[13 October 2010]
That the quality of Weezer’s musical production has been in steady decline since the 1996 release of Pinkerton has been fairly well established. The Quorum of Pre-teen Girls that make up the band’s current fan base may have different things to say about it, but to more critical ears, or even just those who happen to enjoy loud music and ‘90s nostalgia, Weezer’s segue into the pop mainstream has been deeply disappointing.
However, in some ways, the pop cultural cluelessness represented in Weezer’s post-Pinkerton work speaks loudly for the authenticity of its contribution to the greater nerd aesthetic. The band’s late musical awkwardness draws interesting parallels to the social awkwardness of nerds everywhere, and as nerd-dom itself has undergone unsettling changes in the last ten years, similar changes in Weezer’s music somewhat validates its original positioning within that tradition. Weezer fans’ disappointment with the group’s recent albums may have less to do with how the band has changed than with how nerds everywhere have changed, Rivers Cuomo included. Even if Weezer’s newer music has no value in its own right, it may somewhat authenticate one particularly culturally important aspect of their first two albums, even solidify their rightful place with other nerd-friendly bands like Devo and They Might Be Giants.
The word “nerd” has meant various things at various times. A baseline definition of “one who is socially outcast” has endured through all versions, though more recent iterations include opportunities to chase pop cultural references with backhanded self-aggrandizement, i.e. “I prefer Monty Python’s earlier stuff…Sorry, I’m such a comedy nerd…” Likewise, in its purest form, the word has never necessarily meant “someone smart”, IQ and social awkwardness having a relationship more of correlation than causation. Nerd pathology has more to do with social deficiency than a mastery of any particular skill; a person could very easily have no friends and not be particularly good at anything. Back before one could call oneself a nerd and mean it only as an expression of self hatred, when “nerd” was a much harsher thing to be called, those unlucky few with no friends and no talents seemed most representative of the name.
Yet sometime around the early ‘90s, just around when Weezer released “The Blue Album” to critical and popular acclaim, the tide seemed to turn for the classical nerd. Here was a band made up of unabashedly weird people—and not “art weird”, either—enjoying popularity because of their withered, bespectacled appearance rather than in spite of it. The nerd aesthetic was one of several cultural enclaves vying to cast off cultural norms. Somewhat distinct from indie, which promulgated coolness based on low production value, and which was more parallel to the social designation of “slacker”, nerd aesthetic reveled in social awkwardness via extreme enthusiasm for low-brow pop cultural media, such as heavy metal or hip hop. Nerds of this time were at once more cerebral and less culturally-conscious than indie rock kids; where the indie aesthetic perhaps preferred Thin White Duke-era Bowie, nerds identified with the science fiction underpinnings of Ziggy Stardust.
Then with the advent of the Internet, a nerd schism occurred between those social outcasts who found communities online and those who were either unable or uninterested in doing so. While the internet-savvy “new nerd” found new venues to socialize, the “classical nerd” stood his ground firmly if awkwardly, still fitting in nowhere. And it seems that Weezer has been absorbed into this first group, that of the “new nerd”, with all its easy and shallowly-realized confidence. When at one time Weezer sang about heartache and frustration, its later efforts are focused around assertions of ego that seem tailor-made for the Internet age (see “I’m Your Daddy” and “Troublemaker” from the “Red Album”). It’s as if the band’s entire aesthetic has been completely absorbed by a goofy cast-off song like “El Scorcho”, when that song’s place on Pinkerton only really ever made sense against more sincere songs like “Pink Triangle” or “Tired of Sex”. While for a time Weezer championed the friendless, clueless soul—the one who gravitated toward obsession, whether it be of music or science fiction or role-playing games, out of seeming necessity—Rivers and Co. seem to have recently lost their way in a quagmire of shifting cultural strata.
But whatever Weezer’s cultural crimes, its music has always been melodic, technically proficient, and compositionally complex. The band’s relevance in the early ‘90s sprang from a 98 lb. weakling’s infectious obsession with KISS and AC/DC. That Cuomo has recently seemed to replace these influences with bands like Hanson, Justin Bieber, and, well, late-era KISS has not yet hindered the band’s musicality itself. Still, the very fact of this transfer of affections from more hard-edged forms to the bubbly world of pop marks yet another key element of nerd-dom, being the interchangeability of various objects of obsession. The most important aspect of classically nerdly obsession is the longevity of its object. In this sense, Dungeons and Dragons is not really any better nerd fare than science fiction literature; the most vital criteria of obsession is merely that there be a lot of it, a potential for the completist longview, an opportunity to lose oneself in the labyrinth. Sad, that Weezer has lost itself in a labyrinth so unworthy of its talents.
Yet Weezer’s descent from metal-inflected pop music into pop (full stop) in some ways affirms that its cultural blindness was never affected. The band has approached its pop music obsession with all the unheeding intensity of its previous metal inclinations. The fact that its nerdtastic way of approaching the world has become so very detrimental to its reputation should say something about the sincerity of the group’s heyday. Claims that Rivers Cuomo and the boys faked their persona to cozy up to the indie-rock cohort seem to fade in light of the extremely damning cluelessness of their more recent musical ventures into pop-rock.
If the output of the last ten years of Weezer music isn’t enjoyable for its own sake, hopefully it clues us in to the sincerity of the band’s vision. When Cuomo sang about twelve-sided dice or hiding out in the garage or the annoying habit of girlfriends talking to people other than him, the group’s nerd status was just real as a Weezer snuggie is harrowing.