Loser (Beck song)
|Single by Beck|
|from the album Mellow Gold|
|Beck singles chronology|
"Loser" is a song by American musician Beck. It was written by Beck and record producer Carl Stephenson, who both produced the song with Tom Rothrock. "Loser" was initially released as Beck's second single by independent record label Bong Load Custom Records on 12" vinyl format with catalogue number BL5 on March 8, 1993.
When it was first released independently, "Loser" began receiving airplay on various modern rock stations, and the song's popularity eventually led to a major-label record deal with Geffen Records-subsidiary DGC Records. After the song's re-release under DGC, the song peaked at number 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in April 1994, becoming Beck's first single to hit a major chart. The song performed well internationally, reaching number one in Norway and the top 10 in Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand and Sweden. The song was subsequently released on the 1994 album Mellow Gold.
Conception and recording
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Beck was a homeless musician in the New York City anti-folk scene. He returned to his hometown of Los Angeles in early 1991, due to his financial struggles. Described by biographer Julian Palacios as having "no opportunities whatsoever", Beck worked low-wage jobs to survive, but still found time to perform his songs at local coffeehouses and clubs. In order to keep indifferent audiences engaged in his music, Beck would play in a spontaneous, joking manner. "I'd be banging away on a Son House tune and the whole audience would be talking, so maybe out of desperation or boredom, or the audience's boredom, I'd make up these ridiculous songs just to see if people were listening. 'Loser' was an extension of that." Tom Rothrock, co-owner of independent record label Bong Load, expressed interest in Beck's music and introduced him to Carl Stephenson, a record producer for Rap-A-Lot Records.
"Loser" was written and recorded by Beck while he was visiting Stephenson's home. Although the song was created spontaneously, Beck has claimed to have had the idea for the song since the late 1980s; he once said, "I don't think I would have been able to go in and do 'Loser' in a six-hour shot without having been somewhat prepared. It was accidental, but it was something that I'd been working toward for a long time." Beck played some of his songs for Stephenson; Stephenson enjoyed the songs, but was unimpressed by Beck's rapping. Stephenson recorded a brief guitar part from one of Beck's songs onto an 8-track, looped it, and added a drum track to it. Stephenson then added his own sitar playing and other samples. At that point, Beck began writing and improvising lyrics for the recording. For the song's vocals, Beck attempted to emulate the rapping style of Public Enemy's Chuck D. According to Beck, the line that became the song's chorus originated because "When [Stephenson] played it back, I thought, 'Man, I'm the worst rapper in the world, I'm just a loser.' So I started singing 'I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me.'" According to Rothrock, the song was largely finished in six and a half hours, with two minor overdubs several months later.
Composition and lyrics
Beck acknowledged the impact of folk on the song, saying "I'd realized that a lot of what folk music is about taking a tradition and reflecting your own time. I knew my folk music would take off, if I put hip-hop beats behind it." He had also perceived similarities between Delta blues and hip hop, which helped to inspire the song. The A.V. Club's Annie Zaleski opines that the song imitates abstract hip hop, while James Reed from The Boston Globe called it an alternative rock anthem, and Veronica Chambers for Vibe magazine described the song as a "folk-based hip hop song." "Loser" revolves around several recurring musical elements: a slide guitar riff, Stephenson's sitar, the bassline, and a tremolo guitar part. The song's drum track is sampled from a Johnny Jenkins cover of Dr. John's "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" from the 1970 album Ton-Ton Macoute!. During the song's break, there is a sample of a line of dialogue from the 1994 Steve Hanft-directed film Kill the Moonlight, which goes "I’m a driver/I’m a winner/Things are gonna change, I can feel it". Hanft and Beck were friends, and Hanft would go on to direct several music videos for Beck, including the video for "Loser".
Referred to as a "stoner rap" by AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the lyrics are mostly nonsensical. The song's chorus, in which Beck sings the lines "Soy un perdedor/I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?", is often interpreted as a parody of Generation X's "slacker" culture. Beck has denied the validity of this meaning, instead saying that the chorus is simply about his lack of skill as a rapper. Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times that "The sentiment of 'Loser' [...] reflects the twentysomething trademark, a mixture of self-mockery and sardonic defiance", noting Beck's "offhand vocal tone and free-associative lyrics" and comparing his vocals to "Bob Dylan talk-singing". After its recording, Beck thought that the song was interesting but unimpressive. He later said, "The raps and vocals are all first takes. If I’d known the impact it was going to make, I would have put something a little more substantial in it." The relationship between Beck and Stephenson soured after the release of "Loser" as a single. Stephenson regretted his involvement in creating the song, in particular the "negative" lyrics, saying "I feel bad about it. It's not Beck the person, it's the words. I just wish I could have been more of a positive influence."
