Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pinkerton

Pitchfork's review of the deluxe reissue of Pinkerton is pretty infuriating for a number of reasons, but the main problem here is the eternal one: what do we do with Rivers Cuomo? How do you evaluate a new Weezer song in 2010? Here's a guy who came swinging with one album of radio-ready anthems, followed it up with an even more rocking, initially reviled cult classic, and then returned to destroy his following twice over: first by writing songs that were sonically identical to Blue Album (thereby opening himself to accusations of cynically retreading himself), and then going off to some other planet where it's acceptable to write a song like "We Are All On Drugs."

That planet, as it happens, is FM radio: the mostly wretched Hurley is the band's sixth album in a row to debut in the Billboard top 10. Weezer has fans, but (with some rare exceptions) their following is completely different from their first wave. They've jumped generational waves without missing a beat, a feat that's abstractly impressive. That kind of commercial success appeals to people who believe populism automatically confers cultural significance, while simultaneously alienating those who believe marginalization automatically equals personal significance. And no matter how much Pitchfork loves Lady Gaga or Ke$sha or whatever other goddamn populist pop thing we're supposed to genuflect before, when it comes to a band like Weezer, those '90s battle-lines and scars still linger. It doesn't matter if the album was vindicated long ago; any review will start from an inexplicably defensive position, because mentally it's still 1996.

In his mostly useless but sporadically amusing collection Eating The Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman claims that he really loves that song, "Beverly Hills" and "Freak Me Out" because, well, he's a populist. That's not what he says (he goes on for a few pages about how literal-minded a songwriter Cuomo is, which is true, and then lapses into a stoner reverie about weirdos lurking in shadows), but that's what he means. This is kind of a load of shit ("Beverly Hills" is abominable and no amount of college + Christgau hyperbolic essay-writing will ever convince me otherwise), but it's also an apt way to think about Cuomo, because it mirrors his approach to post-Pinkerton songwriting. Both Klosterman and Rivers are smart guys who at a certain point decided that the defense and preservation of lowest-common-denominator music (something so pervasive that it certainly didn't need their help) was their true calling. They're aware of other stuff; they just don't care. Last year I interviewed Cuomo, which had to easily be one of the five most pleasurable interviews I've ever done, and certainly with a musician. In the course of the interview, he mentioned studying Boulez and Schoenberg, which is certainly the long way round to writing a sub-Dandy Warhols piece of shit like "We Are All On Drugs." He also spoke about moving from the Pixies to the simplicity of The Beach Boys lyrically. Then I asked him what he'd been listening to lately, and he opened up his iTunes and geeked out on Gloria Estefan's "Anything For You."

This is a long way of saying that Rivers Cuomo knows precisely what he's doing: he's far smarter (both in understanding how songwriting and composition work technically, and also as a businessman) than most bandleaders, and the fact that most of what he does now sucks is kind of irrelevant. He made a conscious decision to discard most of what he knows in his songwriting, and he seems perfectly happy with it. Good for him. Anyway, most Weezer albums have at least one salvageable track (Red Album has the stupidly catchy "Pork 'N Beans" and the bizarrely compelling "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived," and "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" is a pretty good opener on Red Album). Worrying about latter-day Weezer is a total waste of everyone's time; either you have the time to sift through and abstractly appreciate what he's doing or you don't.

None of this is relevant in any way to the album Pinkerton, which in a bit I'll get to arguing for as a '90s keepsake as much as a musical monster. Here's my relationship to it: in high school — which is precisely when I should've been rotating it on repeat — I didn't much like it. I had enough problems of my own to contend with without sinking into Rivers Cuomo's sexual angst. I pulled it out about a year ago for the first time in years and basically haven't put it down since. My point here is that when I should've loved it I didn't, and now that it's irrelevant to me thematically I love it; it does not have to be appreciated through one confessional prism. It's pretty much near-perfect work, insofar as it flows immaculately from start to finish and almost every song can be listened to singly as a concise gem (except for "Butterfly," which is admittedly pushing it). The songs that freaked me out as too hysterical in high school now strike me as mostly awesome, especially "Getchoo." It's too much, but it's the good kind of too much. It's loud and it rocks. At times, it's almost dangerously ramshackle like Third/Sister Lovers but on purpose, with no drugs, which is impressive.

Lyrically, Pinkerton is problematic in a number of ways, but, again, it's the fun kind of problematic. Rivers Cuomo is writing from the heart of the '90s, a decade that would finally mandate sexual tolerance for anyone who wanted to be a Sensitive '90s Boy, which Cuomo is nothing if not: this is a guy who established himself by comparing himself to Buddy Holly and whining about Heinekens taking over his fridge. This is not a misogynist guy: he blames his mom for everything, sure, but on "Say It Ain't So" he blamed dear old dad for all his trouble, so that seems fair. This is the guy who wants to be your better boyfriend and can't stop worrying the girl will inexplicably leave or assert herself in some way: this is Scott Pilgrim before the gift of self-respect. What's brave about Pinkerton isn't the specific creepiness on display (although some of it is very creepy indeed, in ways that could only occur to this guy); it's that Cuomo is flaying himself, repeatedly, for not being the kind of good progressive 20something he should be. Instead, he's giving in to all his base instincts, no longer the guy he wants to be. He's making an awful lot of shoddy-sounding excuses for himself, but he can't stop himself.

