Last week, Weezer released a new single, “Thank God for Girls,” the most recent iteration of leader Rivers Cuomo’s presentation of himself as a self-deprecating man-child.
The track finds the California quartet relying on absurdly juvenile humor to work through their own weird gender problems. “And you may encounter dragons or ruffians and be called upon / To employ your testosterone,” sings Cuomo, with a self-aware air of sarcasm. The lyrics are absurd, based on Cuomo’s perception that while men are out doing their “manly” things, women will always be around with “a big fat cannoli to shove in your mouth.” Lyrics like “She’s so big / She’s so strong / She’s so energetic in her sweaty overalls” seemed an insecure retort to a song like Raelynn’s “God Made Girls”; at Genius, Cuomo provided the following annotation for the verse:
“I’m so jealous of the hooker-uppers. Seems like it’s so easy to get laid now all these good looking athletic young guys r getting so much free sex it kills me. laxitutes. Such a bummer. Such a bummer. To be evaluated by women. To be graded. To be rated. Where do I stand? How big? How strong? How enduring? How energetic? How inventive? So sad that it comes to this. So sad. It IS a competition and I AM being compared.”
His explanation is so mindbogglingly slimy, it seems almost too pained to be serious. But even if “Thank God for Girls” represents a satirical character, it’s ironic that a man who wrote a very serious song called “The Girl Got Hot” is suddenly deeply concerned with being “evaluated” and “graded” on his physical attributes.
Historically, though, Cuomo has had no problem with the fact that his lyrics could be diary entries of a high-school boy—in fact, he’s spent his entire career propagating his retrograde antics. In 2010, he told the L.A. Times, “Maybe I haven’t matured in some ways that other 40-year-olds have. Or maybe I’m more willing to honor those immature voices inside myself that other 40-year-olds aren’t.”
It was a moment of honesty about his own catalog: though Weezer is beloved, its immature, backwards presentation isn’t anything new. Over 23 years, nine albums, and one seriously protracted Bachelor’s degree, Weezer has consistently cast women as objects that exist either for male pleasure, or as causers of their torment, while Cuomo continues to portray himself as an awkward and over-sexed suitor.
This philosophy emerged as early as track two on the group’s 1994 debut, Weezer or The Blue Album. On “No One Else,” Cuomo explains to listeners what he seeks from a partner, detailing his manipulative, obsessive expectations: “I want a girl who will laugh for no one else,” he sings. “When I’m away she puts her makeup on the shelf / When I’m away she never leaves the house / I want a girl who laughs for no one else.”
Poppier hits like “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Buddy Holly” overshadowed “No One Else,” though, and Cuomo was cast as a beloved, sensitive dweeb whose desire is his greatest downfall. Perhaps the main source of this narrative was the “Buddy Holly” video, in which Cuomo and co. are quaintly spliced into a scene from the 1950s sitcom-themed “Happy Days.” The cardigan-clad quartet proceed to explain that, while they cannot physically protect their girl, their love is “for all time.”
Weezer’s sophomore record, Pinkerton, was born during a post-Blue Album break during which Cuomo enrolled at Harvard and underwent serious leg corrective surgery (Cuomo’s left leg was born 44 mm shorter than his right). Doped up on painkillers and hobbling around campus with a cane, Cuomo dove deep into his sexual frustration and self-destruction while writing the record. He told the New York Times in 2006, “I grew a long beard and walked around with my cane. The only time I could write songs was when my frozen dinner was in the microwave. The rest of the time I was doing homework.”
In album opener “Tired of Sex,” the singer explains that he’s “spread so thin” by his rotating cast of hookups and, as a result, has lost himself. The subsequent songs follow Cuomo’s narrator on his brutally honest quest for pleasure in which he is spurned by lovers, trapped by the fear of loneliness, and driven to hopelessness by the failure of two past relationships. By the end of the album, Cuomo reaches some level of dodgy self-accountability, singing, “But who do I got to blame? / Nobody but me” (“The Good Life”) and “I’m sorry for what I did / I did what my body told me to” (“Butterfly”).
