Welcome to Two for Tuesday, an ongoing bi-weekly series where Consequence of Sound’s Henry Hauser will take two ”unlikely pairs” in music and compare, contrast, juxtapose, and evaluate the commonalities between both parties. Last time, he charted the shared craziness of Heart and Gnarls Barkley, and this week he’s finding the shared loserdom between The Beatles and Beck.
Self-mockery has always been an important part of rock music. It turns out that exposing your flaws and faults to the world can be surprisingly satisfying. Drawing on the defeatist fatalism that’s inherent to the blues, musicians debase themselves to reveal cluelessness, inadequacy, and ineptitude. Artists from The Beatles (I’m a Loser”) to Beck (“Loser”) have self-identified as “losers”, chastising themselves for failing to make the grade or letting someone special walk out of their lives. For The Beatles, being a loser is about having it all and then watching it slip away. But Beck’s definition is even harsher; his loser is a wretched pariah that’s never won anything worth losing in the first place.
“I’m A Loser” is a cautionary tale about the hubris of believing an average bloke can land that elusive “girl in a million.” Though John Lennon hides behind a mask of joviality, deep down he’s painfully lachrymose because his baby has abandoned him. What’s worse, he doesn’t even know why. Lennon’s bluesy harmonica and George Harrison’s twangy country finger picking segue into the track’s final chorus, as an exquisite Lennon/McCartney harmony channels the spurned lover’s feelings of desolation and loneliness, “Imma looooooozah/ And I lost someone that’s deeeeah ta me!”
Though Beck’s “Loser” was spontaneously written and recorded in a single six-and-a-half hour session (!), the song’s concept sprung from his days as a vagabond NYC musician back in the late ‘80s. Confronted with aloof and indifferent coffeehouse audiences, Beck would tap satirical, joking ditties to determine whether anyone was actually listening. According to the eclectic troubadour, these jocular exercises, along with personal inadequacies about his rapping prowess, inspired his breakthrough single, “Loser”.
Leading with a bluesy slide guitar, Beck immediately establishes an inability to fit in with his peers (“In the time of chimpanzees/ I was a monkey”). He’s totally incapable of jiving with his community; they’re a different species altogether. Amidst a barrage of free associative lyrics that border on nonsensical (“get crazy with the cheese wiz!”), the singer decries his lowly existence while wondering why he’s even allowed to go on living. With a bilingual flourish, Beck moans, “Soy un perdedor/ I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Between choking on splinters, hoarding food stamps, and shaving his “face with some mace in the dark,” the singer has absolutely nothing to feel good about. He’s a loser. Always has been, always will be.
For The Beatles, losers are akin to “has-beens.” They’re those poor folks that had something great before it was cruelly snatched away. Beck’s loser is an ostensible “never-was”; a pathetic shell who can’t ever seem to get it right. Of these two kinds of losers, Beck’s is clearly the most piteous. For as the great poet laureate Tennyson once wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost…” than to have just been a loser your entire life.