Women in Music 2018

Weezer's 'Pinkerton' Turns 20: Why the Landmark, Raw Album Wasn't a Big Hit for the Band

Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images
Weezer photographed in 1996. 

For rock fans of a certain age, it’s impossible to think of Weezer without mentally replaying the video for “Buddy Holly,” the band’s breakthrough 1994 single. Directed by Spike Jonze, the clip inserts the group into an episode of Happy Days, where they’re right at home in their ties and cardigans, singing about rock’s original four-eyed wonder.

The song and video -- and really the entirety of the band’s self-titled debut, known as The Blue Album -- painted Weezer as nerdy, non-threatening alternatives to the day’s more virile alt heroes. For the follow-up, singer and primary songwriter Rivers Cuomo could’ve stuck with the quirky, wimpy image that had endeared him to millions. Instead, he made Pinkerton, an aggressively honest and introspective album no one expected -- and few people in 1996 wanted to hear.  

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Released 20 years ago today (Sept. 24, 1996), Pinkerton sold just 47,000 copies in its first week and peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard 200. Although it became a cult classic in the decade that followed -- a time when people still paid money for CDs and digital downloads -- it didn't go platinum until a week before its 20th anniversary. For all its risky brilliance, this isn’t a huge surprise.

That’s because on Pinkerton, Weezer plays completely against type. Whereas the Cuomo of the Blue Album is a smart, sensitive loner keen on mending his broken heart and frayed sweater by playing D&D in the garage, the guy on Pinkerton is a red-blooded male out in the world, trying to get laid and indulging fantasies that get him into trouble. He’s past the point of politely reining his feelings in, and the music mirrors his dirtiest, ugliest thoughts.

On the Blue Album, Weezer had worked with former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who gave the record a dry, distorted, slightly dragging power-pop sound that called attention to its own heaviness as a kind of ironic joke. The contrast between the massive guitars and the dweeby longing in Rivers’ lyrics and vocals gave Weezer an underdog appeal -- like the kid picked last in gym was suddenly rocking the homecoming party. Pinkerton, by contrast, was self-produced and outfitted with a looser, rougher sonic palette. 

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From the feedback squeal that begins opener “Tired of Sex,” a desperate plea for romance that comes off a little sexist, to the punky charge of jaded standout “Why Bother?”, Weezer sounds like a rock n’ roll band -- not a bunch of mathletes riffing on your idea of a rock n’ roll band.

“When we went to make our first album,” Cuomo said in a radio interview included with 2010’s deluxe Pinkerton reissue, “we were nervous and we wanted it to sound good. So I think we were in the wrong frame of mind. We were making sure everything was perfect, and it came out sounding a bit sterile.”

The goal with Pinkerton, he said, was to “be ourselves, be natural.” For Cuomo, that meant writing about recent travails. After the success of Blue, which spawned three top 10 singles on the Alternative Songs chart and went platinum within eight months, Cuomo enrolled at Harvard University to study classical composition. Relentless touring behind the same 10 songs had left him craving mental stimulation, and whether he found it in Boston, Cuomo wasn’t exactly a big man on campus. As autobiographical Pinkerton jams like “El Scorcho” and “Pink Triangle” attest, he was still having trouble with the ladies. His feelings of alienation led him to scrap Songs From the Black Hole, the space-themed rock opera that was to have been Weezer’s sophomore effort.

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Cuomo discovered a more meaningful conceptual peg in Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, about an American serviceman named Pinkerton who plays a young Japanese girl like a rock star might a groupie. Cuomo alludes to the story on the wrenching acoustic closer “Butterfly,” which ends with the words “I’m sorry” repeated three times. Guilt, sex, and the fetishisation of Asian culture also factor into “Across the Sea,” inspired by a letter Rivers received from a Japanese fan. “I could never touch you / I think it would be wrong,” he sings, not quite erasing the song’s ickiness with his promise of self-control.

Some of Weezer’s trademark goofy humor comes across on the singles “El Scorcho,” “The Good Life,” and “Pink Triangle,” but Cuomo wouldn’t greenlight the sort of high-concept “Buddy Holly”-esque videos that might’ve made them hits, and none charted on the Hot 100. Then again, another Jonze-directed clip might not have made a difference. On all three songs, the laughs are uneasy, and the narrator is tough to root for. Cuomo says so himself on “The Good Life”: “I’m a pig, I’m a dog / So excuse me if I drool.” 

Although it was worshipped by the generation of emo kids that formed bands in the ‘00s, this beastly version of Weezer never reared its head again. Since the group reactivated with The Green Album in 2001, Cuomo has kept things pretty user-friendly, effectively transforming Weezer into a dependable career act with a bottomless well of catchy pop tunes. He's traded the raw emotions of Pinkerton for what sometimes feels like broad, digestible nostalgia -- a smart play if he wants to stick around a while. After all, Happy Days ran for 11 seasons.