I was in the car with my brother, driving to KFC. I was, as I usually do, playing with the car stereo, skipping from station to station trying to find some reasonably good music. I hit a button and the familiar slide guitar at the beginning of “Loser” came through the speaker. And I thought to myself what the hell was that?
When loser was a hit, in 1994, it seemed like a such an incredibly cool song. It was the definition of cool. There was the dorky slide guitar, the underlying hip-hop beat, the lyrics that didn’t really mean anything and the glorious chorus peaking with “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me!”
For the nations of fashionably cynical teens, it was an anthem. I remember driving around with my friend singing along. Man, we were losers! Who cares about job, education, responsibility, we were losers so we didn’t have to care about that sort of “bullshit”.
How wrong can you be?
I think the turning point for me came when I saw Beck perform live. Surrounding me was a sea of alternative conformity. Doc Martens boots. Piercings. Goatees. It was everywhere and most of the audience was there for one man and one song.
A few much cooler people were there solely for the support band, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who really confused the audience who wanted to like them, but couldn’t yell and scream because the JSBX played continuously, with no breaks between songs.
Beck joined the JSBX for a song, which massively excited the audience, but it wasn’t Loser so it didn’t really matter.
When Beck finally got on everyone wanted him to play Loser, Loser Loser and for an encore, Loser. Unfortunately he played other songs, but the B-sides from the Loser single were recognised and screamed joyfully at.
Then Beck did something that really confused the alterna-gang. He sang a capella. At one part of the song, he paused and from the audience a guy yelled out “But you’re a loser!”. Beck stared straight ahead and sang “Have you seen the shit? It’s all here tonight”.
I just stood there wondering if anyone else was as amazed at what he’d just sung than I was.
He eventually played Loser and the crowd jumped along. But when it came to the chorus, he sang what sounded like “I’m a milky baby, so why don’t you kill me”. The crowd was pleased.
So back in the car with my brother, I was trying to work out what the song was all about. The lyrics didn’t mean anything: “Dog food skulls with the beefcake pantyhose”. At best it’s some sort of 1980’s reminisce, but in actuality it was meaning to its listeners.
The chorus starts with (according to a magazine article of the time) “Soy un perdidor”, Spanish for “I’m a loser”. Of course a lot of people had no idea what he was singing and various interpretations such as “So, I walked in the door” were sung by the alternoids.
The song has various samples. My favourite was “I’m a driver, I’m a winner, things are going to change, I can feel it”. It seemed like a message of hope, like all this cynical bullshit was going to end, but I realised otherwise when it was revealed that it was from a George Bush speech.
Then the song ended and I was left wondering just what the hell was going on in 1994 that made Loser such a hit. Fortunately whatever it was has gone away, taking with it the slacker attitude that went with it. Because if all the cool people are losers, then wouldn’t that make all the people who suck winners?