Apr 8, 2016
Weezer And Women
At the tail end of 2014 I finally got to hear “My Name Is Jonas” live. I screamed along to the lyrics, fueled by teenage fandom and the abandon that comes from chugging three $16 cervezas while on vacation in Mexico with a one-month-into-the-breakup ex-boyfriend. It should’ve been horrible, and it kind of was–I spent a solid portion of that same day sobbing into a chainlink fence, comforted by the very person who’d induced the tears. It was one of those experiences sad and weird enough to assume a glint of the gleeful; ironically, this is also the working definition for most Weezer songs. As I began to scream along to the lyrics “I’M CARRYING THE WHEEL” my ex looked on, amused. I’d fallen in love with Weezer long before he knew me, and the band hadn’t really come up during the course of our relationship. Actually, that festival made me realize I couldn’t really remember the last time I’d listened to the band, at all.
The way I listen to music has changed a lot in the intervening years since I slipped a CDR copy of all the best songs off The Blue Album, The Green Album and Make Believe into my car’s CD player. (I still fiercely maintain Make Believe is better than Pinkerton, and I just refuse to believe I’m alone in maintaining “Beverly Hills” is a jam! But it also came out a year before I moved to Malibu, so there were obvious personal connotations for me.) Those were the albums that spoke to me, but after moving to LA for college, I sort of stopped paying attention to the band. I briefly checked in for the Red Album but felt nothing, same goes for Raditude–save Cuomo’s collaboration with Lil Wayne, which I ride for–and Hurley, oh and the album Weezer was playing a festival in 2014 for, their new record Everything Will Be Alright In The End. The band played a few brand new songs at the festival—including one that featured Bethany Cosentino, a highlight–but they didn’t hold a candle to the old stuff. Nothing came close to eliciting the reaction that older songs immediately ignited.
This memory kept returning as I listened to Cuomo’s fourth self-titled offering, or The White Album, a record that pilfers its name from The Beatles and attempts (but fails) to borrow an ethos from the Beach Boys. The record came out last week, but by my third time around, I discovered just how much has changed within me as a listener. Surely a big part of that is it’s now my job to talk about the stuff, which often means unpacking old nostalgia. Is it good or bad that I can’t listen to Weezer now without challenging the way he depicts women, or scoffing at how he constantly feels sorry for himself and blames anyone else for every failed relationship? Misandry, feminism, enduring the onslaught of the Woke Olympics on Twitter, not being a teenager–whatever you want to call it, I listen to music with a different level of awareness these days. So no, New Weezer doesn’t hold up well to this standard, but even more unsettling, when I really apply that awareness, old Weezer doesn’t hold up to it either.
This awareness is a shift within me I’ve noticed happening in various ways; it’s hard not to watch it blossoming all over the Post-Woke Internet. An old Mad TV sketch that my sister and I love to quote to one another (Where your boyfriend at? Is he hefty? Is he coming back? Where your boyfriend at?), had become so removed from the original sketch that it was only when I re-watched the clip in an attempt to share the “joke” with a friend that I saw the racism embedded in the script. I did not see it ten years ago or so when I first declared it “hilarious.” Yes, it is rather fascinating to learn that the aggressive man who won’t stop hitting on the lovely Yvonne was played by a girl, but it doesn’t much alter the sketch’s easy stereotypes or lazy, patronizing tropes. Watching it today, those things are all I can see. That, and the ignorance of my past self, laughing uproariously and eagerly incorporating bits of this dialogue into my own vernacular.
I did the same thing with Weezer, willfully or subconsciously, I ignored the way these songs demeaned, pigeonholed, and insulted women. Maybe that’s why I was never drawn as much to Pinkerton, where “half-Japanese girls” and redheads don’t pay him enough attention (“El Scorcho”), where lesbians are lambasted for not falling in love with our hero (“Pink Triangle”), and women are abandoned in favor of jacking off just in case the relationship crumbles (“Why Bother?”). Even my favorite, and most people’s favorite, The Blue Album is just as fraught. I was listening to “No One Else” on the bus this morning–I want a girl who will laugh for no one else / When I’m away she puts her makeup on the shelf / when I’m away she never leaves the house. I thought this shit was romantic? That sounds more like house arrest than a loving relationship.
The truth is, I didn’t love listening to Rivers Cuomo because I thought I could cheer him up. I wasn’t in love with him, and I didn’t find the commentary he had about women to be particularly offensive, because I identified with him. When I listened to Weezer I was the teenage dirtbag skating away to a hashpipe, I was the socially awkward dreamer at the party in the fall-apart-sweater, I was the shy or awkward lover who obtained satisfaction “Only In Dreams,” but loved as purely and fiercely as the fucking incredible guitar solo that really makes this song what it is. I was “Buddy Holly,” not the accompanying Mary Tyler Moore. My name was Jonas, I was carrying the wheel, dammit! (A friend recently pointed out that there is a certain type of song with lyrics that seems to be about something, but are really about nothing at all. “My Name Is Jonas” falls into this category.)
