After being publicly attacked – for lack of a less-aggressive word – at the 2015 Grammy’s for his win against Beyonce by thunder-stealing-master, Kanye West, we know how a major figure head of the hip hop world feels about Beck, but what’s most telling about Beck’s latest sound is how we, his fans, choose to react to it. And when we bring “Wow’”s simple sound into question reveals its complexities.
Since the 1990’s, Beck has proven himself a trendsetter of the alternative genre. From Odelay (1996), an album that packs a punch with its multiple hit releases, to the soothing, underwater sounds of Sea Change (2002) that could only be a contemporary of Radiohead’s legacy – Beck’s albums always promise to be full of both surprises and yet familiarities. Beck is a musician whose colorful discography can only be properly encompassed by the term “alternative” and all its weighted meaning. We’ve seen him successfully create everything from grunge and rock to country and folk, and now his fans are experiencing yet another side to this multifaceted artist.
Although, Beck hasn’t put out an album since 2014, he’s released a few singles since Morning Phase, one of which being “Wow” (or “Guau” for any Spanish-speaking readers).
At first listen, the song sounds like every listener-friendly musical trend on the radio today put into a blender and served on the rocks. It’s your first introduction, yet you feel like you’ve heard it before: the ethereal, haunting vocals at its hook, the video-game-esque sound effects littered throughout, and the quintessential hip-hop snares inviting club DJ’s everywhere to remix.
But then you listen to it again. And again. And again.
Finally, what you’re left with is simply Beck, an alternative musician living in a modern fad-loving society. Every listen brings new questions as you feel emotionally torn: Is he an artist growing and evolving with the music industry, taking advantage of a formula that sells (catchy beats, trap bass all combined with pop vocalization), or is this what rock music sounds like now? Or is it just Beck being Beck?
“Wow” begs another important question too, such as, when the mainstream audience wants heavily synthesized, heavily hip-hop-influenced music, as an alt rock musician, do you provide? Yet, we see that Beck has always followed the trends. His 1995 debut album, Mellow Gold, sounds like it was steeped in a dirty bath tub of grunge. His latest album, Morning Phase, is admittedly folksy, without turning the Bon-Iver-lever all the way to full blast. And if you look at his career wholly, you will find that he’s always dabbled in rhyming, or rapping, if you will, which really puts into question if “Wow’”s sound is that different or just a long time coming.
Since the song’s 2016 release, it’s been played on both the rock and pop stations. Each time “Wow” graces us with its sound over the radio air waves, you can almost see Beck navigating as delicately as possible on a wire, the two pillars of popular music and modern rock holding him suspended from a death-fall. And that’s the best way to describe “Wow”: Risky. (Subsequently, it’s also the best way to describe Beck.)
Even through the fog of the pop sounds, you can see Beck, meandering, oozing a seemingly effortless-cool that can only be contrived. After all, he’s always created catchy songs (Who doesn’t love singing “I’m a loser, baby / So why don’t you kill me?” or “I’ve got two turn-tables and a microphone”?). Just because a song is catchy, does that mean it’s automatically pop music? Decidedly, no. But it certainly helps, especially since pop is just short for popular, and what’s popular is typically catchy.
Most of the musical effects found in “Wow” are true to what Beck has offered us since the ‘90’s: the hi-synth mixed with acoustic guitar in “Girl” (Guero, 2005) can be easily paralleled to the utilization of danceable beats combined with vocal echoes in this genre-confounding hit. Another point to make is that pop music has become less distinct and genres more muddled: country musicians are pop stars, rappers and rock stars cut records together, and underground and indie are buzz words attached to artists in order to sell songs. So who really cares if artists reach out of their cramped labels and steal musical fads or methods from other genres? Isn’t the blending of genres what keeps music alive and progressing?
The internal struggle some rock music fans may experience when hearing Beck’s “Wow” is valid, but shouldn’t be lingered upon. Beck has always been different – album to album something it new every time – and perhaps this is another phase as he wanes and waxes through musical history. In many ways, Beck is a musical soothsayer, rhyming his way through generations, subsequently mastering trends and making his own along the way. Remember when Kiss released their disco influenced song I Was Made For Loving You?
What’s most wonderful and beautiful of all is the song’s message which inspires its listeners to appreciate the moments in life that can only be summed up by the word “Wow.” While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards merely wrote about riding wild horses someday, Beck is rallying his fans to “giddy up” and “ride these wild horses” now or never.
Beck’s album release has been set back by the artist multiple times. If “Wow” is any indication of the artist’s next album (set to release sometime this year), we should expect it to be full of tracks that confound yet are deliciously loop-worthy.