The relentlessly chirpy Scientologist who administers my Mark Super VII Quantum E-meter stress test in the Times Square subway station isn’t familiar with Beck’s music. “Let me ask Matt,” she offers. “He’s younger than me.”
She calls over a bright-eyed twenty-something who’s just finished evaluating the internal electrical stress balance of a commuter. Matt admits he listens to the iconic popster, whose recent admission to being a Scientologist has come down particularly hard and weird in some quarters. Conspiracy theories (Clem Bastow’s Stylus feature) and well-sourced treatises (Arnie Lerma’s The Secret Life of Beck Hansen: A Guide for the Professional Journalist) abound, both underscored with fundamental bewilderment.
With good reason, too. Distinct from an actor like, say, Tom Cruise, whose work rests at the center of a network of screenwriters, directors, and ensembles, Beck’s success rests on the idea that his music is self-expression, and when that self is apparently taken by something as bizarre as Scientology is to most civilians, well, it might seem a wee bit troubling.
“His music goes in a lot of different directions,” Matt tells me, assessing the impact of Scientology on Beck’s albums. “If you were familiar with Hubbard’s Dianetics, you might be able to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see that.’ Especially when it’s about, you know, freedom.” The way Matt emphasizes the last word makes me uncomfortable. Apparently freedom is an ambiguous Scientologist buzzword having something to do with the “bridge to total freedom,” the name of their organization’s official publication.
“It’s especially hard for those of us whose method of appreciating Dylan over the years has been to identify 100 percent with most everything he says and feels,” Paul Williams wrote upon the former Mr. Zimmerman’s 1979 conversion to evangelical Christianity. Similarly, Beck fans who held Beck’s knowing surrealism to be the paradigm of cool might be having a hard time swallowing the development.
According to lore, Scientologists—at least the ones who’ve paid enough to attend the requisite Scientology seminars to find out, as Beck likely has—believe in “body Thetans,” malignant atavistic spirits who cluster parasitically around humans as a result of nuclear explosions triggered by Xenu, a space tyrant who reigned 75 million years ago. Now, I’m not sure if Beck himself believes that, but I certainly don’t.
Allegedly, the 36-year-old singer converted to Scientology after breaking up with a longtime girlfriend, an event that also supposedly prompted him to record 2002’s morose Sea Change. But in truth, this conversion was merely the return of a prodigal son. Raised by Scientologist parents, educated through eighth grade at a Scientologist school, and taking over a dozen Scientologist courses through his pre-“Loser” teen years, Beck has never been far from the fold. As Lerma puts it, the real question is “When was Beck not a Scientologist?”
So if this is truly the case and you already like Beck’s music, then it does a body no good in getting upset about his beliefs now. Scientology been there all along, just below Beck’s dense surface, and ultimately shouldn’t be that surprising. As Matt reminds me, “his music isn’t straightforward.”
Just as Beck’s catalog can equally accommodate Brazilian-influenced space-cowboy mourners, neon electronic party pastiches, novelty singles, and surrealist hip-hop, Beck’s background can logically sustain the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard side-by-side with a Fluxist grandfather (Al Hansen), a punk bohemian mother (Bibbe Hansen), a Hollywood string-arranger father (David Campbell), and a childhood in the cultural melting pot of greater Los Angeles. It’s almost ... American. And it is most certainly Californian.
“Some people,” Williams wrote about Dylan’s born-again Christianity, “see this as a threateningly anti-intellectual move from someone they’ve always related to on an intense intellectual level.” Likewise, skepticism toward what Hubbard himself deemed a “space opera” seems perfectly logical.
But imagine you were a kid with an imagination as churning and fertile as Beck’s. Just as violently weird and transcendent Christian imagery of thorned crowns and plagues of frogs and locusts and such has inspired musicians from the ghostly mountain crooners of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (a big influence on Beck) through contemporary indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens, Scientology’s symbols might seep into an impressionable lad’s head in unpredictable ways.
