Deconstructing Beck

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Deconstructing Beck is an @ark/Illegal Art/Seeland Records release.

by Various Artists

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Thursday, July 30 1998

This is an almost impossible-to-find collection of songs made from samples of Beck's recordings. It’s not intended as a tribute to Beck but as a tribute to an industry in which it is increasingly difficult to sample without a large amount of capital up front. In other words, as the title of the Evolution Control Committee's "One Beck in the Grave" implies, the artists here come not to praise Beck's music but to bury it. And that's what they do, for the most part. Unless you're a Beck fan, you'd be hard-pressed to tell that most of the samples here have anything to do with him. In a way, this makes the music more interesting. The best songs here break Beck down into such miniscule pieces that the "source" -- and Beck's music is itself almost entirely constructed from other sources -- of the musical raw material becomes irrelevant. In addition to the Evolution Control Committee's fine cut, tracks like Hromlegn Kainn's "Doublefolded" and Mr. Meridies's "Paving the Road to Hell Pt2" manage to achieve a sublimely disorienting collage that stands alone as mind-expanding experimental music.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that anyone would get a hold of this CD without having heard the story behind it first. While its 12 tracks may represent an attempt to realize the latent potential in Beck's music, their primary purpose is to make a point. You're supposed to realize how rotten it is that only an artist with major-label backing like Beck can use recognizable samples without getting his ass taken to court. Like the collage-band Negativland's famous assertion that "copyright infringement is your best entertainment value," Deconstructing Beck advocates for a world in which cultural producers would be able to appropriate from one another at will, a world of infinite sampling, a world in which everyone could be Beck.

It's an appealing vision. The distribution of resources within the music industry is unjust. Record companies make a lot more money than the people who make records do. Most recording artists are poorly paid. And the people who make the CDs, recording equipment and other objects that are necessary to physically make records are paid even worse. In order for artists to have a chance of success, they usually have to be "made" by the major-label mafia. To sample Beck on this problem, most up-and-coming Samsons in the music business must submit their shaggy locks to a "devil's haircut" -- an unfavorable contract, an advance that will probably need to be repaid, interference in the content of their work -- in order to make it big. From this perspective, it's understandable that the artists on Deconstructing Beck would target Beck for abuse.

For all that, their vision of a copyright-free world also betrays a major blindspot. Regardless of how screwed-up the music industry is, the fact that recognizable samples must be paid for is intended to compensate artists for the recycling of their work. This won't help those artists who have lost the rights to their work. But at least some of them will get a check in the mail. If we ever find a way to move beyond capitalism, this sort of benefit will be unnecessary. Until we do, however, we find ourselves trapped between a rock and an extremely hard Kaiser roll. So long as we live in a world where people need to get paid for their labor, the free appropriation of cultural commodities promoted by Deconstructing Beck will remain an ideology of free appropriation.

Copyright © 1998 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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