When imagining a rock band, you imagine a bunch of guys in dark, edgy clothing with crazy hairstyles and tattoos. I doubt many people would think of a group of dudes who look like they belong in an office cubicle rather than shred in front of massive crowds. These are the characteristics of Rivers Cuomo and his band Weezer, known around the world for their dorky pop-rock songs. Cuomo nowadays even writes his songs using spreadsheets and programs he wrote himself.
Rivers Cuomo, the frontman of Weezer, grew up in Manhattan, New York, listening to metal bands such as Kiss as well as classic rock groups like the Beach Boys. After playing for a few small bands comprised of mostly his high school classmates, in 1989, he would move across the country to Los Angeles, California in hopes of fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a rockstar. Within three years, he formed Weezer with drummer Patrick Wilson, bassist Matthew Sharp, and guitarist Jason Cropper, who was replaced by Brian Bell shortly before the release of their first album.
May of 1994 would mark the debut of Weezer in their first self-titled album, dubbed the Blue Album by fans for it’s blue background. It became an instant hit, receiving great praise from critics and turning Weezer into a household name. The record featured power-pop anthems with Weezer’s signature distorted and crunchy guitars and nerdy lyrics about love. With the help of the late, legendary producer, Ric Ocasek from the music group The Cars, the Blue Album produced massive hits such as “Say It Ain’t So”, “Undone – The Sweater Song” and “Buddy Holly”, the latter of which would win several MTV Video Music Awards due to its innovating editing techniques.
However, living his dream of being a rockstar wasn’t exactly how Cuomo imagined it would be. “Sure, you’ll meet two hundred people every night, you’ll talk to each of them for approximately thirty seconds…And then you’ll be alone in your motel room,” he wrote in his diary, “Or you’ll be in the van trying to kill the nine hours it takes to get to the next city, whichever city it is. This is life on the road. It’s not all cocaine, chicks, and limos.” He found the touring life boring and the lack of any meaningful connections with anyone other than his bandmates caused him to feel lonely in a world where everyone wanted to meet him.
Weezer’s sophomore album called Pinkerton, dropped in 1996 and would be loosely based on the 1904 opera by Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly, being named after the character B. F. Pinkerton. It was supposed to be an exploration of Cuomo’s darker side and it shows. They chose to self-produce the record, creating a darker, rougher and raw sound with lyrics that were a lot more sexual in nature due to his problematic love life, despising the emotionless sex he had with groupies but being unable to talk to girls he dreamed about. His sexual frustration culminated in tracks such as “Across the Sea,” in which the singer fantasizes about an 18-year-old Japanese fangirl who sent him a letter.
This had been a new sound for Weezer and many fans didn’t like it. Critics had mixed opinions about the album and listeners were disturbed by the unsettling lyrical content and the gritty production which was in stark contrast with the Blue Album’s perfectly polished sound. Rolling Stone readers would even vote it the third worst album of 1996. Even Rivers Cuomo began to hate and resent his own creation for many years to come. “It’s not just that the world has said Pinkerton isn’t worth a shit, but the Blue Album wasn’t either. It was a fluke. It was the video. I’m a shitty songwriter,” he wrote in a diary. Following the end of their tour, Matt Sharp had left the band in 1998 and Weezer went on hiatus until the next millennium. Cuomo left the public eye and became a recluse, painting the interior of his house black, covering his windows and unplugging his phone to perfect his songwriting.
As time went on, listeners who favoured the more radio-friendly and popular songs moved on and left behind the die-hard fans who actually liked Pinkerton, creating an underground cult following for the album on Internet forums. They loved how brutally honest the confessional style lyrics were. The record ended up being a major influence for the emotional rock scene with some saying it is definitively the most important emo record of the 90s. Even critics began having second takes on the album with publications such as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork changing their ratings, giving Pinkerton perfect scores. The record would finally reach platinum status in 2016, almost 20 years after it’s initial release.