So, what are we to do with these newly revised understandings of art we previously embraced without reservation? Is the latent sexism important or damaging enough to throw out all comfort I gleaned from nights of teenage angst driving around my tiny town screaming Weezer lyrics? Who do I owe this 180 to, if I choose it? Myself? Future women? The Feminist Cause? It’s easier if I’m talking about sexism, which directly impacts me, but what if we’re talking about the troubling Mad TV sketch? Does my responsibility change when I’m the privileged party, not directly impacted by the outdated, hurtful portrayals in a cultural artifact? I don’t think any of us have any answers to these questions, though we try to hash them out in Tweets, articles or bar conversations. We try to thinkpiece or call out or champion–and we fuck it up all the time. We create more anger and hurt in the process, we do a lot more bludgeoning than teaching or listening.
Still, this album deserves some bludgeoning. The White Album is so bad and so oddly out of touch with the current wave of #hashtag #feminism, that it makes it hard not to interrogate my past love for this band. “LA Girlz” is “El Scorcho” part two, (whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or not) all the dumb blonde and regional bullshit that my Los Angeles cohort has to face is presented here as fact. It’s not even boring; it’s abrasive. “Thank God For Girls” is basically the virtual reality suit for simulating sex with women in song form. “Summer Elaine And Drunk Dori” just picks two imaginary women to be playthings for Cuomo while he’s sad over yet another relationship’s demise.
If I could duck or parse through his sexism and objectification of women in earlier work, perhaps it’s because the songwriting was… better. Unlike older tracks, these songs aren’t weird yet somehow gleeful sad, they’re just sad; I don’t want to be Rivers anymore. Gender aside, I can’t identify with this person at all. We’ve gone from lonely dreamer to a dude who can only see women as “girls,” whose idea of subverting gender roles on “Thank God For Girls” is a strong woman in overalls (gasp), and who invokes the Muslim Fakir sect as a metaphor for his sexual anxiety. Oh yeah, then there’s the weird sugar and spice (“cardamom and cloves”) line combined with Adam and Eve convoluted mythology at the end of the song. “King Of The World,” a song that jams guitar-wise, again turns a woman into an accessory–even when he’s king, she’s not queen, she’s still just a girl. She’s a balm or a reward for surviving the wounds of the world. Has Cuomo ever spent any time thinking about the very different, complicated wounds women in this world endure? I have yet to hear it in his songwriting. Not that he has to write about women! But he does write about women–and it’s from a very one note, tired perspective.
I enjoy listening to the melody of “King Of The World,” and the album isn’t entirely terrible, there’s some of the signature sunbleached Weezer grunge peppered throughout. But the bad moments are so awful that it’s hard to take the rest of it seriously. It’s so bad and unaware that it casts a shadow on their back catalogue. I want to ask, has Rivers Cuomo even been online lately? But then, I know he has, because a couple weeks he followed me (and my best friend) on Twitter, because he followed me on Instagram. He’s aware those platforms matter now. I am guessing this review will earn me an unfollow, but what I hope for more, is that it makes him think about what these lyrics mean and say and do. If he could learn why the way he writes about women sucks, or read this piece from a decade-plus listener who legitimately loves his band as one written with a good intent, that would be so much more meaningful to me than social media support. Instead of internalizing this as an attack, and lashing out, I hope he’ll consider what Weezer’s female fans are grappling with when they hear how he writes about women. I know he’s paying attention to some internet trends, because he posted a cover of Rae Sremmurd’s “Come Get Her” to his own Instagram a couple months ago. Anyone familiar with the lyrics to this song won’t be surprised this was the one he was drawn to, though I’d be down as hell with a Cuomo rendition of Nicki’s “Throw Sum Mo” hook.
Maybe “My Name Is Jonas” was always my favorite Weezer song, because there isn’t a single mention of gender, sex, or female identity. There’s no girl, there’s no physical descriptors, there’s no slut-shaming or accusatory language. There’s just a sick guitar solo, drums high in the mix, and a whole lot of passion about construction site problems and workers going home. Whatever personal angst or courage or rebellion I projected onto those words and the harmonica solo that finishes this shit off had nothing to do with my gender. It had way more to do with being an isolated creative being in a community that didn’t understand me, and feeling like I had found some kindred spirit in this similarly confused, passionate speaker. I thought I was him. I forgot I was a girl, that I didn’t have access. My name was Jonas. If Cuomo can write more songs like this, maybe his fifth self-titled album won’t make people cringe when they hear the name Weezer.
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