Monday, December 24, 2018

What's With These Homies Dissin' My Boys? The Curious Case of Weezerphobia

by Michael C. Dorf

With the holidays upon us, this will likely be the last new essay on DoL until after the new year. Over the next week and a half, we'll post a few "classic" columns, i.e., reruns, but perhaps ones you missed the first time. Anyway, in the holiday spirit, I've opted for something with no legal, political, or economic implications today: an essay on the odd phenomenon of Weezerphobia.

The season-ending episode of Saturday Night Live included a segment in which a dinner party is ruined when two fans of the band Weezer (played by guest-host Matt Damon and SNL cast member Leslie Jones) get into a heated argument over whether the band continues to produce good music (Damon's character) or peaked decades ago and ought to have faded by now (Jones's character).
If you don't like, don't care about, or have never heard of Weezer, I promise that the rest of this essay is mostly not about Weezer so much as it is about music, art, and the passage of time. Anyway, ICYMI, here's the SNL sketch:



Pretty funny, right? Sure, but to those of us who actually agree with what Damon's character says in the sketch, maybe not so funny, when you consider that it echoes a much meaner version of the same perspective performed by Hari Kondabolu in his standup act in 2012:



So, on behalf of Weezer fans everywhere, I say "WTF?".

To be clear, I ask that question on behalf of Weezer fans, not the band members themselves, who were apparently thrilled to be the object of a full sketch on SNL, or at least had the good sense to feign amusement and the ability to take a joke. (By contrast, the president reacted to the It's a Wonderful Life-inspired opening sketch imagining a world in which he isn't president by threatening NBC with unconstitutional censorship.)

The SNL sketch invokes a relatively common phenomenon: A band or singer attracts a devoted following of fans who are drawn to an edgy sound. The band or singer then attracts some mainstream attention and releases an album that is more popular but also less edgy. Many of the original fans of the band or singer condemn the new sound; some accuse the band or singer of having "sold out." The Leslie Jones character takes this perspective with respect to Weezer.

What can we say about the sell-out phenomenon? For one thing, it's real, although not necessarily insidious. Fans of up-and-coming or "alternative" bands and singers, almost by definition, tend to abjure commercially successful bands and singers. What distinguishes a band or singer in the early stages of a career from the later "sellout" version? Often it's just a change from producing music in a basement using GarageBand on a five-year-old MacBook to producing it in a high-end studio on good equipment assisted by a professional sound engineer. That "raw" or "edgy" sound that the early fans loved so much may simply reflect crappy production.

To be sure, sometimes bands or singers really do change their sound in a way that seems calculated to reach a broader audience, but I think this happens less often than music fans may assume. There are very few examples of bands or singers making such a transition successfully. More often, it seems, the attempt alienates the original audience without producing a major mainstream breakthrough. Liz Phair is a cautionary tale in this regard (although I must say, that although I much preferred Exile in Guyville to her widely panned eponymous 2003 release, I still kinda liked Liz Phair). Even when a genre shift achieves substantial commercial success (as when Taylor Swift decided that she no longer wanted to sing country-inspired breakup songs and rebranded herself more or less as Kesha), it's completely understandable that fans of the original sound would be disappointed. It's less understandable but predictable that some subset of those fans would feel betrayed.

The SNL Weezer sketch casts Jones in the role of the betrayed fan, while casting Damon in the role of superfan who loves whatever the band creates. The picture is somewhat stylized and doesn't really fit Weezer's output. Jones's character -- like Kondabolu in his act -- stops listening to Weezer after Pinkerton, the band's second album. But here's the thing: Pinkerton was a flop when released and, while much beloved of many longtime fans, is an outlier in Weezer's oeuvre. Their 2016 White Album has more in common musically with the 1994 debut Blue Album than Pinkerton has. Don't believe me? Listen to Buddy Holly and especially Surf Wax America from the Blue Album. Then listen to the first two tracks on the White Album (California Kids and Wind in Our Sail) for both lyrical and musical similarities. Now listen to the two opening tracks on Pinkerton. Totally different, right? Over the course of their career, Weezer might be thought a kind of more angsty and updated version of the Beach Boys. (Track 2 on Pacific Daydream is titled Beach Boys and includes the apparently unironic lyric "let me tell you 'bout a band I loved . . . ."). With the exception of a couple of tracks (especially the delightful Pink Triangle), Pinkerton is more Hüsker Dü than Beach Boys (and not in a good way, if that were even possible).