Weezer returned in 2001 with a new bassist, the late Mikey Welsh, releasing their second self-titled album, known as the Green Album which took a complete 180 turn from their last record. Weezer would play it safe, bringing back Ric Ocasek to produce and returning to the highly pristine and polished pop-rock sound of the Blue Album. Cuomo still hadn’t gotten over the awkward lyrics he wrote for Pinkerton, ultimately causing him to write less personal songs on the Green Album, telling Rolling Stone, “This record is purely musical. There’s no feeling, there’s no emotion.” This album became certified platinum within a couple of months thanks to hit tracks like “Island In The Sun” and “Hash Pipe.”
Following the departure of Welsh, Scott Shriner took up the role and would become Weezer’s longest-standing bassist. Many fans consider this the beginning of Weezer’s decline in quality and relevance. Their next album, Maladroit, releasing in 2002, would be a largely forgotten heavy rock record most likely due to it’s strange cover, being named one of “the worst record covers of all time” by Pitchfork. Weezer’s following album, Make Believe, received mixed critical reception for trying to create radio-friendly pop songs exemplified in songs such as “Beverly Hills” but still ended up earning a platinum certification. The band’s next three records, the Red Album, Raditude and Hurley, are considered to be some of Weezer’s worst albums due to their deviation from their classic sound and attempts to appeal with mainstream audiences by sounding like every other pop artist with forgettable instrumentals and bland lyrics sung with no emotion or personality.
For the group’s 9th record, Weezer brought Ric Ocasek back once more to produce their 2014 return-to-form album, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, with lyrical themes about fatherhood, relationships, and Weezer’s very own fanbase. It ended up receiving their best ratings since Pinkerton and mark the start of Weezer’s renaissance. The bands next self-titled album was the White Album, dropping in 2016 and being produced by self-proclaimed Weezer superfan, Jake Sinclair. Bringing back their classic big guitars and singing about a nerdy boy chasing around for love before getting his heart broken illustrated in tracks like “LA Girlz” and “Endless Bummer.” Sinclair wanted to create a throwback album that fans of Pinkerton or the Blue Album would have appreciated while Cuomo wanted to continue experimenting. Jake eventually got his way, Cuomo told the Los Angeles Times, “He won on this album, and I’m gonna win on the next album.”
Oh boy did he win. Gone are their trademark guitars, chilling basslines and stadium filling drums and replaced with the electronic millennial pop sound Cuomo had strived for. His vision came to fruition in their next two albums, Pacific Daydream in 2017 and the Black Album just two years later. These records would be some of Weezer’s most eclectic works featuring more pronounced synthesizers and digital instrumentation like drum machines and seemingly random lyrics ranging from Star Wars references to crack cocaine, creating a darker, urban feeling in tracks such as “Happy Hour,” “Too Many Thoughts In My Head” and “California Snow.” This new sound Weezer adopted wasn’t what fans expected, the White Album had given them hope that the band could make good music again by going back to their roots. This complete change in direction had caused both records to receive mixed ratings from critics and fans alike citing the uninspiring verses and boring melodies.
These last few years wouldn’t be completely horrible for Weezer though. Their biggest hit in the last decade was inspired by a 14-year-old fan. She had created a nearly six-month long Twitter campaign asking Weezer to create their own rendition of Toto’s “Africa.” Her wish was finally granted in the May of 2018 when Weezer released a cover of the song, followed up with a music video featuring Weird Al Yankovic in September. “Africa” would be certified gold and put Weezer back into the limelight. Their new found fame allowed them to be the main focus of a Saturday Night Live sketch, premier several songs from the Black Album in the popular video game, Fortnite, and even cover a song for Disney’s upcoming movie, Frozen 2. The success of the single prompted them to release a full album of covers in 2019, nicknamed the Teal Album, which included surprising good covers of tracks such as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and TLC’s “No Scrubs”.
With a new album called Van Weezer on the horizon, the future is looking pretty bright for the band. Weezer has been around for nearly three decades and is still constantly pumping out new material. Even when they were at their lowest point, when the fans and critics trashed on their records, when album sales are down, and when nobody buys tickets to their shows, Weezer continued to push on. The band will always be in a constant struggle with their fans, most of which want Weezer to make another Blue Album or Pinkerton while Rivers Cuomo just does whatever he wants.
“We’ll continue to experiment and make records that some people think are good and some people might think are bad,” Cuomo said, “Some will be successful and some won’t, and it doesn’t really matter. We’re just going to keep going on being Weezer.”