Until the moment Kanye did Kanye and made the Grammys about Kanye, it seemed the question to be answered the following morning was “Who is Beck?” In the moments following Beck’s record of the year win for Morning Phase, Twitter predictably lit up with a number of tweets asking exactly this question. One assumes those pondering this unheard-of artist were of the younger cohort, so it hardly seems worth deriding them. After all, Beck’s height of fame came somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago, and the last time he had anything near what you might call a hit on the radio was probably July, 1996, with “Where It’s At”, the first single from Odelay.
But if we were to explain to one of these Twitter users who Beck is and how it is a lot of people do know who he is, we’d have to start with “Loser”, Beck’s first major single. And if we have to explain what “Loser” is (or was), then we’d have to play “Loser”. And when you play “Loser” now, an entirely different question arises: If it had been released in 2014, would “Loser” have been a hit? More specifically, would it have the same cultural impact?
To be fair, in 1993, a lot of people might have wondered the same thing when they first heard “Loser”. It was a bit of a weird one, almost an artistic mistake. (And in the early going, it wasn’t even something anyone could buy – initially, there were only 500 copies of “Loser” to go around.) A year later, after “Loser” had become a sales hit, Spin magazine explained how it came to be:
“Goofing around with some songs over at [producer Karl] Stephenson’s house, Beck laid down some slide guitar which Stephenson recorded, looped, and set to a hip-hop beat. Beck wrote some lyrics on the spot and got on the mike trying to deliver a Chuck D-style rap.”
And that was that, really. Beck, who had until meeting Stephenson and producer Tom Rothrock, been living in L.A. as a struggling folk artist, begging for time on stage. Nobody in L.A. at the time cared much for his offbeat folk/hip-hop thing, and probably wondered why he occasionally brought a leaf blower on stage. It was a far cry from glam rock.
There are two ways to explain the fame Beck earned from “Loser” – or, at least, there are probably two contributing factors.
The indie kids who heard it on their local indie station fell in love with it, and that initial buzz was expanded exponentially when someone at MTV had the good idea to put the video for “Loser” on television, a move Chuck Klosterman once described as probably “the greatest thing MTV ever did for anyone.” “Loser” celebrated the self-deprecation of Generation X, put it to a beat that would have been at home on License to Ill, and came from the mouth of some kid in a thrift store t-shirt. It was cool. There was a knowingness to “Loser” that appealed to a generation who had by that time already been dismissed as a “slacker generation”, thanks in part to a poor interpretation of the alternative mega-hit that landed two years earlier, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and all the grunge stuff that happened after that.
This was the second thing that helped make Beck famous, despite his attempts to eschew the attention. Some people (read: squares) believed it was indicative of something completely opposite to what it was actually about (which was nothing). “I was up in Olympia, Wash., and someone called up and said they were going to premiere the video,” Beck told Rolling Stone in 1994. “The guy on the air was talking about all this slacker stuff, saying that ‘Loser’ was like some slacker anthem or something. I was like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Turn off the TV.’ I was like, ‘Slacker my ass.’” He went on to explain that he’d been working for $4 an hour “just to stay alive,” and “that slacker kind of stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything.”
Still, looking back now, it’s not entirely surprising that some people thought of Beck as a “slacker”. This interview with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, from 1994, for instance, is totally amazing for a lot of reasons, but primarily because, watched the wrong way, it genuinely feels like neither Beck nor Moore care at all that they’re on television – or have any desire to do anything at all, let alone the interview.
“Loser” appeared on Beck’s first album for Geffen, Mellow Gold, which went on to sell over a million copies.
To compare the context in which “Loser” first appeared to today is difficult, if not impossible. For one, in 1994, when “Loser” became a serious hit on MTV and elsewhere, there was already plenty of fertile alternative rock ground in which it could grow. There was an audience waiting for something new.
(By 1994, ‘grunge’ – or whatever fell into that ever-broadening category – had essentially hit its peak, but there was still a market for alternative music, and critics still liked it. Still, by the end of the year, Kurt Cobain would be dead, Vitalogy would mark the end of the Seattle scene, and the rock world was about to start being controlled by bands like Live, Bush, Green Day and others, from where it would be handed over to the likes of Sugar Ray, Staind, Semisonic, and Creed, before finally doing everyone a favour and self-immolating while surrendering the radio waves to a young Max Martin, and not fully rising from its own ashes until about 2001, when it experienced a short revival.)