Release and reception
"Loser" was first released in March 1993 as a 12" vinyl single on Bong Load, with only 500 copies pressed. Beck felt that "Loser" was mediocre, and only agreed to its release at Rothrock's insistence. "Loser" unexpectedly received radio airplay, starting in Los Angeles, where college radio station KXLU was the first to play it, followed by modern rock station KROQ-FM. The song then spread to Seattle through KNDD, and KROQ-FM began playing the song on an almost hourly basis. By the time stations in New York were requesting copies of "Loser", Bong Load had already run out. Beck was soon beset with offers to sign with major labels. Convinced that the song was a potential hit, Rothrock gave a vinyl pressing of the single to his friend Tony Berg, who had been working in the A&R department for Geffen Records. Berg said, "I just lost my mind when I heard it. He left my office, and I swear, by the time he got home, I had left a message asking him to introduce me to [Beck]". Beck, in spite of his hesitance to be on any major label, signed with Geffen subsidiary DGC. He explained, "I wasn't going to do anything for a long time, but Bong Load didn't have the means to make as many copies as people wanted. Geffen were involved and they wanted to make it to more of an organized place, one with a bigger budget and better distribution."
In January 1994, DGC reissued "Loser" on CD and cassette, and Geffen began heavily promoting the single. Bong Load, having retained the rights to release Beck's songs on vinyl due to the nature of Beck's contract with DGC, re-pressed the 12" single in larger quantities than before. "Loser" quickly ascended the charts in the US, reaching a peak of number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and topping the Modern Rock Tracks chart. It was certified gold by the RIAA and sold 600,000 copies domestically. The song also charted in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe. "Loser"'s worldwide success shot Beck into a position of attention, and the media dubbed him the center of the new so-called "slacker" movement. Beck refuted this characterization of himself, saying, "Slacker my ass. I never had any slack. I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. That slacker stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything."
The single ranked first place in the 1994 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll. In 2004, this song was ranked number 203 in Rolling Stone's The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In September 2010 Pitchfork Media included the song at number 9 on their Top 200 Tracks of the 90s. In 2007 Vh1 ranked the song 22 on their list of the "100 greatest songs of the 90's".
In his Consumer Guide, Robert Christgau gave the single CD a one-star honorable mention (), picked out two songs, "Fume" and "Alcohol", and stated that it's Beck's "greatest hit, an album demo, and two-for-three prime odds and ends".
The experimental video for "Loser" was directed by Beck's friend Steve Hanft. Hanft had worked for a week on storyboards for the video, then called a meeting with Beck's label, Bong Load Records, and requested a $300 shooting budget so he could shoot on film instead of video. The unprocessed 16 mm film was frozen for 6 months until Beck signed with Geffen Records. Geffen gave Hanft $14,000 to process, edit, and master the video, making the budget total $14,300. Filming for the video was done all across California, including in Rothrock's Humboldt County studio and backyard and at the Santa Monica graveyard. The video is a mashup of various 16 mm film clips using avant-garde filmmaking techniques and psychedelic color experiments. Beck insisted they were "fucking around" when they made the video; he told Option in 1994, "We weren't making anything slick – it was deliberately crude. You know? It wasn't like one of these perfect new-wave color soft-focus extravaganzas." Hanft, inspired by D.I.Y. American avant-garde filmmakers, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and 1920s surrealist films, included stop-motion animation footage of a moving coffin in the video. Two coffins were used, one which was a prop borrowed from a local drama school and the other which had been built by Beck and Hanft. Clips and sounds sampled from Hanft's Cal Arts, MFA thesis film, "Kill the Moonlight", about a loser stock car racer, are also included in the video and song. The moment where Beck is wearing a Star Wars mask is often censored for copyright reasons. The work's only clip shot on video rather than film is the one depicting famous mountain dancer Jesco White wearing a white satin shirt and dancing on a picnic table. The clip was shot by director Julian Nitzberg and was added to the final cut on the last day of editing.
The music video for Beck's 2014 song "Heart Is a Drum" features characters from the "Loser" video, including the grim reaper, and another version of Beck in which he wears the white outfit from the "Loser" video. Also, two spacemen enter near the end of the "Heart Is a Drum" video as they ride away on the back of a pick up truck just as they do in the "Loser" video.
Formats and track listing
All songs by Beck, except where noted.
Bong Load 12" (BL5)
US CD (DGCDM-21930)
US 7" (DGCS 7-19270) and US cassette (DGCS-12270)
UK 7" (GFS 67) and UK cassette (GFSC 67)
UK CD (GFSTD 67) and Swedish CD (GED 21891)
Charts and certifications
- "Weird Al" Yankovic sampled the song as the opening of his polka medley "The Alternative Polka" from his 1996 album Bad Hair Day.
- Markoolio covered the song in Swedish translation, in a song named "Åka Pendeltåg", the lyrics of which detail how Markoolio, having failed to qualify for a driver's licence, has to keep riding the bullet train.
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