Beck, “Elevator Music”, from The Information
COMMENTARY ON THE LYRICS, web version 1.0
J. S. Bernstein
“Elevator Music”, the opening track of The Information (2006), features splendid, quirky, clever, classic Beck lyrics. Although the lyrics may inspire a series of different interpretations, the song, if it can be said to have one overriding theme, is about the power of music to uplift us out of ourselves for the duration of the experience. “Elevator Music” is an expression of music as a healing process or event.
This commentary is not intended to explain “everything” about the song. These are only my thoughts at this time.
Note: There are various versions of the lyrics for “Elevator Music”, available both online and with the Japanese CD. I have used the lyrics posted at www.beck.com.
“ELEVATOR MUSIC” by Beck Hansen
I’m uptight, super-gutted
The first line resonates with numerous meanings. “Uptight” at face value is a negative word. At this point in his life, Beck is tense, uneasy – a sign of the times. “Uptight” is a somewhat sinister way to begin the album. But what if Beck is using the word in a new way, so that the ordinary meaning of “uptight” is only one meaning among many?
We can break the word “uptight” down into two different words. The use of “up” is apt, insofar as the beat (the upbeat beat) has already kicked in and is beginning to transport us, the listeners. “Tight” is appropriate in a self-referential way as well, insofar as the song is going to be tight in musical construction and performance. Might “uptight” suggest “gathered up inside myself, concentrated, totally with it”?
As for “super”, it sustains the optimism of “up” and “tight”. In this context “super” can suggest virtuosity and strength, which is fitting because The Information is going to be a sublime experience from an artist at the top of his form.
But “super-gutted” is another story. It is a quirky intensification of the downbeat word “gutted”.* Beck is describing himself as hollowed-out, troubled by the malign circumstances of modern life (i.e., the mind-set of Sea Change). While the musical part of “Elevator Music” begins in an upbeat way, the lyrics start out with a somber suggestion of spiritual pain, malaise.
But what if “gutted” also sustains the upbeat aspect of the song? Perhaps “gutted” suggests that Beck has cleansed himself of the mental stresses engendered by modern life and is standing tall as a healthy creative individual.
*America is infamous for its “extra large size” items.
Out of the frame
1. The “frame” can be the status quo, the prevailing mindset of the culture. Beck is a man apart, a self-styled outsider.
2. The “frame” also suggests the frame of a movie. Beck is cut out of the movie, so to speak. This is another way of thinking of Beck as an outsider.
3. Beck is either bemoaning or celebrating the fact that he is “out of the frame” – perhaps he is doing both at the same time.
[4. Is there perhaps, weirdly, an esoteric resonance here – to bowling? Bowling has both “gutters” and “frames”. This suggests the theme of game playing. ]
I shake a leg on the ground
Like an epileptic battery man
This is a wonderfully eccentric way to describe the activity of dancing.
1. “Battery man” may be a humorous allusion to some sort of marketing icon. Think of the Energizer Bunny, which keeps going and going (an icon since 1989). Beck is himself an icon. He is the artist figure.
2. “Battery” is also a military term, meaning a unit of artillery pieces (guns, missiles). This suggests bombardment: Beck is launching music at us.
3. A “battery” is also a power source. Beck will fill us, the listeners, with power through the grace of his music. This is what art can do: transfer energy from person to person, what is otherwise known as inspiration.
“Epileptic” sustains the premise of a stricken Beck. But the reference may not be all doom and gloom. Equating dancing with epilepsy may suggest that Beck/we can get lost in the music in an enthusiastically wild way; we can be transported into a Dionysian mind-space. Being out of control is not always bad: in certain circumstances it can be therapeutic.
It is early in the song but Beck has already demonstrated that he is a virtuoso of the English language. His lyrics are a fusion of both the optimistic and the pessimistic simultaneously. Only an adroit artist can maintain a narrative structure of coexisting clashing tones indefinitely.
I’m making my move
Letting loose like a belt*
A belt being let loose suggests clothing dropping away; Beck is going to let it all hang out as it were. He is going to shed his skin (that is to say, throw off the ordinary world) during the ecstatic experience of music-making.
*All sources read “Letting loose like a belt” except for www.beck.com., which has “Letting loose like a bell”.
Little worse for wear
But I’m wearing it well
This wry line, which continues the autobiographical aspect of the song, is both upbeat and downbeat at the same time. The concept of “wearing it” will return below when Beck suggests the theme of masquerade and role-playing.
