Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
I come to bury Weezer, not to praise them…
Last week, in an interview with MTV, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo did everything short of signing the death certificate for his band, saying that “for the moment, we are done” and that “I’m not certain we’ll ever make a record again, unless it becomes really obvious that we need to do one.” Now, there’s a good chance that Cuomo is full of shit, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. After all, Cuomo has spent the last six years digging Weezer’s grave. So a few fanboys cried, hundreds of sarcastic music nerds denied they ever enjoyed their music in the first place and one of the defining bands of the 1990s met a rather unceremonious end.
Now, this really shouldn’t be that surprising – very few bands have the pleasure or luxury of a ceremonious end. More often than not their splits are untimely, awkward or just plain ugly. But at least these bring some drama to the table. Weezer’s demise brings to mind the most tragic of questions: what if a band died and no one came to the funeral? Neil was right: it truly is better to burn out than to fade away.
As usual, I’m being overly dramatic. There is still a lot of love for Weezer among my peers, and the fact that I’m even spending my time writing about them probably unmasks that I too was once a fan. In fact, there was a point circa 2000 when they would have broken my Top-5 favourite bands. The very first time I had the guts to play live in front of an audience of strangers, I used a Weezer song as a crutch, an easy crowd-pleaser (“El Scorcho,” for the record).
If Weezer had never reappeared from their late-90s hiatus, we would look back upon them as two-album wonders, standing alongside alongside Green Day as bands that masterfully that spun the 1990s alternative-grunge revolution into pop music bliss (not unlike Elvis Costello and Blondie did with the 1970s punk movement). With a little help from Spike Jonze, the Blue Album became the soundtrack for the Echo Boom generation for a couple of years. I was musically illiterate when it first came out, only discovering the album when it had been reduced to bargain-bin pricing at big-box retail stores across the nation, but even in the late nineties or into the zeros, the Blue Album still holds up remarkably well, from the rock-solid pop of “Surf Wax America” to the album’s most epic moment, the cool-down and buildup that close the album with “Only in Dreams.”.
For me, though, it was all about Pinkerton, even though criticism and praise of the album gives too much attention the confessional-style lyrics instead of the equally-raw music that supports them. For me, the album is defined by the keyboard/guitar riff that opens “Tired of Sex,” far more honest and vicious than the song’s lyrics could ever dream to be. Yes, The Blue Album is also a raw album, but not quite in the same way. Pinkerton is start-to-finish a brutal album, and although it has probably inspired hundreds of whiny emo kids to cry their feelings out into microphones, they without exception lack the wit, charm and wonder that Weezer were able to find.
It also was a commercial and critical failure upon its release. Which is perhaps what led Rivers Cuomo down the tragic path towards irrelevance.
Saying that Weezer’s last three albums suck has become a bit of a nerd cliché, not unlike bitching about the Star Wars prequels or the last two Matrix movies. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel (if nerds could safely use weapons…actually, given their extensive video game training something tells me that the average household nerd would actually make a damn good shot). Now, I will actually defend the Green Album to an extent – it succeeds at being a fluffy pop album rather well, it has a couple of band’s catchiest songs, and I’m kind of nostalgic for its role in my last few months of high school. But you can take Maladroit and Make Believe. Heck, I only have Make Believe because I won it from a newspaper contest, and the album’s best song is a half-baked Cure ripoff.
Many hardcore fans attribute the decline in the band’s music to the departure in the late nineties by bassist Matt Sharpe, who by all appearances was the source of both the high-pitched backing vocals and dramatic loud-soft shifts that were such a big part of the band’s first two albums (I’ve taken to calling these fans “Sharpies”). But it’s easy to blame the guy who leaves, and much harder to attack the guy who made the band great in the first place. By all accounts, Weezer in its zeros incarnation was even more of a totalitarian regime than in its nineties one. Rivers Cuomo was Weezer, no bones about it. He wrote the songs, he picked the songs, he assigned the parts, he managed the band, and he lost complete track of what defines great pop music.
In May 2002, upon the release of Maladriot, Cuomo spoke to Rolling Stone magazine about his “Encyclopedia of Pop”:
A few years ago, he started keeping a notebook of every song Kurt Cobain wrote. In it, he dissected the songs in as mathematical a manner as he could. “He figured if he could home in on Kurt’s formula, he’d figure out his own formula,” says Todd Sullivan, Weezer’s A&R man. “That way, he would be a never-ending supply of songs.”
“It wasn’t only Nirvana,” Cuomo says, “but also Oasis and Green Day.” He still keeps a three-ring binder he calls “The Encyclopedia of Pop,” full of his analysis of different artists. “I’m probably just a natural-born scientist. I like taking notes and analyzing things.”
(read the full article here)
It reminded me of an interview on Muchmusic years back with Tal Bachman, son of Guess Who guitarist Randy Bachman and an official one-hit wonder with “She’s So High.” (Confession time: I actually own Tal’s self-titled album, which I bought purely based on the fact that “She’s So High” completely described my crush on this girl in school at the time…sadly, that wasn’t the last time I let irrational teenage emotions determine my purchasing decisions.) He was trying to explain to the VJ interviewing him how there is a formula to the pop song to follow: you need to get to the hook within 10 seconds, the chorus within 30, something like that. I remember being put off by his comments immediately, just as Cuomo’s quest to dissect the pop song did a couple of years later.
The funny thing is, both of them were both right and horribly, horribly wrong at the same time. Yes, at the heart of pop music is its structure – the hook, the verse, the chorus, the bridge (which has thankfully been rescued from pop oblivion by Kelly Clarkson and her handlers). It’s not unlike shampoo in that way: lather, rise, repeat.
But the SOUL of a pop song lies in the moments where it transcends calculation, in those moments where it feels spontaneous, tossed-off or entirely natural. Sometimes it can be an outright mistake, like an untimely laugh or misplaced piano tone. Or it can be a vocal performance that is clearly about ready to fall apart but miraculously holds on until the end of the song. Or it’s a guitar riff where the fuzz on the pedals can be heard more clearly than the actual notes being played. I could go through my iTunes playlist and pick out hundreds of these moments, but this post is getting long enough as it is.
I’m not saying that all pop music should be lo-fi, or that all music should be recorded right off the floor like in the “good ol’ days” (heck, modern hip-hop is one of the most crafted genres of music today and even it has found ways to sound fresh and interesting). My point is that great pop music thrives and survives on the tension between order and chaos, between craft and circumstance. When song becomes science, when it chooses calculation to the loss of spontaneity, it loses its passion, its soul and, worst of all, its ability to connect with an audience. On some level, pop songs need to feel like they are being played for the first time, a special performance written and performed especially for the listener to soundtrack that very moment in their life.
That’s why even in this age of digital music available for free at our fingertips people will still pay obscene amounts of money on live music: because even though the songs at their core feature the same melody/lyric/rhythm you know, the execution is entirely new and completely unpredictable. Sure, pop music that falls too far towards chaos in any setting, live or otherwise, becomes unlistenable (i.e. most jam bands), but a song that chooses soul-sucking science is, in many ways, much worse.
Rivers Cuomo chose science. He chose to spend the last six years crafting picture-perfect pop songs, meticulously crafted clearly out of love but completely lacking in passion. The Green Album, Maladriot and Make Believe are not bad albums, just soulless ones. Sure, they produced a few radio singles and probably made the band a good chunk of money. But along the way they lost those fans who truly loved Weezer in the first place. Because we fall in love with the pitfalls as much as we do with the perfections, be it in pop music or otherwise.