What’s more, as a faith that is comparatively new, there isn’t much precedent for Dianetics-influenced musicians. Being a critically successful Scientologist might make Beck even more idiosyncratic. Isn’t that why we value Beck to begin with?
“You’ve heard of Chick Corea?” the chirpy female Scientologist asks, waving a copy of Dianetics with a quote from the fusion pianist on the back. Well, yes. Yes, I have. Corea has devoted concept albums to Hubbard’s work (mostly Hubbard’s pre-Scientology sci-fi novels, such as 2004’s To the Stars, based on Hubbard’s 1950 novel) and often speaks of the impact of Dianetics on his music. And yes, plenty of musicians are Scientologists: Isaac Hayes, and, um, former Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan and, er, Lisa Marie Presley. (And, as my editor reminds: “Don’t forget Van Morrison, for a few crappy 1980s albums, anyway.)
But with the possible exception of Corea, there aren’t many Scientologist musicians in the evangelical sense, ones who make music to express their beliefs. There are no Staples Singers or Dixie Hummingbirds or Johnny Cashes of Scientology. As Wikipedia points out (or did before the section mysteriously disappeared the day after I referenced it), Scientology is the rare spiritual belief that does not include the concept of the ecstatic in its practices. This, on some levels, is worrisome. Critics have long accused Beck of excessive detachment, but if he’s is actively trading in a worldview that so completely stresses order over mysticism, what could that mean for his music?
“He’s got a very thoughtful side,” Matt says. “He’s not like ‘Woo-hoo! Scientology!” Matt laughs, raising his hands in the air. Though Beck has defended his beliefs, he is not at all like the gospel Dylan who for a time refused even to perform his secular material.
“Scientology has reinforced certain things that were really constructive and good,” Beck said in March, in one of his rare public statements on the topic, “things that were important to me in terms of my family, friends, being creatively awake and pushing forward with music.”
There’s no reason not to believe that Scientology, with its self-help overtones, has aided Beck personally. Taken metaphorically, the notion of spiritual parasites seems no more or less useful than a man who once turned water to wine. It’s ultimately no different than any belief system, religious or secular, that has ever given a musician an intellectual framework needed to create, be it the rigorous minimalism of Arnold Schönberg’s 12-tone music or the trans-global politics behind M.I.A.‘s Arular (the brilliant party album many hoped Beck would make).
If one wants to criticize Beck, it shouldn’t be because he is a Scientologist—although the rumor that he fired his band, including brilliant collaborator/guitarist Smokey Hormel, for the express purpose of replacing them with an all-Scientologist posse is a bit distressing. No, one should be critical of Beck only if his music becomes mediocre.
And, after this year’s Guero, many have made a case for just that. “One wonders whether Mr. Hansen’s heart is in the proceedings,” opined Rob Mitchum in Pitchfork. “Many of the songs appear to be little more than weak echoes of their similar predecessors.” It might be noted, however, that one can assemble a far more adventurous album by making a playlist of the remixes by the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Boards of Canada, and Paza that were released concurrently with Guero. (many of which have mysteriously been left off the recently issued remix disc, Guerolito).
Still, blaming Beck’s regressions on Scientology (as Stylus does) seems about as absurd as crediting L. Ron Hubbard for “Where It’s At”. One could just as easily blame marriage or fatherhood, both of which have become part of Beck’s life in the past several years. And those kinds of changes are something we’ve been dealing with for a long time, Xenu notwithstanding.
Or one could blame nothing at all, except Beck’s artistic instincts, which always have been, and will hopefully continue to be, an entity unique and special. Nobody’s fault but his own and all that.
In the end, I beat the E-meter. I answer the perpetually smiling Scientologist’s prodding questions about what stresses me out honestly, but no matter how much she tweaks the unlabeled dials, the needle simply won’t jump. I am, it seems, too mellow for Scientology. She smiles half-heartedly—as if I’m just a loser, baby—and tries to sell me a copy of Dianetics anyway. “No thanks,” I mumble. “Um, my roommate already has a copy, thanks,” and shuffle off towards my train.
* * *