Saturday, November 22, 2014

Song of the Day: Beck - Loser (1994, sort of)

Even though I was only 12 when it happened, I remember in the immediate post-Cobain reality of spring/summer '94 watching the media try and come up with an easy label and analogy for what the nation's youth was experiencing and how our generation would be defined. Maybe that effort was part of what propelled Beck's "Loser" into being such a big hit, or maybe the song was just that good and would have made a major impact even if Cobain hadn't died and the need for an anthropological dissection of alternative music culture didn't feel so immediate. But he did, and it was, and "Loser" immediately became labeled as the defining song of a generation. 

At the time, Beck felt like a probable one-hit wonder, arriving at the perfect moment to capitalize on the media's desire to summarize a nation's youth. Twenty years later, Beck is still going strong, undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the '90s and '00s, with two Masterpiece albums to his name ('96's Odelay and '02's Sea Change) and several other very good ones. For these reasons (and others), it's interesting to go back and look at "Loser" as both an artifact of a time, and as the first gasp of a major artist. 

It's a little bit of a cheat to include "Loser" here, because the song actually came out a full year earlier, in the spring of '93. But that release was on a tiny label, with only 500 copies initially pressed. It was, however, what brought Beck to the attention of major labels, and after signing with Geffen, the song was re-released in the spring of '94, and that's when its major cultural impact began. 

Beck started out in NYC's "anti-folk" scene of the early-'90s, realizing that audiences were more likely to pay attention to his folk songs if they were backed by hip-hop beats and had absurd, non-sensical lyrics. Eventually that evolved into full-on rapping his lyrics over folk music, and the chorus of this song is actually (or artificially, depending on what you believe) Beck referring to his rapping ability. But as with so much art, sometimes the culture decides on a meaning that becomes more quote-unquote factual than the intended one. 

Since I wouldn't dare become the first person to ever write about Beck without referring to him as a musical chameleon, we'll go ahead and do that here. Sit down. (Waiting…) Beck is a musical chameleon! He's the Bowie of our era! He keeps changing styles! But seriously, part of Beck's genius is his ability to follow his muse across all genres and sounds without ever sounding like a tourist. His next album, Odelay, basically removed the folk part of his blueprint, made everything danceable, and flirted with electronica. Then Midnight Vultures removed the hip-hop influences and evolved into old skool funk. Then Sea Change totally shifted gears and is the best acoustic-based album anyone has released since Springsteen's Nebraska, as well as the second-greatest divorce album of all-time. And on and on and on. 

Could we see any of that in "Loser?" Yes and no. A major reason the song survives isn't merely due to importance, but quality. It's really good! It combines three seemingly disparate genres--folk, blues, and hip hop--in interesting ways that we hadn't seen before. In a sense, the lyrics of "Loser" are both the best and worst thing that could have happened to the song. Without a doubt, the lyrics are a huge reason it became a hit, and a huge reason that we remember the song as being so culturally significant. But the lyrics also obscure everything else. Because of that chorus and what it came to mean, we think of "Loser" as a distinctly time-and-place/you-had-to-be-there song, and that's not really fair. It's a song that seemingly only gets dissected in a lyrical context, and that undermines how good and interesting the music is. Sometimes that's just how it goes. 

But listen again to those opening twenty seconds, before the words start. Have you ever heard anything else like that? It sounds like it's being played on a broken guitar, merged with a beat that only could have been done on a Pro-Tools app. It's laptop music created before people used laptops to make music. And then it brings in some fucking sitar, because… sitar!! The words feel intrinsically linked to an exact time and place, but the music doesn't at all. No matter when you listen to it, those sounds come across as equally archaic and futuristic, which is the exact opposite sensation of carbon-dating than the lyrics evoke. I'm not sure how many people really recognized Beck's genius in 1994 (I was too young to be reading the good analyses), but looking back, it's inescapable. Regardless of what he said, Beck was a chimpanzee in the time of monkeys. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

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