Tell me, what’s wrong
With a little grind and bump?
When the stereos erupt
With a kick drum punch?
Beck is celebrating music. He is addressing us, the listeners, directly, drawing us in with a question, rejoicing in how music can join us together in a common positive experience.
Once you do it once
Probably do it again and again
You did it before
But you’re more erratic than then
Beck is saying that we have listened to (his) music in the past, and that we have changed in some way (“erratic”) as time has marched on from Beck album to Beck album. The concept of the past haunting us pervades the song. With the “You” Beck may be addressing not each individual listener but all of his listeners at once.
When you’ve had a rough night
And the ride’s just begun*
The phrase “rough night” sustains the downbeat overtones of the song, and, with the use of the “you”, connects Beck’s own “super-gutted” condition with the listener’s; the listener is in the same boat as Beck. The past for all of us has been full of stresses, making Beck “uptight” and us “erratic”.
“And the ride’s just begun” suggests (1) the start of the album; (2) no matter where we are, at any moment we must begin from there; (3) a dry comment on how bad circumstances may get for all of us in the future . . .
*On www.beck.com, the lyrics read “When you’ve had a rough ride and the night’s just begun”.
Let a little bit of this
Put the past where it’s done
The ceremony of music can take us out of ourselves for the duration of the experience; we can forget ourselves in the music, have our problems absolved, and enjoy a break from the ongoing responsibility of being ourselves. The lines can be translated as, “let us be liberated from the past and live free in the present”.
Don’t let it hold you back
Like you’ve already said
Beck is inviting us to lose ourselves in the music. Through the magic of the music we can escape the “it” (whatever it is in the past that is influencing us in a malign way).
No dead flower’s gonna grow
Till the dirt gets wet
This is a fascinating phrase. In the ordinary world, soil gets wet, then live flowers sprout and only later, as time goes on, do these flowers die. But Beck is compressing time here: the “dirt gets wet” and he already sees the flowers that are sprouting there as dying; he is leaping over the stretch of time in which the flowers live out their lifespan. Is there a sense of doom to this enigmatic phrase? Is there a connection to “Already Dead” from Sea Change?
That is only one way to hear these words. What if the line is not about the approaching death which awaits each one of us implacably, but about a tired soul being rejuvenated through a beneficial experience (rainfall rekindling fruitfulness)?
[I think of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” And also of a clever word coined by James Joyce for Finnegans Wake: “cropse”.]
“Uptight”, “epileptic”, “worse for wear”, “erratic”, “rough night”, “dead flowers”. These are negative words for such a toe-tapping melodic song. Beck has excellent control of narrative structure; his song blends different moods together to make one multilayered design.
Put the elevator music on
The phrase “elevator music” suggests two meanings which conflict with one another. (1) It is a type of Muzak, a background shimmer, a mere drab detail, something of no importance. (2) Alternatively, it is a music that elevates, uplifts, transports, sends us into raptures, even towards revelations; “elevator music” is music that excites and inspires and therefore it is music that matters.
This line is ambivalent in a humorous, cynical way. Muzak, that pointless music, that insipid background noise, is juxtaposed to music as an uplifting artistic (and spiritual) experience. Beck is suggesting that his song is both at once – both mere noise and powerful spiritual force.
Put me back where I belong
“I” can be Beck or the “I” can refer to the listener. Or the “I” can relate to whomever.
“Where I belong”: music can cleanse us of psychic impurities and put us back on the right track. Art is a method and a process which can change us for the better.
The ambulance sings along
A magnificent Beck line. The suggestion is that the ambient background noise of the wailing siren is meshing with Beck’s music-making in the foreground. But the emergency services vehicle isn’t disturbing the rhythm – it is integrated with the music (“sings along”). Life (music) and death (ambulance) are fused together here. The awareness of our mortality conditions both the creation and reception of art; art springs out of the mystery that is revealed to human consciousness.
The chorus of “Elevator Music” suggests danger, alarm, trouble, death. Death is implicitly involved in the ceremony of art. But art not only registers the horror that is the fact of death; this song, like so much art, laughs in the face of death.*
*The experience of art is comparable to the ceremony of religious worship. Think of one of Jim Morrison’s first lines in Oliver Stone’s The Doors – “Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.” And worship is related to our knowledge of the implacable fact of death. Worship is what novelist John Updike describes as “foresight and the terrors and convoluted mental grovelling that foresight brings to it, including the invention of an afterlife.” Villages (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 7.
