Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 28, which explores the history of Weezer with help from Bobby Bones.
Weezer were from L.A. but didn’t look like it, which I appreciated. Not glamorous, these fellas. The fellas are of course resplendent on the cover of The Blue Album, looking, uh, slovenly. They’re not slouching, exactly, but they look like someone just yelled at them to stand up straight. I would describe them as having accessible haircuts. Weezer frontman and songwriter Rivers Cuomo is second from the left, but these four guys—left to right, drummer Pat Wilson, River Cuomo, bassist Matt Sharp, and new guitarist Brian Bell—are standing in a straight line. Very egalitarian. Very democratic. Though this of course turned out to be an illusion.
Great song, “(Undone) The Sweater Song.” It sits at the exact midpoint of Nirvana and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Great video. Spike Jonze. One take. Dim blue lighting. Indifferent lip-syncing. A herd of dogs is released during the final chorus. We’re inching closer to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, emotionally, here. I approved. 1994 needed more slovenly dudes with crunchy guitars who weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Though perhaps that was an illusion, too.
When The Blue Album turned 25, back in 2019, Rolling Stone did a big retrospective, and Rivers Cuomo said, “I seriously thought we were the next Nirvana. And I thought the world was going to perceive us that way, like a super-important, super-powerful, heartbreaking heavy rock band, and as serious artists. That’s how I saw us.” He went on to say that “The Sweater Song” specifically contained his “darkest thoughts, and it became clear everyone else who hears this song is going to think it’s hilarious.” I gotta say that everyone else had a point.
How seriously we should take Rivers Cuomo, versus how seriously Rivers Cuomo should take himself—these are the animating tensions of Weezer, and so they have remained for a quarter century. Shit gets weird. Shit gets awkward. More awkward. Weezer of course sounded endearingly awkward from that very first drum roll. For a lot of people though—for a lot of fans, even—it would all get steadily less endearing.
Challenge No. 1: Avoid becoming a novelty one-hit wonder. It can’t be overstated: 1994 specifically had an awful lot of glum dudes with crunchy guitars glowering up the joint on MTV, if they hadn’t already haughtily sworn off making MTV videos altogether. Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. R.E.M.’s Monster. Soundgarden’s Superunknown. Bush’s Sixteen Stone. Live’s Throwing Copper. Great records. All of ‘em. Honest. “White, Discussion” is a killer closing track. If you know, you know. But not a lot of fun to be had with those records, in the classic sense. Not a lot of intentional goofiness. Green Day’s Dookie, OK, lotta goofiness, but nonetheless: Shuffle “The Sweater Song” into an alt-rock radio playlist with all that glowering stuff, amid the Downward Spirals and Nirvana Unplugged’s of the world, and Weezer felt like a spoof, like a Saturday morning cartoon parody of a tough-guy alt-rock band. The better Weezer’s songs got, the greater that disparity. The next single off The Blue Album was “Buddy Holly,” and yo: fantastic song. Power-pop classic. You know it. Maybe you pretend not to love it. But I know you know.
But the “Buddy Holly” video—Spike Jonze again, Happy Days, the sweaters, the fake commercial break, the Fonz tearing up the dance floor at Arnold’s Restaurant—was an actual parody, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer as a video so vivid and quirky and unforgettable it nearly wipes out the song. If you’ve ever referred to “No Rain” by Blind Melon as “the Bee Girl Song,” you know. To many people, to many fans, the “Buddy Holly” video is the very essence of Weezer: the killer hooks but also the wanton silliness. Surprise: Rivers didn’t like that video, or at least didn’t like the idea of it defining him. He explained his position in a 1997 Weezer cover story for Alternative Press magazine, which remains to this day the most depressing cover story about a rock ’n’ roll band I’ve ever read:
“At once I didn’t like it, and at the same time I knew it was an amazing idea and it had to be done. It’s strange that me and my music got caught up in this. But our music got to a lot of people as a result of that video. It’s my least favorite of all the videos we’ve done. I think I’d like it more if it weren’t me and it weren’t my song. I think it’s truly amazing. I’m extremely grateful to it. But it has nothing to do with me.”
The third single of The Blue Album was “Say It Ain’t So.” It’s a ballad about fathers, and stepfathers, and malevolent bottles of beer. This fundamental Weezer dilemma about how seriously anybody should take any of this—here’s where that turbulence becomes a permanent part of the Weezer experience.
And I heard there was a secret chord that Rivers played and it pleased the lord. But you don’t really care for goofballs, do ya? G-Sharp major, by the way. Now you know. Rivers Cuomo grew up mostly in Connecticut. He didn’t start going to public school until he was 11; previously he’d spent time living in an ashram called Yogaville. In that scarring Alternative Press cover story, he reminisces about his childhood, though reminisces is the wrong word. Quote: “I know I was a very somber child. I would never smile. In the second grade my teacher asked my mother what was wrong with me because I never looked happy. So my mother advised her to say, ‘Let me see the smile,’ and then I would smile. So she did that—in front of the whole class. She got the whole class to turn around, look at me and say, ‘Let me see the smile.’” The writer of this cover story adds, as an aside, “Almost 20 years later, his voice still shakes at the memory.”
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.