Weezer's Pinkerton and the invention of the manic pixie dream boys

The LP laid the blueprint for emo and became a curse for a band whose fans never really forgave them for not following up their confessional masterpiece

For Rivers Cuomo, Pinkerton – Weezer’s second album – was like getting too drunk at a party. Even five years after its 1996 release, the band’s frontman still had a hangover. Talking to Rolling Stone, he compared his experience of Pinkerton, which turns 20 on Saturday, to cathartically spilling your guts out and then waking up the next morning to realize “what a complete fool you made of yourself”.

For a long time, Cuomo talked about Pinkerton like it was his high school diary, a humiliating reminder of a time when he was unapologetically emotional and corny. The album was written in 1995, a tough year where he underwent surgery for having one leg that was longer than the other. Cuomo started taking painkillers, became obsessed with Puccini, and originally wanted the band to release a science fiction opera titled Songs from the Black Hole as their follow-up to their eponymous debut. Though that idea was put on hold, the music that would go on to become Pinkerton would come from that same dark place.

In the fall, Cuomo would make the decision to live a kind of “normal” life and study classical composition at Harvard. The band would stay together, laying down tracks on Cuomo’s breaks and in between other members’ side projects. They headed to the studio largely unprepared and without a producer, aiming to sound more like their live shows and less like their polished debut, which was produced by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek. The music that would emerge over the next year showcased the band’s self-described “darker” side, if not in part because their lead singer was struggling to adapt to his new academic life.

El Scorcho

Songs like Why Bother? and Getchoo take on the sad, bizarre reality of Cuomo’s life at Harvard, where he was a literal rock star attempting to play the role of a regular college student. In a 1997 issue of Details, he would describe the album as chronicling his “cycle between lame-o and partier”. On one hand Cuomo was a famous musician, on the other, he was rejected from joining the school’s chorus. And though fans would write him love letters from Japan – the inspiration for Across The Sea – he claims to have gone unrecognized by students wearing Weezer T-shirts.

I was a little kid when Pinkerton came out but that’s probably a good thing, as the world didn’t seem to be ready. Rolling Stone readers voted it the third worst album of the year and Entertainment Weekly called it “a collection of get-down party anthems for agoraphobics”. Pinkerton wasn’t a complete flop, but it definitely wasn’t a hit, peaking at number 19 on the charts. Record executives and fans were expecting something closer to the pop rock of Blue, where Cuomo sang about sweaters and Buddy Holly. Pinkerton, in contrast, was overly dramatic and sentimental, loosely based on Madame Butterfly and named after one of the opera’s characters.

Sitting pretty: Weezer.
Sitting pretty: Weezer. Photograph: Agentur GMBH/REX/Shutterstock

More important than Pinkerton’s reception was how Cuomo felt about it in the aftermath. The album was rumored to have caused the departure of beloved bassist Matt Sharp, who alluded to it in the lyrics for Waiting, a song with his band The Rentals (No beauty / No sweet melody / No four-part barber shop harmony). He would eventually file a lawsuit in 2001 for royalties linked to Pinkerton’s songwriting credits. During that year, Cuomo still seemed to have an (emotional) hangover that he couldn’t quite shake. To make matters worse, the album was seeing a resurgence with the rise of emo. “The most painful thing in my life these days is the cult around Pinkerton,” he said, calling it a “hideous record”, one that was sick “in a diseased sort of way”. Cuomo described the entire experience as “a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won’t go away.”

Cuomo’s disgust seemed to be less about public opinion and more about his own vulnerability. Cuomo said his goals for Pinkerton were emotional, not commercial. Pinkerton was embarrassing because it was uncomfortably earnest. What the album lacks in length (it’s a short 35 minutes), it makes up for in self-indulgence, and that’s by design.

When I discovered Pinkerton in high school, Cuomo’s cliched, emotional frankness didn’t repulse me. At 15 years old, it was exactly what I craved from music. I was there for his self-indulgence because it so perfectly reflected mine. Feelings scared me (Falling For You); I was also afraid of rejection (Pink Triangle). And I wanted desperately to be Tired of Sex because I thought that was cool. Details aside, I shared with Cuomo a need to express my emotions. Similarly, I didn’t seem to care if they were lame, completely un-self-aware, or even offensive.

The Good Life

The person Cuomo presents in Pinkerton can now be described as a kind of softboy or sad lad. Back then, he reminded me of the “alt” guys me and my friends were obsessed with, the ones who would tell you they couldn’t be your boyfriend while crying. These boys would give you a burned copy of Pinkerton as some kind of heartbreaking consolation or maybe an explanation for their bad behavior. It’s crazy to think Cuomo was in his twenties when he wrote a song like Butterfly, which eerily captures the faux apologetic, whiny plea of a teen boy who’s done wrong: “I’m sorry for what I did / I did what my body told me to / I didn’t mean to do you harm.”

But in the early aughts, Cuomo’s approach to rock – and his brand of rockstar – didn’t stick out as weird. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer fit right in with contemporaries like Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. For that moment in time, manic pixie dream boys and the music they made were embraced, for better and for worse. And in this context, Pinkerton wasn’t embarrassing, it was groundbreaking.

Looking back on Pinkerton now, it only seems more ahead of its time, having just gone platinum eight days ago. In the age of social media, Cuomo’s compulsion to vomit out his emotions publicly is embraced if not encouraged. And Pinkerton’s conversational, confessional lyrics read like they could be anyone’s self-deprecating tweets, Facebook status updates or Tumblr posts. Though Cuomo has since walked back his hatred of Pinkerton in the wake of greater disasters (they were offered $10m to split up in 2010 because they’d been in decline since Pinkerton), he – unsurprisingly – still shared his emotions about the band’s trajectory, on the internet this time. “I miss the days when it was okay to like Weezer,” he self-consciously tweeted last year. I wish he knew that too many of the millennials who grew up on his feels, it’s not just OK to like Weezer, it’s actually kind of cool.

Alana Levinson

The GuardianTramp

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