Music

In Defense of Weezer

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.

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.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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