In a letter to the Weezer Fan Club on July 10, 1996, two months before the release of Pinkerton, Cuomo wrote:
“There are some lyrics on the album that you might think are mean or sexist. I will feel genuinely bad if anyone feels hurt by my lyrics but I really wanted these songs to be an exploration of my ‘dark side’ - all the parts of myself that I was either afraid or embarrassed to think about before. So there’s some pretty nasty stuff on there. You may be more willing to forgive the lyrics if you see them as passing low points in a larger story. And this album really is a story: the story of the last 2 years of my life. And as you’re probably well aware, these have been two very weird years.”
What does it mean for an artist to ask his fans to forgive his misogyny preemptively? Does this acknowledgement excuse it? Perhaps initially, one may choose to listen to Cuomo’s instructions and view it as some sort of concept record, as Pinkerton was originally meant to be. But misogyny isn’t “conceptual”; it’s a very real problem, and Weezer has a big problem with it. As Jenny Zhang wrote in Rookie regarding her personal relationship to Pinkerton’s “Across the Sea,” “The only person present in these songs is the white man imagining all of it.”
Cuomo’s Pinkerton letter set an early precedent for what is to be expected of Weezer listeners: to listen carefully, but never take anything too seriously, and to excuse every one of his artistic impulses whether sexist, racist, or otherwise. With the absurd so close to the existential, how are we to know which should be taken in jest? There lies the problem Weezer continues to pose: Cuomo’s sexism is presented as a laugh.
Upon its release, the critical response to Pinkerton was harsh, and Cuomo dissociated himself with the record for many years. “The most painful thing in my life these days is the cult around Pinkerton,” he told Rolling Stone in 2001. “It’s just a sick album, sick in a diseased sort of way.” However, it was quickly embraced by the audience who related to it most: frustrated adolescents, present and former. As the album grew to become a cult favorite, Cuomo reverted his stance, telling Pitchfork in 2008, “Pinkerton’s great. It’s super-deep, brave, and authentic. Listening to it, I can tell that I was really going for it when I wrote and recorded a lot of those songs.”
Weezer’s next record, 2001’s The Green Album, is tight and modest, without the unrestrained purging of Pinkerton. Instead, Cuomo returns to Blue Album levels of helplessness: “But if there comes a day / You should turn your heart away / I’ll be down on my knees / Beggin’ for that girl to stay.” The Green Album is accessible and catchy, easy on the ears, a beloved record to many Weezer fans.
At this point—between 2002’s only-average Maladroit and 2005’s Make Believe—35-year-old Cuomo had not yet lyrically matured, though he moved forward in his personal life. In 2003, he began practicing Vipassana meditation per the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin; later that year, as described in his 2004 essay “A Mad and Furious Master,” he took a two-year vow of celibacy until the day he married in 2006. But his lyrics stagnated. On Make Believe, the female figures are cures for Cuomo’s loneliness, though he admits that he pushes them away (“I’m a hero, but I’m a zero”). The only exception is “Pardon Me,” in which he sings, “I may not be a perfect soul / But I can learn self-control.”
Each of Weezer’s albums since Make Believe has been permeated with painfully adolescent musings: 2008’s The Red Album (“You come like a dog when I ring your bell / I got the money and I got the fame / You got the hots to ride on my plane” on “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived”), 2009’s Ratitude (“She kept on dancing, refused my romancing / And that’s when I fell in love” on “The Girl Got Hot”), 2010’s Hurley (“Ring ring goes your telephone / You act like you ain’t at home / You shut me out but it turns me on” on “Ruling Me”), and 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In the End (“So open you’re arms, and let me come in / I’d never hurt you girl cause that would be a sin” on “Lonely Girl”). So while “Thank God for Girls” is a gender essentialist, reductive take from a man who simply can’t shake his views, it’s also more of the same. These days, though, his patterns of misogyny aren’t hidden in jewel cases or on inserts in record sleeves: they are easily searchable, often flaunted and, 23 years into Cuomo’s career, impossible to ignore.
Quinn Moreland is a music writer living in Brooklyn. She’s too scared to ever change her twitter handle so it has always been @quinnmoreland.
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