"Hi! Could we tempt you with some delicious bars?" It's 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and my sister and I are at the Minneapolis Church of Scientology. We've been standing at the entryway for two minutes now, completely paralyzed. Our secret plan is definitely not working—these people cannot be bought by conventional means.
"Okay. If you don't want any bars, can I ask you a few questions?" The middle-aged guy standing in front of me is named Dan. He's wearing a tight yellow polo shirt. He's the resident Scientologist on staff, and he doesn't like sugar.
"Of course," Dan says enthusiastically. He motions us inside. In our outstretched arms, we're both still holding baking tins full of chocolate-coconut bars made by my sister's neighbor Barb: Barb's bars!
"Yeah, coooool," I say, twisting the tin like a steering wheel, preparing to unload my spiel: "So, hey, have you heard Beck's new album? I was going to stand outside and play it, but I couldn't find a boom box. I brought these bars instead."
"Oh, wait... are you here for the Sunday service?" Dan asks.
"Well, no, I just wanted to ask you some questions about Beck for a story I'm writing. Because, you know, Beck is a Scientologist and I think people are curious about that."
Dan frowns and tilts his head. "Who's Beck?"
Beck Hansen is, of course, a big-shot music guy on the level of, say, Michael Stipe. He's also someone I wouldn't normally give a shit about in 2008, except for the fact that there are two fantastic songs on his new Danger Mouse–produced album, Modern Guilt. One of them, "Gamma Ray," is a surfy party jam with aggressive Beck mumbleage; the other, "Chemtrails," is a big, shoegazey drum freak-out that tackles hegemonic mind control. Neither song is particularly groundbreaking, but they're easily the best things dude has done in years.
Speaking of chemtrails and mind control, shouldn't we be worried about Beck's religious affiliations? Some gossip-mongers suspect the presence of subliminal messages in Beck's music. A pair of suicidally delusional NYC artists thought the pop star was stalking them. There's even a dedicated website, A Guide to Beck and Scientology for Journalists and Fans, which reads like some kind of Freemason conspiracy screed.
Naturally, I didn't have such luck finding any people who felt so strongly about Beck's beliefs in real life.
"I don't mind watching a Travolta movie or listening to a Scientologist musician" says Andreas Heldal-Lund, the anti-Scientology activist behind xenu.net. "But I do try to stay away from celebrities who use their position to promote the cult."
Huh? I spoke to Heldal-Lund specifically because I wanted a fire-and-brimstone speech about Beck and thetans and brainwashing. Instead, he's totally sensible.
"I imagine all artists are influenced by many things they experience, including a cult... if they visit one," Heldal-Lund continues.
Heldal-Lund is probably right. But it's hard to speculate how deeply Scientology influences Beck, especially given how tight-lipped he's been about it. The little he has admitted is that he's been around it his whole life—his parents have been Scientologists for over 30 years. And his mother, Bibbe, is an Operating Thetan (Level Five!).
At the very least, then, we can't blame Scientology for "changing" Beck. For all we know, Scientology has always been as crucial to Beck's identity and music as, say, his parents' divorce. And, really, who's to say which of those influences produces hits like "Devil's Haircut" and "Where It's At"?
"Can I just look at the test and not take it?" I ask Dan.
"Sure, you can examine this," says Dan, handing my sister and me copies of the mail-in Oxford Capacity Analysis test. "Just fill it out whenever you'd like."
I scan through the questions as we leave, taking a quick bite of one of the chocolate-coconut bars (delicious!). "Do you have a tendency to tidy up a disorder of somebody else's household?" Sadly, yes. "In subjects about which you are not expert, are your own ideas of sufficient importance as to tell others?" Most definitely. "Do you often make tactless...."
Eh, fuck it—this test is boring. Besides, these bars are messy, and I have to wipe my hands with something.