipulations is powerful (and so, so strange).
7. "So let's try to make it last / The past is still the past / And tomorrow is just another crazy scam"
"Sleeping Bag" – One Foot in the Grave
Beck's existentialism, captured in one great lyric.
8. "I got a funny feeling they got plastic in the afterlife"
"Cyanide Breath Mint" – One Foot in the Grave
Plastic doesn't biodegrade, and neither do souls (presumably), so this is a pretty safe bet.
9. "Love machines on the sympathy crutches / Discount orgies on the dropout buses / Hitching a ride with the bleeding noses / Coming to town with the briefcase blues"
"Devils Haircut" – Odelay
A darkly beautiful description of the endless exhaustion of travel and touring. It was reportedly written after Beck had completed a difficult Lollapalooza tour and was in desperate need of a haircut.
10. "I got a stolen wife / And a rhinestone life / And some good old boys / I'm writing my will / On a $3 bill / In the evening time"
"Sissyneck" – Odelay
"Sissyneck" is an excellent parody of Southern machismo. Everybody knows the speaker's "name at the recreation center," but Beck knows he's full of it.
11. "Carnivores in the Cowloon night / Breathing Freon by the candlelight / Coquettes bitch slap you so polite / Till you thank them / For the tea and sympathy"
"Sexx Laws" – Midnite Vultures
The opening track on Beck's bewilderingly sensual Midnite Vultures makes the album's intentions very clear: He wants to challenge the logic of what our society considers sexy. He does so by presenting ever-weirder alternative sexualities.
12. "You make a garbage man scream / Such a delicate thing / Keep your lamplight trimmed and burning"
"Peaches and Cream" – Midnite Vultures
Fellow blues weirdo Jack White once asked Beck in an interview if the "lamplight" lyric was explicitly sexual. Beck answered: "Uh, well, yeah, in one respect it is. I'm coming home, it's the dark section of town." He then trailed off into laughter.
13. "Just like a paper tiger / Torn apart by idle hands / Through the helter skelter morning / Fix yourself while you still can"
"Paper Tiger" – Sea Change
"Paper tiger" is a direct translation of a Chinese phrase that generally refers to something that is "threatening but is ineffectual." It's pretty much the exact inverse of Beck himself: He looks ineffectual but is an absolute creative menace.
14. "Stretched to the limit attention spans / Snap back retract collapse into laugh tracks / Noise response applause and hand claps / Floodgates open to the sound of the rainbow"
"Hell Yes" – Guero
Another heady satire of pop culture, this is one is more squarely focused on TV. Think of it next time you get stuck watching King of Queens or some other garbage.
15. "Lord, please don't forsake me / In my Mercedes Benz / All the riches and the ruins / Now we all know how that story ends"
"Strange Apparition" – The Information
It's worth noting that Beck's lyrics stayed pretty much consistently weird even through this late album.
16. "Convict monotonous, a verdict thoughtless / As you read it out loud, at least I was being relatively honest"
Childish Gambino's "Silk Pillow" – Royalty
Gambino, another of our culture's most clever lyricists, invited Beck for a guest verse on his Royalty mixtape, and Beck absolutely killed it. Like recognizes like.
17. "You just found what you're looking for: a tiger rose / Growing through your prison door / Reaching for sunlight / Can't see it anymore"
"Country Down" – Morning Phase
Though Morning Phase is some of Beck's less challenging music, it has its own deep beauty. But there's no certainty Beck will continue in this vein. He's cycled through so many styles over the course of his career, his next album might be something so totally radical that it knocks the socks off the world all over again. And if he does, the Grammys probably won't honor it, because that's how they do.