Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Big River

By sheer coincidence, I spent my Sunday reconsidering Rivers Cuomo over two different forms of media.  A chapter in Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur posits that the reason Cuomo remains an enigma to this day is because he is literally incapable of writing with any viewpoint of irony, and his earnestness is perplexing to an audience that accepts irony far easier than sincerity.  (Klosterman also charges Werner Herzog and Ralph Nader with similar afflictions.)  This point seems to be more or less echoed by Cuomo himself in a remarkably reflective interview done for Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions.  I can't recommend listening to this program enough.  Not only does Cuomo tackle a set of impromptu songs while backed by Chicago riot grrrls The Cathy Santonis, but he also directly answers the charge that his songwriting has devolved into pandering schlock.

I've been racking my brain trying to come up with any band that's had a similar career trajectory to Weezer.  Green Day is clearly the best parallel.  Granted, they released a couple independent albums before Dookie, but they more or less mirror Weezer from the time each released major label debuts in 1994.  Both bands' sophomore releases were initially seen as commercial disappointments (though Insomniac wasn't as critically reviled as Pinkerton.)  Both spent the last few years of the 1990s fading toward obscurity, as Green Day put out two albums that few people outside myself bought, and it became accepted as fact that Weezer was likely done for good.  And both have achieved a resurgence in album sales in the new millennium, becoming the types of bands who now play arenas in front of crowds populated mostly by fans who never listened to either band in 1994.

Of course Rivers Cuomo and Billie Joe Armstrong are viewed in completely different ways as songwriters.  Armstrong has always been a rock star, who simply wrote songs as a means to continue being a rock star.  Cuomo on the other hand is a song writer who has been spent his career getting used to the notion of becoming a rock star (especially in terms of stage presence, where Cuomo's evolution from shoegazing nebbish to spotlight star is similar to that of Michael Stipe in the 1980's.)  The content of Armstrong's stories consists largely of obvious fiction, whereas every song Cuomo writes seems to be the newest chapter in an ongoing memoir.  This is why you can hear "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and simply think, "Wow!  What a shitty song!"  Yet when you hear "Heart Songs" or "We Are All on Drugs," the first reaction is, "What is wrong with him?  He can't possibly think this is a good song!" 

While I'll allow that Cuomo's never-ending sincerity accounts for some aspects of the sea change in perception, it can't be seen as the only reason.  In the Sound Opinions episode, Cuomo addresses the particulars of writing the epic turd that is "Beverly Hills."  And when you hear his reasoning, it sounds like a perfectly acceptable method of writing a song ("I read something.  I felt a particular way in that moment.  I wrote from that fleeting point of view and accepted it as truth,") but it's only reasonable for someone who has JUST STARTED writing songs.  

This is the key to Rivers Cuomo's songwriting.  The man refuses to age.  He's the Richard Alpert of bespectacled front men.  The songs on Raditude are not necessarily worse than those on The Blue Album, because they're basically interchangeable inasmuch as every one of them could have been written within one random day by his life.  As fans, this is what's troubling.  The songs of The Blue Album and Pinkerton are ingrained within our coming of age, but I can't relate to the songs off Raditude any more than I can relate to the songs of Taylor Swift, as I am no longer a teenager, and both are writing songs from strictly a teenager's point of view.  This is not to say the songs can't be enjoyed; it just means that enjoyment of Weezer in 2010 must come with an emotional detachment.  In this respect, one can fully appreciate the catchiness of "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" in the same way one appreciates the catchiness of Lady Gaga.

Rivers Cuomo is playing the part of the freshmen girls in Dazed and Confused, and we as a people are communally playing Matthew McConaughey's character, Wooderson.  We are getting older, and he is staying the same age.  All right, all right, all right.

No comments: