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 forRap-A-Lot Records.
“Loser” was written and recorded while Beck 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 ownsitar 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
Despite being primarily regarded as an alternative rock song, “Loser” is influenced by blues, hip hop, and folk. 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. “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 aJohnny 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, “Loser”‘s lyrics are mostly surrealistic and 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. However, 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 twentysomethingtrademark, 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 “Loser”‘s 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 “Loser”‘s release 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.”
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 Bong Load and requested a $300 budget. Filming for the video was done in Humboldt County, California, including at Rothrock’s home and backyard. The video is a mashup of various home videos 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 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.
“Loser” ranked sixth in the music video category in the 1994 Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll.