Pinkerton. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Brainwashed by Pinkerton

Getting too old to hate Weezer

In one of Saturday Night Live’s only moderately relevant and funny sketches from the past decade, two Weezer fans—played by Leslie Jones and Matt Damon—disrupt an otherwise civil dinner party when a new Weezer song comes on the Alexa. The conceit is that Matt Damon is a “ride or die Weezer fan” who appreciates every era of the band, while Leslie Jones swears by only their first two albums—1994’s The Blue Album and 1996’s Pinkerton. You know, the good ones.


This skit is hard to watch, which is par for the course with most of Saturday Night Live, a show that predominantly panders to moneyed, condo-dwelling liberals and their ilk. But unusually for SNL, this skit isn’t hard to watch because of the war criminal apologetics or whatever—it’s hard to watch because it’s eminently relatable. It forces me to acknowledge that I have wasted precious hours of my life having this very same debate, both on and offline. The vicarious embarrassment grows even more pronounced once you realize that “Weezer” here is a proxy for virtually any meaningless yet polarizing topic within apolitical pop culture. You could recreate this skit except have it center around Star Wars, or Kanye or, God forbid, the Martin Scorsese-Marvel Cinematic Universe feud. 


For some context: Weezer’s 1994 debut was released to critical acclaim and strong sales, cementing the band’s status as a quirky fixture of ’90s alternative rock radio. While writing the band’s follow-up, Pinkerton, frontman Rivers Cuomo was studying at Harvard, where other students wearing Weezer shirts supposedly didn’t even recognize him. The isolation Cuomo experienced back East—far from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles—coupled with his immersion in English literature and high-brow art forms such as opera, did wonders for his songwriting but stunted his emotional development. On Pinkerton, Cuomo ditched the references to Dungeons & Dragons and Kiss, opting instead to write vignettes about masturbation and being creepy toward his teenage female fans. The band—and the rest of the world—was understandably bewildered.


When Pinkerton was released, it was a critical flop, and it performed poorly on the charts relative to the band’s debut. Bassist Matt Sharp, who played a pivotal role in shaping the band’s early aesthetic and was something of Cuomo’s musical foil, quit the band shortly thereafter. The record and its surrounding narrative has become nearly impossible to parse—in 1996, critics deemed it pathetic, indefensibly misogynistic and wholly without artistic merit. Around the mid ’00s, critics began reevaluating the record on a large scale. Not only is it now widely considered the band’s masterpiece, but Pinkerton is often referred to as the inflection point where Sebadoh-esque indie rock, power pop and emo collided, an aesthetic that endures to this day. Additionally, a widely held belief among one camp of Weezer fans is that Rivers Cuomo expended so much emotional energy making Pinkerton that he has nothing left to say. For this reason, Weezer “purists,” as Matt Damon’s character calls them in the SNL skit, hate every Weezer album released after Pinkerton.


Per usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, or possibly even off to the side. Pinkerton is a cathartic piece of music—especially if you’re a sexually frustrated teenager—but in terms of emotional and musical scope, it pales in comparison to the band’s debut. Moreover, an important critique of Pinkerton—that the pop world in 1996 simply wasn’t literate enough for—is the idea that it traffics in orientalist tropes and fetishizes its Asian subjects. This point specifically is touched on in Jenny Zhang’s groundbreaking Rookie essay from 2015, “Far Away From Me.”


But people love a loser’s history, and so Pinkerton is now the best. By my estimation, the purpose of the SNL skit isn’t to give weight to that claim—it’s to demonstrate that both sides of the argument are equally ridiculous. Going to bat for Pinkerton may have been risky once, but that position is so canonized now that it reeks of stock iconoclasm, à la proudly proclaiming you are an atheist in secular society. 


But I ultimately still sympathize with Leslie Jones’ character’s viewpoint, and what does that say about me? Every time I hear a new Weezer song I feel my blood pressure increase and the urge to tweet something stupid. Pinkerton was, at one point in time, so integral to my identity as a music fan that a bad Weezer album felt like a personal affront. Intellectually, I know my reaction—i.e., impassioned disgust—toward Weezer’s latest album, OK Human, is immature and unreasonable, but I also can’t help myself. I sometimes can’t tell if I hate new Weezer because it’s genuinely offensive or if I’ve just been thoroughly charmed by the Pinkerton mythos. 


The funniest part of the SNL skit is that nobody besides Matt Damon or Leslie Jones really cares about Weezer or understands what is being discussed. This, too, is relatable—the older I get, the more monotropic my interest in Weezer seems. Pinkerton doesn’t exactly make for a great water cooler discussion topic—so I guess I’ll just have to argue with myself.