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Beck live: cleverly ironic or just plain weird?

Ty Burr weighs in on the new R&B performing style of pop’s golden boy

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Beck live: cleverly ironic or just plain weird?

Does irony have any meaning if an audience doesn’t pick up on it? If you caught Beck’s performance of ”Debra” on the VH1 Fashion Awards show last week, maybe you know what I’m talking about. Here was the beloved poster boy for postmodern, cut-and-paste, maybe-I’m-serious, maybe-I’m-not brainiac pop cutting loose on the climactic tune from his new ”Midnite Vultures” album — a slow-burning grinder that could easily be mistaken for a Prince track circa 1984. Live, Beck blurred the lines even further, pushing his falsetto way over the top and, to cap things off, doing a pretty fair impression of James Brown’s old Live at the Apollo shtick wherein the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz would collapse on stage only to stagger back to the microphone with renewed ferocity.

Heartfelt homage to the musical giants of yore? Brilliant deconstruction of mainstream (white) pop’s penchant for coopting underground (black) styles? Ridiculous wannabes attempt to mimic genuine soul? Cold-blooded racist rip-off? Droll goof? Art? Or just plain weirdness, with no cultural weight intended?

If you’re a Beck fan, you probably know that the answer is (H) All of the above — with the miracle ingredient of Iron-O sprinkled liberally over the performance to give it the proper distance. That’s Beck’s qualified genius: to put it all out there on the plate and let the listener pick through the meal, separating steak from spinach. To paraphrase an earlier bard of ambiguity, he’s an artist, and he doesn’t have to look back.

But what did the well-oiled crowd at the VH1 Fashion Awards think as they whooped on this performance? What did the random channel surfer at home think as he or she stumbled on the scene? That it was a hell of a show — that Beck poured every ounce of his being into the vocal pyrotechnics (which were, admittedly, pretty fly for a white guy) — made it work as pure entertainment, but that the singer was so clearly channeling another artist, and a black artist to boot, put the whole thing in an oddly discomfiting frame.

Which may be the point. Or maybe it’s not. Complicating matters is the fact that Prince himself is a sui generis pop icon whose career has often (although not always) risen above racial pigeonholes. Maybe ”Debra” can be read as the sex-fantasy projection of a white suburban nerd boy who thinks singing LIKE Prince will bag him a threesome with some hotties. (In other words, perhaps Beck is giving a performance in more ways than one, and an Oscar-worthy one at that.)

It’s the way Beck crosses all these wires that makes me (a fan) very happy. My wife, on the other hand, tends to like her irony confined to books and movies, enjoys Beck’s folkie ”Mutations” but tunes out when I slap ”Odelay” on the CD player. This was the first time she had ever seen him perform, and all she saw was a weedy poseur. ”Sad,” she said. ”And fascinating. Like a freeway accident.”

So, again: Does irony have any meaning if an audience doesn’t pick up on it?

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