Does that mean that the SNL sketch missed the mark? Not at all. The sketch isn't really about Weezer at all. It's about the silly intensity of some music fans. Who cares whether late Weezer is as good as early Weezer or even worth listening to? If the Jones character thinks not, she can stop listening; if the Damon character thinks so, he can keep listening. What makes the sketch work is that the characters seem to believe that the stakes are high or even resolvable by rational argument, like the question whether and to what extent Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations repudiates his earlier Tractatus.

While Damon, Jones, and the writers of the SNL sketch poke gentle fun at fans of Weezer and music fans more generally, Kondabolu is more troubling. His main complaint against Weezer appears to be their continued existence as songwriters and a band writing and performing about the same old topics: sex, girls, surfing, drugs, etc. "Oh life is hard and girls don't like me and high school's weird," Kondabolu mockingly whines. Then he snaps out of character and chides "of course it's weird; you're forty!" He goes on to deride the notion that men in their forties could write songs that adolescents can relate to.

Really? One wonders whether Kondabolu has ever browsed the shelves of the YA section of a library or bookstore and noticed that very few of the authors of the books on them are young adults. Or that the successful authors continue to write books that adolescents want to read over the course of careers that span decades.

And anyway, what would Kondabolu have Weezer do? Some artists change topics as they age, with each work reflecting a different stage of life. Tom Perrotta's fiction roughly follows that trajectory. Perrotta is just a few years older than I am, so I have found his (terrific) writing a good fit with my own life experiences.

But this path is harder to follow for a musical artist. By the time they reach their 30s, most people's taste in music freezes. So a band that changes its style substantially runs a very big risk of losing its audience. Even artists who branch out tend to play a substantial fraction of "old stuff" when they tour. Indeed, that's even true of great great artists who evolve in interesting ways while remaining true to their roots: Prince recorded 37 studio albums during his lifetime, including 16 albums after 1999 (a year I choose for obvious reasons); those albums include some really great songs; yet just about every one of his "top songs" (via streaming services) was recorded before 1990.

Ultimately, Kondabolu's real complaint seems to be that the band members in Weezer have grown older. Early in his routine, he riffs on The Rolling Stones, who, now well into their sixth decade, are still touring. Kondabolu doesn't critique their performance. His joke is that they're old.

Kondabolu's ageism would be offensive and not especially funny coming from any comedian, but it's especially problematic coming from him. If you know only one thing about Kondabolu, you know that he killed Apu, and for good reason. As he told the NY Times last year, “Everything with Apu is like this running joke, . . . and the running joke is that he’s Indian.” Well, the running joke in Kondabolu's riff on Weezer is that they're old--and that the Stones are even older.

Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were still practically teenagers when The Who released My Generation, which included the lyric "Hope I die before I get old." Luckily, they didn't, although Keith Moon and John Entwistle did. Rivers Cuomo is now 48. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are each 75. Kondabolu is 36. He will be lucky if twelve years from now he has the comedian's equivalent of the success Weezer has enjoyed. I will boldly predict that Kondabolu will never achieve a fraction of the success the Rolling Stones (or The Who) achieved.

But I don't want to end on a sour note. After all, maybe Kondabolu has changed his mind. He performed his anti-Weezer standup when he was 28. Maybe now at the advanced age of 36 he has acquired the wisdom that sometimes comes with experience. If not, I challenge him -- and invite all readers -- to listen to Zombie Bastards, one of the two pre-released tracks from Weezer's forthcoming Black Album, and then try to tell me and Matt Damon that Weezer doesn't still have it!