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Music

The Story Behind The Song: Beck and the crowning of the 'Loser' generation

@TylerGolsen

It was inescapable. There were T-shirts, buttons, patches, and hats. There were think pieces in major publications proclaiming a once-homeless folk musician the new voice of a generation. There was an unstoppable flood of promotion on MTV. There was a new record deal, and this time, it was from a label not named Bong Load. There were offers to license his music in Hollywood films and, at the centre of it all, was a man who wanted none of it.

At least not like this. Not as an emblematic figure of a new wave of burnouts and confused kids who made up Generation X. Not as a slacker. Despite composing one of the catchiest and most unique songs of the ’90s, Beck Hanson did not, in fact, want to be a loser.

Hanson had already lived a hell of a life by the time he was famous. He was born and raised in Los Angeles but spent time in New York, Kansas, and even Europe before eventually returning to California. He was raised culturally Jewish, but most of his close family were Scientologists. His first musical love was the blues, but he wound up listening to everything from flamenco to noise rock to golden age hip-hop. A high school dropout, Hanson would perform on street corners, coffee shops, or anywhere he could, taking menial jobs like yard maintenance or working in a pornographic video store.

All the while he was making demos. As DIY as humanly possible, Hanson’s recorded work was dirty, disturbing, and largely improvised, something that owed as much to the immediacy of his live performances as it did to his love of the absurd. Hanson would go to gigs wearing costumes and would incorporate fire shows or breakdancing into his performances. All the while, he would make up song lyrics just to try and get anybody’s attention or see if anyone cared. For the better part of seven years, nobody did.

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But his cassettes eventually made their way around the underground scenes of Los Angeles, and Hanson went to the house of Rap-A-Lot Records producer Carl Stephenson to see if they could collaborate on a song. Stephenson didn’t know what to make of the material Hanson showed him: a bizarre blend of folk and rock with rapping over the top. But Stephenson liked one thing: a slide guitar riff that Hanson had. He paired it with a looped drum break, added some of his own samples, and presented it to Hanson. The singer was inspired, and decided to emulate Public Enemy’s Chuck D. The results didn’t go well.

“When he played it back, I thought, ‘Man, I’m the worst rapper in the world, I’m just a loser,'” Hanson recalled in 2000. “So I started singing ‘I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me.'” The nonsense verses now had a hook, complimented by the Spanish-speaking chorus, and the entire song was finished in one day. With some additional production work done by Bong Load producer Tom Rothrock, ‘Loser’ was primed for release as a single, with pressings limited to just 500 records.

It took another full year of bubbling under the radar for Hanson to get noticed. Through some solid promotion on west coast college rock radio, ‘Loser’ began selling faster than Bong Load could print new copies. After seven years of indifference, Beck Hanson was an overnight success. But when ‘Loser’ began to take off, Hanson quickly found himself cast in a role that he didn’t want to play. Over half a decade of low paying jobs, awful living situations, and constant gigs became irrelevant: Hanson was now the guy who sang about plastic eyeballs, spray painting vegetables, and termites choking on splinters. To anyone who heard the song, he was a slacker.

“Slacker my ass. I never had any slack,” Hanson shot back during his 1995 Rolling Stone interview. “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.” Hanson never intended to make a statement or define a generation. He was just singing nonsense and commenting on his own skills as a rapper. He had no expectation that anyone would hear ‘Loser’. But there it was, having its inane lyrics dissected by hordes of teenagers who were desperate for a new alt rock leader. Just one month after DGC Records released Mellow Gold, Hanson’s label mate Kurt Cobain took his own life. There was a cultural gap to fill, and Hanson was quickly being crowned the king of the losers.

Hanson anticipated a swift backlash against ‘Loser’, and so he did everything he could to rally against it. He played the song as an unrecognisable and constantly-evolving piss take against his own audience. No one ever knew whether the song would be a spoken word tirade, a reggae sendup, or a cacophonous experiential noise piece with completely new lyrics. Hanson spent almost the entirety of 1995 holed up in Los Angeles studios with The Dust Brothers to make something far more dense and purposeful than the material on Mellow Gold. When Odelay finally saw the light of day in 1996, enough time had passed that the public were now willing to see Hanson as more than just the ‘Loser’ guy.

Instead, the next two decades were filled with wildly oscillating excursions in funk, folk, rock, rap, and pop. But ‘Loser’ was never that far away. Hanson never stopped playing the song in concert, even when he had fully removed himself from the “one-hit wonder” status it initially cast him in. He kept evolving, but the bitterness and defensive response to ‘Loser’ faded as soon as Hanson could find success without it.

Instead, it because a celebration and a frequent reference point for Hanson to revisit his earliest days of success. It took a lot of hard work, but Beck managed to outwork ‘Loser’ without ever truly leaving it behind. It became a defining anthem without ever truly defining Hanson himself. When all the T-Shirts and buttons and patches and hats fell into the second-hand bin, Hanson was already five steps ahead, ever to show just how talented this ‘Loser’ could be.

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