WHEN "LOSER" hit the airwaves in 1994, the big question surrounding Beck Hansen was "Who the hell is this guy?" You may have seen an early interview Beck did on MTV's 120 Minutes, in which he baffled interviewer Thurston Moore by refusing to answer most of the questions, and at one point throwing his shoe at the uncomfortable but undaunted Moore. From that moment on, I've been trying to figure Beck out.

It was One Foot in the Grave, his mostly acoustic album with Calvin Johnson, that convinced me that Beck was legit. Unfortunately, the strength of its simple-but-warped folk songs and spirituals was lost on most of the people who went gaga over Mellow Gold. Throngs of teenagers went to shows waiting to hear "Beercan" and "Fuckin' with My Head," and wound up sitting through acoustic Delta blues. It goes without saying that the reaction wasn't an enthusiastic one.

On tour behind Odelay, Beck's patience with his audience was starting to wear thin. I saw him on the HORDE tour, trying to rouse the crowd to no avail; even the funky pop songs fell flat. He was yelling at the audience.

Shortly thereafter I saw Beck on TV, at a large outdoor concert, and he was pissed. He stomped around without a guitar, shouting words into the mic. I thought: He hates this.

Then he showed up on the MTV awards a new man. His thrift store threads replaced by a tailored white suit, Beck put on moves like a lanky, white James Brown. Someone ran onstage with a mirror, and Beck looked into it and combed his hair before spinning back to the mic. After years of doing indie rock's ironically nerdy schtick, Beck was doing ironically hip. The crowd ate it up.

Steve Martin once said that sincerity is the most important quality a person could have: "If you can fake that, you've got it made." Beck has taken that lesson to heart, and made an ironic statement so over-the-top it seems honest. And fake sincerity is what Midnite Vultures is all about.

The disco horn bursts on "Sexx Laws" are every bit as tongue-in-cheek as Beck's MTV routine, and the songs on Vultures are great satire. Like Odelay, the nonsense lyrics tell a story, but this time he's not condemning rock fans, he's condemning rock stars. Rather than screaming "sellout" as so many have before, he uses the stars' own methods against them, using his disco funk to tell tales of rock star excesses. Sex permeates this album, but it's sex as a commodity; the upshot of the champagne and the limousines that fill his lyrics.

He's reveling in his rock-star-ness to an obscene level, and that obscenity is the point. And what makes the joke work is that he is an actual rock star -- to the casual observer, he's just doing what rock stars do.

The last song on the album is the clincher. A mock slow-jam, sung in falsetto, it appears as "Debra," but when it was recorded during the Odelay sessions, it quickly started appearing in bootlegger's circles as "I Wanna Get with You (or Your Sister If She's Available)." Beck claims he left it off of Odelay because he didn't want people to think it was a joke, despite the fact that the song could be nothing else. After each verse professing his love to a JC Penney clerk comes the chorus: "I wanna get with you/only you/and your sister/I think her name's Debra."

The fact that Beck tries to get people to take his jokes seriously just might be more entertaining than the jokes themselves. His presentation is becoming an art form. To find an artist so willing to misuse his fame to challenge and confuse his audience, you'd have to go back to Bob Dylan, to whom Beck has been compared from day one.

It's amazing how photos of Beck look like Dylan circa Don't Look Back -- not really his features, but his demeanor: the boredom that comes from being able to do anything, but not wanting to bother with most of it. They share the experience of being very creative and intelligent people, who are forced to deal with others who are uniformly unimaginative and basically clueless (cloying fans, promoters, Donovan). Why do you think Dylan went off on all those reporters who asked him stupid questions? It's the same reason Beck goes off on his audience.

But the MTV crowd isn't sure whether or not they're the ones being made fun of. And Beck, unlike Dylan, manages to sugar-coat his barbs, duping his audience without discouraging them from buying Midnite Vultures.

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