Being a loser isn’t what it used to be. Just ask Beck Hansen, Generation X’s latest Pied Piper. On the strength of ”Loser,” his rap/folk/blues ode to disenfranchisement, he has, much to his own dazed bemusement, become a pop star without even trying. With his incoherent ramblings about Pop-Tarts and Star Wars, he’s an unlikely candidate for stardom in the land of the savvy sound bite. But that’s exactly what appeals to his target audience, those most desirable and much-diagnosed Xers. One fan at a recent Beck show in Houston summed it up: ”He’s just a kid who wrote a song that makes no sense at all, then he made a video that looks like it was done in his backyard, and he probably didn’t even think it would get on MTV, but it did, and now he’s making a bunch of money. It’s pretty funny.”
The L.A.-based Beck, 23, is the first to suggest that his meteoric rise is a fluke. But that fluke had Geffen Records muscle behind it, even if the muscle wasn’t flexed very hard. The label was one of three majors that heavily courted Beck after ”Loser,” released by the indie label Bong Load in March 1993, became a surprise radio hit in L.A. What made mainstream-shy Beck sign with Geffen? The astonishing freedom they offered: a nonexclusive contract, which allows him to continue to release songs through small indies like Bong Load, and little creative interference — basically, he writes the songs and Geffen presses them. ”Ours wasn’t even the biggest offer,” says a Geffen staffer. ”For Beck, it wasn’t about money, it was about freedoms.”
Equally appealing to slacker Beck was Geffen’s laissez-faire approach to promotion. ”There is no plan, that’s the plan,” says Beck of Geffen’s marketing strategy for his just-released debut CD, Mellow Gold. ”It’s just not taking it too serious, it’s just music. For me, it’s (always been) make a tape for a friend to listen to. Now I get to put it out as a whole record.” A record that entered Billboard‘s pop charts at No. 15, a remarkable feat for a debut with little more than street buzz behind it.
Jason Linn, the national college marketing coordinator at Atlantic Records, agrees it’s all in the hands-off approach. ”Geffen’s letting the music speak for and sell itself, which compliments Beck’s unpretentious, goofy, and take-it-or-leave-it music. Kids can sense bulls— a mile away-a hard sell would repel the audience they’re after.”
Of course, as with any Next Big Thing, there is the inevitable backlash — skeptics who see Beck as a self-indulgent fake and the latest marketing opportunity. ”East Coast critics are pissed off because they had nothing to do with it,” says Beastie Boy and Beck fan Mike D. ”It’s only once in, like, every couple of years that somebody’s gonna make something in a home studio and it somehow becomes a hit. Whenever that happens, it’s a pretty beautiful thing.”