In this respect I've always been particularly amused by "Pink Triangle," in which Rivers is straight-up pissed that some (faceless, nameless, personalityless) girl is a lesbian. This is not a very good (or tolerant) thing to admit to, but it's funny; in the decade where gay characters get mainstreamed on sitcoms, Cuomo's pissed his own heteronormative life has been disrupted. In a lot of ways, Pinkerton is an uber-90s album, in which a sensitive guy flagellates himself for not being sensitive enough. The '90s were the decade of ludicrous spectacles like Promise Keepers rallying in DC to, like, pledge to be good dudes. Being a guy in the '90s is rough if you have any degree of self-consciousness and desire to be a good person at all: pretty much everything is telling you all of your base instincts are horrible, horrible things.

This is not a problem special to Cuomo; he was just unusually open about it. Another '90s sadsack had similar issues: Elliott Smith told a "Spin" reporter that in his college time, "I was reading all this heavy-duty feminist theory—Catherine McKinnon, in particular. I really took it to heart, and it kind of drained all my energy away. I didn't want to do anything. If you're a straight, white man, she made it seem impossible to live your life without constantly doing something shitty, whether you knew it or not." There's not a single Elliott Smith song about this, but this is pretty much what every single song on Pinkerton is about. Rivers' transgressions, in the overall scheme of things, are pretty trivial: he's an immature jerk in relationships who thinks everything is about him, he has no empathy for his partners, he fantasizes about underage Japanese girls (though he knows he could "never touch you, that would be wrong"). That sucks, but no one's exactly getting scarred for life here except Rivers.

Here, of course, "sensitive" means something more like "empathetic" rather than "feeling everything way too much, which is the main problem.) But "Pink Triangle" gets even better because he heard she's a lesbian; he hasn't even talked to her. They were "good as married in my mind," which is pretty pathetic and not that far off from Don Gately in Infinite Jest who, "if a halfway-attractive female so much as smiles at [him] as they pass on the crowded street [...] has within a couple blocks mentally wooed, shacked up with, married and had kids by that female, all in the future, all in his head [...] By the time he gets where he's going, the drug addict has either mentally divorced the female and is in a bitter custody battle for the kids or is mentally happily still hooked up with her in his sunset years." This is basically Rivers Cuomo in 1996, and Pinkerton is unsparing at laying out what a dick he is. There's very little mediation or self-censoring.

There's no real reason to review Pinkerton and Death To Heavy Metal together, except to use the former as a stick to beat the latter with and fight the battles of 1996 all over again, which is basically what Ian Cohen's review is all about. In 2010, Pitchfork (and therefore, whether we like it or not, much of mainstream music criticism) is all about rewarding "embarrassing" "honesty" and "sincerity," terms which all deserve their separate scare quotes. It's the only way to explain a sentence like this: "The supposedly juvenile feelings of Pinkerton still pack visceral power years after listeners would've supposedly outgrown them." Those twin "supposedly"s are an aggressive statement: juvenile feelings are mature feelings, and we do not outgrow them. (Except for Rivers Cuomo, apparently, whose songwriting now displays absolutely zero emotions.) Arguable, I suppose: Cohen's repudiating someone who isn't there, someone telling him Pinkerton is for teenagers only. This is a pretty pointless: why can't the album be both juvenile and great? Why do we all have to embrace our gooey innards or risk being accused of being, I dunno, "supposedly mature"? What's this weird either/or divide when it comes to emotion in music? This is somehow all the Arcade Fire's fault.

ANYWAY. Here's my beef: Pinkerton is a great album, the band's last. That they have failed to live up since to the kind of standards of emotional self-disclosure is not a problem, or it shouldn't be. Ragging on latter-day Weezer for not being old Weezer is sort of like complaining that, say, The Limits of Control isn't like Stranger Than Paradise: it sounds like a compelling precedent, but it's mostly completely irrelevant. There are a lot of weird things to accuse Pinkerton of: witness, say, this bizarre diatribe on how Rivers Cuomo is everything wrong with man-boys these days. There are a lot of things to love about it. But you cannot insist that Pinkerton transcends context, or eternal, or eternally pathological, or whatever: praising it for being a gapingly sincere wound (and valuing it primarily for that) is as stupid as accusing Rivers of not being a good enough guy (which is what the whole record is about). It's a rock album: it's loud and it's fun, and it's absolutely inseparable from its year.

2 comments:

  1. Odd... parallel?

    "...not that far off from Don Gately in Infinite Jest who, 'if a halfway-attractive female so much as smiles at [him] as they pass on the crowded street [...] has within a couple blocks mentally wooed, shacked up with, married and had kids by that female, all in the future, all in his head [...] By the time he gets where he's going, the drug addict has either mentally divorced the female and is in a bitter custody battle for the kids or is mentally happily still hooked up with her in his sunset years.'"

    "...As the man politely blathered on, she would fall in love, marry, then find herself in a bitter custody battle with him for the kids and hoping for a reconciliation, so that despite all his betrayals she might no longer despise him, and in the few minutes remaining, learn, perhaps, what his last name was, and what he did for a living, though probably there was already too much history between them."

    http://www.pshares.org/issues/article-detail.cfm?intArticleID=4504

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