I’m glad someone with reach said something about Rivers Cuomo bashing his own work.
But it doesn’t go far enough. I get that isn’t the article’s intent, but someone needs to unpack, with care, that Rivers Cuomo doesn’t necessarily hate his own fans. But his fans certainly fucking hate him.
Maybe I’m not the guy to caringly explain why Rivers Cuomo isn’t such a bad guy, because I don’t like him either. Weezer was my favorite band for a few years, and I was deeply entrenched in the =w= fan culture. I finally got a chance to see them in Colorado Springs, CO w/ One AM Radio and Pete Yorn as openers. Weezer was the worst live band I’ve ever seen. I left early. I wept on the way home. Literally broke my heart.
Was I expecting too much of the band? Was it really such a big deal that they didn’t move much? Were my ears so displeased that Rivers didn’t play the “My Name is Jonas” solo, but instead just strummed the chords to the section? I was young. Idealistic. It really wasn’t a big deal.
Then he gave me a whole new reason to not like him. I realized he has, for years, tried to tell fans of his material that they’re wrong for liking what they like.
If you don’t want to read excerpts from and analysis of Rivers Cuomo interviews, I’ll give you the gist of this right now.
Mr. Cuomo, once you create something and make it public, you effectively ask audiences to take care of it for you, assign their own meaning to it, and integrate it into their lives however they like. As the creator, you need to accept this, or stop releasing material.
I’ll not retread Cuomo’s public haranguing of what many Weezer fans consider to be the most incredible thing ever put to tape, Pinkerton. And there is enough criticism of Rivers Cuomo online that parallels Star Wars fans’ distain for George Lucas; Cuomo created two landmark albums for a lot of people at special times in their youth, only to completely turn his back on them. When those fans that he seemingly betrayed (because I guess when you make something you’re bound to advocate it for the rest of your life?) shouted back, Cuomo expressed himself in a very plain way in a 2002 Guitar World interview:
Cuomo: The ridiculous thing is that they’re so angry with me and they hate my songs so much, and yet they’re all still there on all the message boards talking about me every day, and they care so much about it. It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe they see some potential in us and they’re doing everything they can to help bring that out.
It’s a really strange, extraordinary situation with us and the fans, and it’s stressful for everyone, I think. Our style has evolved to the point where it contains elements of all the different directions we’ve explored. I think it’s all gonna cohere eventually and everyone will be happy and satisfied. But we have to allow ourselves the space and the time to spread out in different musical directions and face the anger of older fans. I don’t think our previous records really say all that we want to say musically, so we still have to do a bit of feeling around. That’s why we ignore managers and record companies and the industry as a whole, because they just want to sell as much product as they can. They don’t want to allow you the space to develop.
GW: Whether it be asking you to sign something or expecting you to act a certain way…
Cuomo: Yeah, or asking me to play a certain song. They’re all little bitches, so I avoid them at all costs.
The guy has a point.
His fans, which I’ll distinguish now from fans of the band that he’s in, carry that torch for Pinkerton through all of his work, scrutinizing everything he does with the eye of a child with abandonment issues. And all the guy has ever wanted to do, it seems, is grow.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Cuomo expressed that frustration post-Blue Album in a way that I can understand:
I’m in my mid-twenties and the years are going by and most of my peers have already graduated from college. And all I’m doing is driving around in a van or tour bus and playing the same 10 songs every night. And giving the same interview over and over. You know, after a year of that I just felt like extremely frustrated and like I was not going to reach my potential as an artist.
I’d like to be a little bitch right now and say that artistically, the guy has done nothing but step backwards. In his public lamenting about how shitty the first two Weezer albums were, fans learned that he carried a notebook around that contained notes on crafting the perfect pop song.
This excerpt from Weezerpedia neatly explains it:
By 1999 Rivers was beginning to focus on songwriting like never before. Starting notebooks analyzing songs by Nirvana and Oasis, Rivers began to try and hone in on different songwriter’s formulas. Rivers hoped that by doing so, he too would be able to find a formula and become a “songwriting machine”. He holed himself up into his abode, covered the lights, and began to write song after song, documenting each one by writing it on the wall. By the end of 1999, Rivers had written 121 new songs, each song with several different reworkings. Many of these songs would go on to be recorded for the next Weezer album.
So, in an effort to be artistic and original, he was trying to sound like other people. The flavor of Weezer has become so bland since Pinkerton that Weezer’s experimentation is marked by simply not sounding generic (see the Red Album). So I can see how fans are bummed that a band and songwriter that created some interesting stuff embraced being totally milktoast; he earnestly pursued that.
That fact makes his insight into his time at Harvard (while experiencing the moments that would make Pinkerton) particularly interesting:
RS: Did most of these things [in Pinkerton] happen during at your time at Harvard?
Cuomo: Yeah. It’s an absolutely wonderful time for an artist to have all that time to myself to think, to reflect, and have all my feelings and be able to sort them out and put them into songs.
It would seem his vision of “art” and being “artistic” had changed from introspection to imitation, craft to mass production. The Green Album shows that unashamedly with each song following nearly the same formula, clocking in around the same time, and offering the smallest musical variance from the band since they appeared with their self-titled debut.
Common knowledge to his fans: Rivers was very embarrassed by his lyrical confessions on Pinkerton.
He also was dissatisfied with how the Blue Album was interpreted. From the Rolling Stone interview linked above:
On Weezer’s first album some of the songs are stream of consciousness, like “My Name Is Jonas.” There’s a little bit of detail in there from my life, but mostly I’m just rambling whatever comes into my mind—or I’m using such metaphoric language that you get the totally wrong idea of what I’m actually singing about, like the song “Only In Dreams.” I think most of our audience always thought it was a song about a girl when I’m really singing about my artistic process, or the song “Buddy Holly.” The language is so bizarre and metaphoric it’s really hard for people to understand the life situation that inspired the song and the critical reaction to that record was that these people are goofy. They said there was no depth of emotion there. That really bummed me out in a big way, so I was determined to head in the other direction with the second record and in the simplest, most direct language possible talk about what was happening in my life and how I felt about it.
I think it would be a real chore to find Rivers or Weezer fans who thought that the first Weezer album had no depth of emotion. Especially considering the album’s final track, “Only in Dreams,” which was covered in an AV Club article I’m responding to here.
"Say It Ain’t So," while it may not have been immediately clear, obviously harbored some woundedness, the kind we would later learn stemmed from associating drinking to a father figure leaving.
But whether you got that or not isn’t the point. The point is that you’re left to get it however you want.
If an artist releases their art to the world, and that art has a specific meaning, it’s not an audience’s duty to get the right answer. What do we get if we win? There is less to gain in singular interpretations of art.
I understand that’s an argument that comes from a subjective place. But Rivers fans listen to his work and associate it with him. “Say It Ain’t So” is about his youth and a specific moment in it. To others, it could mean many things that apply across decades to different moments in their lives. The song, and potentially other songs, lasts and becomes personal.
Rivers Cuomo wants to shape how people receive his work. And I don’t like him for that. Yet I can understand why he has a weird relationship with his fans because they resist his revisions to the quality of work they already fell in love with.
So he doesn’t like that fans don’t get his stuff. They do, but it’s not how he wants them to get it.
Rivers fans don’t like that they’re not BFFs with Rivers Cuomo.