When NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast ran a special 1990s episode last year, they chose Beck’s ‘Loser’ as the most nineties song of all. And I couldn’t argue with that too much. It has the slacker vibe that was prevalent in the early years of that decade, and that chorus of “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me” became a sort of defiant anthem for indie kids of the time. My wife, as one of the few alternative kids in her school, even had it sung at her as an insult.
In another way though, it’s not representative of the 1990s at all, because it’s like nothing else from that era (or since). A weird shuffling number with bizarre, disconnected lyrics (“In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey” has got to be one of the best opening lines of all time) , it’s influenced as much by blues and hip-hop as the indie or grunge of its’ era.
Does it still sound good today?
Absolutely. Whilst some of my appreciation of the song is bound up in nostalgia, remembering listening to it on cassette single in my teenage bedroom, it stands up well in its’ own right. It was one of those songs whose strangeness really hits you when you first hear it, but its’ unique qualities are also the reason it doesn’t sound dated. Loser could just have easily been released in 2014 as 1994, and not sounded out of place.
What happened next?
By 2001 TV show Futurama was claiming that Beck “transcends genres even as he re-invents them”. Whilst that may be a bit of an exaggeration, there’s an element of truth to it, with every album being very different from the last, from the Prince influenced ‘Midnite Vultures’ to the hushed, folky ‘Sea Change’. As recently as 2015, well over twenty years into his career, he surprised with perhaps his poppiest ever track ‘Dreams’.
Beck has always been critically acclaimed, but I’ve have the sense that he is appreciated more than loved by most music fans. I don’t imagine he’s many people’s favourite musician (although if he’s yours let me know, as I’m bound to be wrong), but equally I’ve never heard anyone say “You know whose music I really hate? Beck.”
I’m glad Beck is still around, making good albums, even if I rarely get round to buying them. But I’d be rather surprised if he ever releases another song whose lyrics I can still remember word for word twenty years, as I can with Loser.
One last note, Beck is almost certainly the only person who will appear in this series who is also a Scientologist.