The fly on the wall
Doesn’t know what’s wrong
“The fly on the wall” can refer to an ordinary individual person. Or it can refer to all of us, as humanity has no idea of the true nature of the uni-omni-multi-pluriverse. We humans don’t know much about what we are. Recall the famous phrase by Henry David Thoreau in Chapter 18 of Walden: “We know not where we are. Beside, we are sound asleep nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface.”
If I could forget myself
Art can help us to forget ourselves for the duration of the artistic experience. The concept of wanting to “forget myself” is a somber one.
Find another lie to tell
These are downbeat lines for such a melodious chorus. Either (1) telling lies is what we do from day to day (social life as a type of fiction or masquerade, and personality as something put on, played); or, (2) telling lies is what we can do to be someone else for the time being (a second type of role playing: we can play someone else, instead of playing ourselves: pretence trumping pretence).
If I had a soul to sell
Another downbeat line. “If I had a soul . . .” This is bleak.
I’d buy some time
To talk to my brain cells
A very strange, poetic, beautiful phrase. Why would he want to talk to his brain cells? To learn about himself? About the world? So Beck would sell his soul in order to understand himself? Isn’t this the theme of one of Europe’s great myths, the story of Faust?
Gutbucket and a bottle of pain
More autobiography here: a gutbucket is a musical instrument, traditionally used in American folk and blues music (“gutbucket blues”), and hence recalls early Beck and his musical influences; and “bottle of pain” is consonant with his lugubrious Sea Change mind-set. (I also think of “Bottle of Blues” from Mutations.)
“Bottle of pain” is a clever description of a self as a container of mental and physical worries and aches. Like “bottle of pain”, “gutbucket” is also a description of a corporeal self (i.e., tub of guts).
It’s like the schoolhouse lights
Will never turn on again
Till the bottom wears off
Of these high-heeled boots
This is an optimistic line. No more school! Hooray! We can dance the night away; for now there is no “school” (i.e., none of the responsibilities of the ordinary daylight world) until morning (i.e., after the ceremony of the music is over). We are brought back to the earlier theme of being transported by the music: for as long as we listen to the music, we can forget our cares.
There is another sense here. Music can bring us back to the feeling of heady youth; listening to the music can make us feel young again, as excited as a school kid.
And the bodies all move
to some backbone roots
The word “roots” reminds us of the “dead flower”; and “bodies all move” sustains the motif of dancing to the music.
A backbone is something deep inside us that keeps us upright. It is part of our skeleton, our framework (remember “out of the frame”?). Beck may be using “backbone” as a metaphor for the concept of the something that is essential inside us, the something that makes us who we are. The word “roots” can refer to a person’s early background.
Additionally, can “backbone roots” also relate, somehow, to the music that is being played?
[There is an esoteric resonance here. According to a Google search, “backbone root” is a concept used in biomolecular science, and also in computer science and information science (“backbone root nameservers”).]
[And “bodies” can also suggest heavenly bodies, i.e., celestial phenomena. The “backbone roots” that are conditioning human behavior may suggest the phenomenon of a deep underlying structure to the human mind and human relations which we can’t understand or measure. (Cf., “the bedded axle-tree” in T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”.)]
Everybody working hard
Till the yard’s all clean
The dishes washed good
In the washing machine
Then you brush your teeth
And you comb back your hair
And you drive your vehicle
Like you just didn’t care
And you walk into work
With the boys and the girls
And you’re doing it to death
This slice of life vignette reminds of so many earlier Beck songs. It elaborates on the “backbone roots” in its where-I-come-from signification.
“And you’re doing it to death” may have more than one meaning. (1) The phrase can simply connote the drudgery of the repetitive nature of the day-to-day workaday world. (2) But can it also mean – simply living? Every day we live, we’re closer to death; so “doing it to death” can be another way of saying “doing it until death”.
It’s the end of the world*
Sure it is. (1) There is a built-in obsolescence to organic life. Every moment brings us closer to the end. (2) The line has a humorous shade to it when we relate it to the “soda can bible song” coming later in the song. Here, Beck evokes the character of an apocalyptic bible-thumper. (3) It is another way of simply saying “bored to death”. It intensifies the description of everyday nine-to-five life as a gruelling, mind-numbing experience.
