Friday, December 23, 2011

90's Hit Parade #4

Beck - Loser

Every once in a great while, a song comes along that captures the zeitgeist so perfectly that it is almost inseparable from its time. Like "Loser." Nirvana (or whomever you want to give the credit to) created this weird little window where, for a few years, you could have a major hit with just about any chunk of lo-fi strangeness, and there was Beck, the right guy in the right place at the right moment.

Everyone knew someone like Beck. If you lived somewhere like Athens, GA or Austin, TX, you probably knew several of him: a hipster/stoner/space cadet who spoke in Da-Da gibberish and pop-culture references, collected obscure records and was determined to be famous, or at least creative, despite an apparent lack of talent. Come to think of it, I think I just described myself at that time. He could have stepped out of Richard Linklatter's film Slacker, or maybe out of the pages of Douglas Coupland's Generation X (not sure, never actually read it), and the title of his hit song was taken from t-shirts distributed by SubPop, the Seattle-based label that Nirvana and Mudhoney were signed to. This one song seemed to boil down that moment of pop-culture and slacker subculture merging together into one three-minute art movement.

The thing about "Loser" is that it was taken, almost universally, as a novelty song. Nobody expected to ever hear from this guy again. Like I said, we could all picture this hipster pothead recording this song on his 4-track, and it seemed like he just got lucky, came up with one demo that just FIT in that moment. Listening to Mellow Gold didn't do much to change that perception. There were some decent songs on there (I especially like "Soul Sucking Jerk"), but no real evidence that the guy had anywhere to go from there. Certainly, nobody saw Odelay coming. But we'll get to that in a minute.

The thing I find most notable about "Loser" is that it's the first song I can think of that features a white guy rapping, who is neither (a) making any attempt to sound "authentic" (ie, black), nor (b) making a joke out of the fact that he doesn't sound black. He's just Beck, doing what Beck does. This may have to do with his age (only two years younger than me, but perhaps two important years?), young enough to have grown up listening to rap, to have internalized it and to consider it just another element to include in his music.

Bonus Beat:

A few words about Odelay...

Once, back in the 90's, a friend told me that the first time he heard Rage Against the Machine, he thought "Yes! This is exactly what I've been waiting to hear!" I had a similar reaction the first time I heard Mudhoney. I was hearing on vinyl a sound that I had been hearing in my head for years, as if I had wished the band into existence. On the opposite end of the spectrum are bands like Sonic Youth and The Minutemen (Captain Beefheart is another example), whose sounds were so alien that they took me a while to adjust to. In fact, it took me the better part of a decade before I could completely "grok" either band.

Odelay is somewhere in between those two extremes. Around 1995-96, I had the feeling that music had to go somewhere else, that things were getting played out. I wanted someone to build on the experiments the Beastie Boys had done on their recent albums (I do believe the Beasties are a primary touchstone for understanding Beck), but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what that would sound like. When I heard Odelay for the first time, I immediately recognized it as the fulfillment of that wish. Beck and the Dust Brothers had cracked the riddle. And remember, NOBODY expected this. At least, I certainly didn't expect much more than a maybe-entertaining record. Come to think of it, I remember feeling the same way about the Beastie Boys. I was actually pissed that they were recording a second album! And, come to think of it, it was the Dust Brothers who helped them pull it off. But I digress.

I'm adding this bit because Odelay is one of my favorite albums of the decade, but I didn't include any songs from it on my list. The songs work better when taken together. But if I had to single one out, I'd probably go with "Novacane." As a piece of music, it's probably the highlight of the album, with Beck in full-on rapper mode and the band/producers delivering funky breaks of every sort behind him. The lyrics seem to describe some weird, lost 70's exploitation film about a convoy of genetically-modified truck drivers ("chromosome cowboys") on a secret government mission or something. It doesn't make sense, but you could kind of imagine it existing, especially if you grew up watching weird 70's movies when your brain wasn't quite old enough to process them. In other words, it's totally Beck.


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