February 2000
s m u g
by Joshua Allen

Welcome to Decomposing. Each month we will deconstruct the lyrics of a popular song (and, later, even smaller fragments of pop culture), line by excruciating line, through analysis of word origins, historical/mythological/sociopolitical references, musical precedents, biographical data, and psychospiritual "meetings" with an entity known only as "The Oversoul."

We shall begin with the first single from Beck's recent Midnite Vultures LP. This is a very deliberate choice, considering how many critics find Beck's lyrics pure stream-of-consciousness and devoid of any penetrable meaning. We will attempt to show how, with some cursory research, Beck's subtexts and references come across almost embarrassingly loud and clear. Let's go to work.

Beck, "Sexx Laws"

"Sexx Laws" is the opening song of a "party" album that consistently gives top priority to "good times," esp. good-time sexual encounters. So it is this first song's duty to bring us to this party world, to introduce us to themes that will be more fully explored in subsequent pieces. Don't mistake this song for a "let's dim the lights and get in the mood, baby" sort of intro, however; it is more akin to forcing one's date to drink excessively from the spiked punchbowl, overwhelming his/her inhibitions through sheer force.

This song presents, in typical Beck fashion, a quick barrage of curiously assembled phrases and what appear to be non-sequiturs. What unites the language here, though, is sex, with almost every word dense with lurid meaning. The chorus ("I want to defy / The logic of all sex laws") makes this clear — Beck (or "The Narrator") is interested in the aforementioned good-time sexual encounters, the wilder the better, and not only does he not care if they violate "logic" and "laws," but those are the types he prefers. He even refuses to spell "sex" correctly in the song's title, flaunting the logic and laws of the English language and making the word one "x" dirtier (not quite triple-x, but on its way there).

Recurring themes in this song include the intertwined nature of sex with death and/or pain, and the intertwined nature of gender roles. This combination of disparate, often opposing, forces is common in Beck's work, and is reflected in the variety of musical styles he adopts (this one includes Stax horns, hip-hop beats, and hoedown banjo, just for starters).

Can't you hear those cavalry drums
Hijacking your equilibrium

Again, the point of this opening couplet is to introduce the listener to Planet Beck, encouraging you to give yourself over to its power. You will be unable to resist the lewd advances of the beat (with the many definitions of "beat" being intended here, from the throb of the drums to the thumping of a heart during the thumping of moist loins to the smack of a hand against bare flesh, etc.), becoming literally dizzy and discombobulated by it.

Midnight hags in the mausoleum
Where the pixilated
[sic] doctors moan

Although the lyric sheet says "hags," the sibilant in the actual vocalization makes it sounds more like "snags" or even the expected "snacks." All three readings, however, could be interpreted with equal lasciviousness, with "hags" evoking "fag hag," i.e., a heterosexual woman who has many male homosexual friends (a gender complication that is echoed throughout this song), and "snags" and "snacks" both implying some sort of quick sexual interlude there in the mausoleum (traditionally a place of death, of course, bringing to mind the French phrase for orgasm, le petit mort).

We also have the first openly sexual word, "moan," which is applied not only to "doctors," professionals more associated with physical suffering than physical pleasure, but to doctors who have been "pixilated." I can only assume Beck here is referring to a "pixel," despite his "law-breaking" spelling, a pixel ("picture element") being a single point in a graphic image on a computer. This invokes both the important theme of technology in sexuality (which is not brought into play in full-force until several songs later [see "Get Real Paid"], but the seed is planted, as it were, here in the first verse), but also the image of anonymous interviewees on TV news programs whose faces have been obscured by computer pixelation. These are doctors, then, whose true identities are being masked by taking small aspects of their bodies and blowing them up beyond recognition; essentially a high-tech update of the sex-slave leather-and-zipper headpiece.

Carnivores in the Kowloon night

Kowloon is a region of Hong Kong on the northern side of Victoria Harbor, located on a peninsula off the Chinese mainland. Tsim Sha Tsui, at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula, is a tourist ghetto featuring shops, restaurants, and topless bars. Kowloon is also home to the Hong Kong Cultural Center, the Space Museum, and the Museum of History. Thus, Beck is taking his party out of America and into the East, but an East that has been under Western control for the last century (though, significantly, recently released of these political binds), and particularly a district that is, like Beck's work itself, a tourist's mishmash of cultures and information.

Breathing freon by the candlelight

Freon is a substance that was primarily used for its cooling properties, especially in air conditioners, until the Environmental Protection Agency banned its production in the U.S. due to its ozone-layer-depleting qualities. A healthy black market for freon has cropped up in the wake of this ruling, wherein companies will buy it from developing countries that are not yet subject to the protocol's ban, then reselling it at a hefty profit. "Breathing freon," then, evokes three separate ideas: combining sex with technology (the dehumanization of organic life or, conversely, the anthropomorphism of machinery), combining sex with death (we can assume these are pre-coital pantings going on by candlelight here, and these breaths are filled with poisonous and environmentally unhealthy chemicals), and combining sex with criminal activity (again breaking "laws").