*Beck.com has “Like it’s the end of the world”, but on the album Beck doesn’t sing that first word.
Forgetting what’s on their mind*
Following the apocalyptic feeling of the previous line, we immediately return to a restatement of the upbeat dance-the-night-away subject matter. We’re back to being transported by the music, which can help us to forget our troubles (which include the ambulance and death) and escape ourselves (and our lies).
*On the album it sounds like Beck is singing “Now then everybody’s sweating” . . .
Make your hand like a mirror*
So you can see what’s inside
What does this mean? What about a poker hand? What does poker connote? Randomness, chance. What about palm reading? Reading the fate of a person in the lines of a hand? And can the “hand” refer to the material foundation of a human being (we’re a “gutbucket” of organic matter)? This is a powerfully enigmatic line, resonant with elusive meaning.
*There is an esoteric resonance here: “hand like a mirror” reminds me of the song “Heart like a Wheel”, which was sung by Linda Ronstadt in 1974. In the 1970s Ronstadt sang country and folk along with pop-rock and was an icon of L.A. music.
When you’re down and out,
Pounded, and there’s nothing that’s real
Back to the downbeat. “Pounded” suggests being harried and hassled by everyday circumstances, beaten down by responsibility and the cares of modern life. And “nothing that’s real” recalls Beck’s line about “another lie to tell”. We’re living in a mixed-up world of dizzy phenomena in which everything is as crazy (“erratic”) as a dream.
[Is there an esoteric resonance here? “Pounded” can be related back to “super-gutted” in more than one way. Gutted fish is often beaten flat with a hammer or mallet during food preparation. And fishermen sometimes stun their catch with a hammer before gutting it.]
It’s like a plastic heart
Too amputated to feel
This is one of those quizzical-sounding lines that still make sense. The line can simply refer to the concept of detachment. But there is a double intensity here: not only is the heart made of plastic (not organic, i.e., fake), but it is also amputated (severed from something essential, such as a soul). A plastic heart would have been bad enough, but Beck is describing alienation upon alienation (a configuration like Chinese boxes).
I got a soda can bible song
A soda can is an ordinary everyday detail in our culture. Is Beck being humble and self-deprecating here? The “bible” relates to the spirituality of art and the concept of music as ceremony. Juxtaposing “soda can” with “bible” is humorous: it is a mix of the sacred and the profane. In this context the adjectival “soda can” relates back to the “elevator music” in its signification as insipid Muzak. Beck may be suggesting that (1) although what he has created has some degree of spiritual relevance, (2) his song is a simple and humble concoction and nothing special in the scheme of things; (3) and also that his creation is a product for mass consumption (which relates to his status as a “battery man” icon).
A paranoid Jumbotron
A hilarious phrase. A Jumbotron is a large-screen televisual display, and hence suggests a public gathering. But is Beck watching the screen (which shows him the chaos of the modern world, making him “uptight” and “paranoid”), or is he himself creating the display, imparting something to us, his listeners? At any rate, Beck is laughing in the face of chaos.
The lord took the weekend off
A hilarious way of saying that there is no God.
The fly on the wall
Doesn’t know what’s wrong
If I could forget myself
Find another lie to tell
From the bottom of an oil well
Why “oil well”? In one sense it is topical, since the George W. Bush cabal is in power. But “oil well” also has resonances of the deep down inside, the soul, the dark depths, the mysterious unconscious. Furthermore, there is a downbeat resonance of being far away (“out of the frame”).
And oil connotes power and energy which relate back to “battery man”.
Cell phone’s ringing
To talk to my brain cell
This is an abstract, quizzical line. Note the pun of “cell phone” – in the context of this song it is a mix of the technological and the organic; and this recalls the various “backbone root” resonances.
The closing moments of the song include a lilting chorus in the background (“Na na na”), which strikes me as a nostalgic sound (for a more innocent time and type of music, such as the happier, carefree songs of the early Beatles).
The lyrics to “Elevator Music” are both persistently gloomy and quirkily humorous at the same time. Gloomy, and yet the song has a toe-tapping beat. The mix of moods is virtuoso.
Lyrics, of course, are only a part of a song. Musically, there is a lot going on behind the lyrics. It is a rich soundscape. The Information is mixed to be played LOUD (what, 100 decibels?!).
“Elevator Music” has quintessential Beck depth and scope, and also his melancholy-tinged aura. It is another magnificent song by the prolific and profound Beck.