Weezer and the Problem of Fan Expectation

Weezer's new album, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, walks the tenuous line between redressing the band's follies and giving in to banal fan service.
Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Universal Republic

In 2008, Weezer released “Pork and Beans” and “Troublemaker”, the first two singles off their third self-titled album, colloquially referred to as “The Red Album”. In these songs, frontman Rivers Cuomo takes a stand to say that he’s “doin’ things [his] own way and never giving up” and that he “ain’t got a thing to prove to you.” It’s not hard to see this as him shrugging off the criticisms that the band faced since the early ’00s, when they streamlined their sound into something a little more pristine and a lot more goofy and frivolous.

To be sure, Weezer, one of the few ‘90s alt superstars left, maintained a large fan base over the years, but a growing contingency of people raised with the band’s debut and its raw, ferocious follow-up, Pinkerton, have clamored for Cuomo and co. to stop telling so many jokes about hash pipes and to start writing the earnest, loser-anthems they made their name on.

But Cuomo has always been the self-conscious type. It’s what made him pack up shop and lay low for years when Pinkerton was lambasted by the press and audiences upon its release in 1996. So whatever the case may be, it’s not so surprising that all those criticisms finally got into his head, and the band decided to embark on their “Memories Tour” in 2010, playing the entirety of their first two albums, where they previously glazed over them in concert. Then following that, this year, they released their new single, “Back to the Shack,” off the band’s recently released record, Everything Will Be Alright in the End.

And, well, its tone is decidedly different than “Pork and Beans.” I’ll let Cuomo take it from here:

Sorry guys, I didn’t realize that I needed you so much

I thought I’d get a new audience, I forgot that disco sucks

I ended up with nobody, and I started feeling dumb

Maybe I should play the lead guitar, and Pat should play the drums

Take me back, back to the shack

Back to the Strat with the lightning strap

Kick in the door, more hardcore

Rockin’ out like it’s ’94

Cuomo may indeed want to get back in touch with his glory days, but the apology that kicks it off can’t help but feel like an exercise in fan service. At his heart, artist (and geek) that he is, Cuomo just wants to find to put something of himself out there and find loving acceptance, but if he’s getting pushed into doing something else, you get into some dicey territory. It seems like the fans got what they wanted, but did they really?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to look at this situation. One school of thought goes like this: If the audience thinks the musician’s output is taking a dip in quality or goes against their wishes or expectations for whatever reason, a gentle push in the opposite direction might be best for everyone. After all, they are the ones buying, and fans and critics have the right to be prescriptive about what they think constitutes better music.

On the other hand, when an artist starts to feel like he or she owes something to the consumers, things become a bit more dubious. Artists grow and change, but their audiences may not always grow with them. That’s fine. But when artists are putting out work made just to appease the fans who whine and complain, the end result is usually music that feels hollow, missing whatever it was that made people like the artist to begin with. It’s not true expression. It’s like someone yelling at you, “Be yourself!” Put bluntly, it’s just not going to work. Your idea of yourself is very different from someone else’s.

Everything Will Be Alright in the End is a good record — Weezer’s best in quite a while, even — but I wouldn’t say it sounds like they are tracing over “The Blue Album”. Although the record finds the band at least trying to reconnect with their early days, that doesn’t mean it will satiate the masses waiting for another Pinkerton. There seems to be this general air in the discussion about Weezer that if they just stopped fooling around, like they apparently have for much of the last decade or so, they could make the sorts of the albums they used to make.

Maybe they could, maybe they couldn’t, but one thing that often gets left out of the discussion is that it’s been around 20 years since their first two records.

Cuomo’s lyrics became touchstones for indie rock and emo because he sang earnestly about his otherness, his loneliness, and his depression without regard to whether made him seem uncool or pathetic, even creepy — never mind that most of the critics and the people who champion those records now all scoffed at these tunes upon their release. Fast forward to 2014, and the same man is happily married with kids. He doesn’t have the same insecurities as he used to, so asking for him to revisit that just seems selfish and aimless. “Back to the Shack” even says as much in the beginning of the second verse, where Cuomo says he “finally settled down with [his] girl” and “made up with [his] dad.”

I’m not here to defend Weezer’s latter-day career. While some of those records get a worse rap than they deserve, they can often be spotty affairs. I am, however, here to say that the group’s music needs to be looked at on its own merits, rather than as an annoyance until Cuomo starts talking about the KISS posters on his garage wall again.

Take Aphex Twin for instance. When his last album, Drukqs, was released in 2001, fans and critics greeted it with a mixed reception, put off by how familiar the music sounded. They expected Richard D. James to break new ground, and now that he was developing old ideas instead of working with new ones, they considered it a disappointment. Tellingly, Drukqs’ reception warmed in the following years as people learned to appreciate it as a record and not as a comeback. However, Syro, James’ recently released follow-up LP, garnered wide acclaim for sort of doing the same thing, albeit more accessibly. Many critics argued that with Syro he created variations on the sounds he was working with in the ‘90s. This time, though, it had been over a decade separating albums and that familiarity was far more immediately welcome.

It’s fine to criticize and compare newer work with older work. But sometimes you just have to suck it up and engage with it on its own terms. After all, there are still plenty of people out there who haven’t given Radiohead a chance since OK Computer. And while, Raditude is certainly no Kid A, it’s never worth it to just dismiss the work of an artist you like right off the bat until they give in to what you want. Who knows? You may not be served what you were ordered, but maybe you’ll come around to whatever Cuomo is dishing up again. What Weezer fans miss, I suppose, is the honesty. But that’s one thing you can’t coerce out of a musician.