And yet, despite the broader popular appetite for alt-rock in 1994, the charts at the end of the year looked a lot like they do now: dominated by pop hits. Ace of Base’s “The Sign”, finished first overall on the charts. “I Swear” by All-4-One, was the second best selling single, and “I’ll Make Love To You” by Boyz II Men was third. The closest thing to a rock song in the top ten at the end of 1994 was Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)”. Next in line, down in 15th spot, was John Mellencamp’s “Wild Night” (Does anyone remember this song? I do not remember this song). Despite making a lot of waves and sparking conversation, Beck’s “Loser” finished 1994 at 50th place on the singles charts.
The big difference between now and then was MTV. And perhaps that can’t be overstated in terms of generating a hit. If it were still the presence now that it was in the U.S. at that point, the question of whether “Loser” could be a hit in 2014 might be settled. Maybe it would be a hit because MTV would make it one. But that’s assuming a lot (too much, even for this bizarre road we’re on). Perhaps we can assume Vevo is today’s equivalent, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
But anyway, we’re not comparing hits, necessarily. We’re talking about cultural impact. And for that, sales don’t really matter.
So what was everyone talking about in 2014? Predominantly: Shaking it off; the bass; anacondas; breaking free; and being fancy. And, broadly speaking, what sort of conversation did these songs produce? There was much discussion about self-empowerment.
Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” ended the year at eighth spot on the to 100 chart. She sold it as a “song about loving your body… and your booty.” (There was much discussion in various places about how, despite Trainor trying to make a body-positive song, she ultimately failed thanks to a line about “skinny bitches”, but whether this was enough to dent the wide acceptance of her apparent alleged intent is unlikely.) This was kind of the same thing we were all talking about when Nicki Minaj released “Anaconda” – which experienced the same kind of backlash – though perhaps her expressed sentiment was slightly more extreme. (Minaj: “He keep telling me it’s real, that he love my sex appeal”, “Yeah, he love this fat ass”, “This one is for my bitches with a fat ass in the fucking club,” “I got a big fat ass”, annnnd so forth.)
Next, of course, is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” – a song in which she literally dismisses the “haters” (“Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate”) and tells everyone that: “I’m lightning on my feet/ That’s what they don’t see.” In some spots, the song was touted as “one of the best songs for teenagers to be listening to,” thanks to its message that you can “’be who you are, and don’t let the haters get you down’.”
For her part, Iggy Azalea played to a more rote sense of self-importance. “So get my money on time, if they not money, decline/ I just can’t worry ‘bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind.”
And finally, I’ll just put these three words here: “Let It Go”.
Anyway, none of this is to necessarily pick on 2014, because everything in these songs is part of a longer trend in pop and hip hop music – one that started roughly around the same time alternative rock (and rock generally) was on the wane in the late 1990s. If there’s been an uptick of late, perhaps we can trace it back, as the New York Times suggests, to Katy Perry’s “Firework”. But I’d be willing to bet there are plenty more examples going back even further.
The point here is that all these songs are somewhat unlike the hits at the top of the charts at the end of 1994, which were mostly about loving someone else, not yourself.
But it’s not so much that songs have recently been obsessed with individualism; it’s that they have been devoid of any discernable sense of irony.
If there is anything about our culture these days, it’s that it is not ironic. Not only are we a supremely serious group at the moment, but earnestly so.
Ultimately, this is what would probably doom “Loser”. Sure, it was misunderstood at the time by some, but those who were supposed to like it, loved it. They understood the humour, enjoyed the triviality of the entire thing. Where are these songs now? These days, there’s no irony in pop music. Everything carries a message, and there are endless diatribes produced about whether that message is the right one or the wrong one, or whether the overall intent was correct, but the execution incorrect. The closest we came in 2014 to knowing humour was Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”, and even then, that song was also about shaking off the haters.
Everyone is so po-faced. Those terrible rote entertainment television interviews haven’t changed, but nobody’s joking about it anymore. Nobody’s throwing their boot. Were it released now, the reaction to “Loser” might be worse than categorizing it as a ‘slacker’ anthem; it might spawn a series of think pieces on self-esteem and whether Beck was really speaking to victims or simply making their situation worse. We would ruin it.
“Loser” would fail because everyone is too fucking literal.
Kids these days.