Coquettes bitch slap you so polite

"Coquette," a flirtatious woman, was originally spelled "coquet" and thus referred only to men, being a diminutive form of "coq," French for "cock" (coming from the strutting gait and amorous characteristics of said animal). In later times the word was feminized, but "coq" is still at its root, providing a curious sexual dichotomy.

Till you thank them for the tea and sympathy

Tea and Sympathy was a Broadway hit by Robert Anderson, made into a successful film in 1956 starring Deborah Kerr. The protagonist, Tom Lee (perhaps Beck was hoping we'd think of noted Lothario and ex-Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee?), is mocked for his unmanly tendencies and falls for the sympathetic wife of his college's headmaster. There is a strong undercurrent of homosexuality that the film manages to avoid addressing directly, much like "Sexx Laws" itself.

I want to defy
The logic of all sex laws
Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists
I'll let you be my chaperone
At the halfway home

Here's the chorus, where the desire to rebel against society's norms is loudly declared. Note the presence, in preceding verses, of words that pertain to "civilized" society: "polite," "candlelight," "tea," "sympathy." These represent the various "laws" that are being defied, but not openly defied, not through outright rebellion, but rather by incorporating them into the sex act itself, with "coquettes bitch slap you so polite" being the most brazen example.

Another is "I'll let you be my chaperone." As opposed to "coquette," "chaperone" originally referred exclusively to a woman, particularly an elderly or married woman who accompanied a young, unmarried woman in public for reasons of propriety. So once again, a word of manners is being perverted into something baser. This word also feminizes both "The Narrator" and "you," the person to whom he is talking. Interestingly, another definition for "chaperone" is "a small escutcheon placed on the forehead of a horse drawing a hearse," bringing back the ever-present specter of death (as well as tying in with "Neptune," in the following verse, who was the god of horses and horseriding as well as the sea).

I'm a full grown man
But I'm not afraid to cry

Note again the mix of sex with pain. Although Beck is a "full grown man" (and I think what is actually "full grown" here is clear enough), he is still "not afraid to cry," i.e., be hurt. You should also know that this line is repeated at the very end of the album, except for the final "cry" which is never spoken, implying that Beck, after the orgiastic nightmare of Midnite Vultures, is, indeed, at long last, afraid to cry, and could, perhaps, use a little break.

Neptune's lips taste like fermented wine
Perfumed blokes on the Ginza line
Running buck wild like a concubine
Whose mother never held her hand

Wine itself is a good example of intoxication emerging from death, namely the biological death of grapes, but adding "fermented" to the image drives the point home with angry, lusty clarity. This death is once again coming through the lips (another loaded word), just like the freon.

The Ginza Line is a subway in Tokyo that provides speedy access to the airport. Like Kowloon, this is a reference to a locale that mixes Eastern and Western culture in a complex manner, and is specifically something that would be familiar to a tourist. And who is on this subway? "Blokes," UK slang for a man (also naval slang for a ship's commander who would perhaps know the taste of Neptune's lips), so not only are these Westerners on board, but they're "perfumed," i.e., using a scent that was intended for women. Let's not even get started on pheromones.

Brief encounters in Mercedes Benz

Note how we are jerked from "concubine" to "Mercedes Benz," from East back to West once again, a breaking down of the geopolitical borders in addition to the "so polite" borders of propriety.

Wearing hepatitis contact lens
Bed and breakfast getaway weekends
With Sports Illustrated moms

This first line is probably the most head-scratching phrase in the song, made even more difficult by its blatant misuse of grammar (why not either "a hepatitis contact lens" or "hepatitis contact lenses"?). Hepatitis is a disease of the liver, so this could be a Beck-ism for "beer goggles," wherein someone's judgment is blurred by the consumption of alcohol, making everyone sexually attractive, no matter how unappealing they'd be to the goggle-wearer under normal circumstances. "Hepatitis" makes us think of livers, the organ that is most harmed by alcohol, and a lens, of course, affects our vision.

But hepatitis B and C, much like AIDS, are usually spread by direct exposure to infected blood, by needles, or through sexual contact. So this could be inserting a hint of menace within the otherwise guilt- and danger-free "brief encounters" of the prior line. Could Beck, here toward the end, finally be addressing the possible repercussions of his nonstop party? Perhaps, but keep in mind that in Beck's world, a world of colliding sounds, genders, and sexual proclivities, this hint of conscience is represented by "[a] contact lens," an unnatural crutch meant to be removed at the end of the day, often even thrown away.

Think back to the grammatical oddity, too. What the incorrect language does is call attention to the fact that there is only one contact being used. Is the Narrator winking, or does he have only one operational eye? Or is Beck, more likely, referring to another part of the anatomy commonly referred to as having "one eye," here requiring some sort of "lens" during the encounter? I leave that one, dear reader, to you.




in the junk drawer

and such
and such

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