Beck proved to be an MTV propelled overnight sensation with plenty to say. Decades on from his breakthrough, his work is nearly cosmically appreciated, while his brand is a genuinely bankable asset. But, it all started with Loser, an infectious novelty song, and a curveball of gargantuan proportions.
Beck before Loser
Similar to Radiohead’s earliest commercial boom of Creep, Loser‘s appeal is instant, its fame is tremendous, yet it does little of properly representing the sound of the artists in question.
That’s because Beck did not perfect one particular sound before, or after putting out Loser. Here was a man ahead of his time, preoccupied as much by retro sounds, avantgarde experimentation, folk, rock and hip hop.
These hipster driven alternative music sensibilities could be found later in the work of groups like Flaming Lips, or MGMT. However, in the early 1990s, it was unheard of for a music artist with such a trial-and-error approach to forge a long and commercially viable career. Beck was soon to prove the exception.
Beck releases Loser
While some may have, wrongly, confused this for a debut single, Beck was far from a debutante in the world of indie music. Songs like “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” had garnered him some attention in the musical underground. And, the musician is said to have recorded many cassettes worth of material, some of which he sold at his live shows.
Geffen finally signed Beck and released Loser. They even agreed to put out a largely experimental record, despite showing little interest in further promoting it.
How Beck wrote Loser
Loser, with its instant hook and mysterious lyrics, was written, by the singer’s own admission accidentally. Early on, Beck had been admitted into what was dubbed the anti-folk scene. Its influence is unmistakable on the sound of Loser, despite the song’s numerous layers.
Written as a blues-folk number initially, created around a slide guitar hook, in a spontaneous act of creativity, Loser showed a new direction Beck was interested in exploring. Hip Hop samples, rapping and experimental sounds would prove the springboard towards the big leagues for the young songwriter.
As for the meaning behind the words to Loser, while a lot of the lyrical content may simply be the result of free associations, the chorus directly references Beck’s rapping abilities. Disheartened with his delivery, Beck started singing “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me” unwittingly providing the song with its memorable catchphrase.
When released independently in 1993, Loser earned a fair deal of radio airplay. Its re-release by Geffen subordinate label DGC coincided with near-instant and far-reaching success.
That was certainly amplified by a memorable music video. Filmed on a budget of a few hundred dollars only, the video would become a mainstay of the 1990s MTV, and would be co-opted as a symbol of slacker culture.
Beck’s career after Loser
It’s difficult to consider it now, given Beck’s enduring popularity, but few recording artists have seemed as condemned to the one-hit-wonder status as Beck was after the boom of this oddball song.
Its accompanying album Mellow Gold was well received by critics and showed that there was more depth to Beck’s work than his most famous song suggested. But, it failed to produce any more hit singles, an unpardonable sin in the eyes of big record labels.
Beck was unrelenting, however, in releasing a lot of new music and experimenting with retro and modern sounds on each new project. Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave may have shown there was a lot more to come from the artist, but 1996’s Odelay was greeted as a veritable classic upon its release. Constructed around numerous samples and produced by the Dust Brothers, Odelay was an album that seemed to predict the genre-hopping that would define the future of alternative music.
Beck’s following albums, as varied as his early work, were met favorably by critics and seemed to expand his fanbase at a constant rate. His most recent release was 2019’s futuristic vaporwave and pop-infused Hyperspace.
The influence of Loser
Loser turned out to be one of the biggest hit singles of the early 1990s. Regarded at the time as something of a novelty number, its effect was monumental.
Before Beck, and a handful of other artists like the Beastie Boys, music genres were segregated from one another, in music shops, or on radio stations. But, during the ’90s such allegiances seemed to matter less and less. Eventually, the record labels, finally relented, possibly seeing potential in music not created solely for one demographic.
Bands like Cake and the Eels and, later, LCD Soundsystem, MGMT, or Gorillaz were the most obvious acts to benefit from the loosening of genre regulations. However, the result of Loser, beyond its still freshly sounding words and hooks, is that it prepared the world of mainstream music to richly-textured sounds embraced by it today.