If you've spent any time in the past few months listening to rock radio or watching MTV, odds are you're familiar with the refrain. "Soy un perdidor," sings a ragged male voice as a bottle-neck guitar whines over a funky drum loop. "I'm a loser baby/So why don't you kill me?"
It's called "Loser," and its success has surprised no one more than the man who sings it.
"I thought that maybe the song would do well," says Beck, a 23-year-old former street musician. "We took so long in getting the song out that I thought its time had probably passed. It seems like a lot of people have sort of made that statement, the whole joke of self-deprecation and stuff, you know? It's wearing thin. So I thought that it would just kind of come and go. But it just keeps going."
Does it ever. Released independently last summer, "Loser" made quite a buzz on the alternative rock circuit, making its way from tiny college rock stations to massive commercial outlets like KROQ in Los Angeles. By February, Beck -- by then signed to Geffen's DGC label -- had an EP out and a video on MTV. Now, the single even turns on pop radio stations and has spent the past three weeks in Billboard's Top 20.
Why has the song caught on so? Obviously, some of it has to do with Beck's anti-hero wit, but mostly it's the single's sound that does it.
An unlikely agglomeration of styles, "Loser" takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, drawing on everything from folk music to funk to cheesy '70s pop. It might be described as a sort of hip-hop skiffle, though Beck suggests that it's "a combination of skiffle and whiffle."
As the singer explains it, his whole sound came about by accident. "I'd been playing acoustic and making home tapes," he says over the phone from a tour stop in New Orleans. "When I started recording at my friend's house, there were so many [musical] toys laying around and so many different sounds and so many options, I just sort of went crazy.
"I guess we figured, 'Why hold ourselves back?' So we just threw in all kinds of stuff. Like we wanted some songs to sound more reptilian, so we sampled a cat purring and used that as the bass line. Things like that. We were just experimenting, trying to make different sounds."
That offhand, experimental quality explains much of the music's charm. But the lyrics -- particularly the deadpan non sequiturs Beck sprinkles through the rap-like verses -- are something else again. What's the significance of a line like "drive-by body pierce"?
"That's one of the random things that are in there to just fill up the space," the singer cheerily admits. "We recorded the whole song in one night, and most of it was just thrown in there as temporary -- I was going to come back and put something real there.
"But then I didn't see the guy for a year after we did the song. So, after a year, we just said: 'Oh, well. Let's just leave it like it is.' "
For all his low-key good humor, Beck does bristle when it comes to the S-word. Some reviewers and radio folk have described "Loser" as a sort of "slacker anthem," but Beck wants no part of that label.
"It's funny, because the song had been around for a year and a half before I even thought of that," says Beck of the S-reference. "I didn't even make the connection that they would say, 'Oh, slacker.' I just thought it was a blues song.
"Then I heard it on the radio, and somebody said, 'And here's the slacker song, blah-blah.' And the light bulb went off over my head. I thought, 'Oh, no!'
"I guess it's inevitable," he adds. "But I think the whole slacker thing is kind of a waste of time. 'Cause anything that hypes or glorifies apathy is kind of a stupid thing to be associated with. To me, it's just depressing. It ghettoizes the whole song and all the music. It's just a cheap category.
"Besides, it's more delta blues than slacker. Hopefully, there's, like, a little bit more intelligence coming through, you know?"
To hear excerpts of Beck's album, "Mellow Gold," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6199 after you hear the greeting.