Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Weezer – “Undone (The Sweater Song)”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #57 on Billboard Hot 100; #6 on Modern Rock Chart, 1994.
In graduate school, upon coming out, I became attractive to a friend who had dated or had dalliances with several women in our circle. We were friends because we hung out a lot in that college way, aware that better company orbited inches from us. The friend, whom I’ll call Carlos, spent a desultory year in Loyola before transferring to Florida International University, continuing his drift from newspaper office and class to domino games on weekends awash in beer. Weezer’s eponymous debut never left his jeep’s CD storage. To his credit, he also loved Kim Deal, Sonic Youth, Busta Rhymes, and Everything But the Girl; introducing me to Amplified Heart remains his legacy. One Christmas I bought him a copy of Pinkerton, two years into the ignominy into which it had sunk on its original release and at least another couple years before we realized I wasn’t the only one buying the thing out of embarrassment, treating it like a filthy thing requiring brown paper bag and a special passport.
Faithful to the tenets of his private school education and rumpled manhood, Carlos thanked me not verbally but by blasting Pinkterton. All the time. After the eighteenth play the hysterically mixed drums and “so tired” line in opener “Tired of Sex” became synecdoches for my relationship with Weezer, Carlos. He took to things hard, absorbed them, strained with the passion of persuading others that he loved these objects of desire (inspiring sidelong glances), then, with admirable sangfroid, dropped them. Weezer and I were not dropped. We fooled around three times and I stepped away. To Weezer he remained a supplicant, to singer-songwriter-creep Rivers Cuomo a courtier. He quoted the garish and stupid lesbian-loving rocker “Pink Triangle.” He hummed “El Scorcho.”
I laced today’s entry with autobiography because on occasion it pleases me to be reductive. Guys who liked Weezer in their early twenties were no different from the guys a decade earlier who dug the Pixies, or twenty years ago Cheap Trick or the Cars. But the persistence of Weezer as cross-generational avatar for thwarted male erotic torment and pettifogging meanness is as indicative of our failure as a culture as fraternities, Pei Wei, and the eminence of Henry Kissinger. They suck because their songs were catchy. They suck because they for a pair of records they were good, damn good, at what they did. Rivers Cuomo produces antibodies resistant to irony like others do to measles. And the trouble started with their first single “Undone (The Sweater Song).”
Let me insist that their proficiency, abetted by the kaiser-like control of producer Ric Ocasek (talk about realizing one’s career ambitions early!), is at the heart of their grossness. Using a chord progression that nods to “Wild Thing” and an opening riff whose spareness was in the air of post-Nirvana college radio — think “Creep” — “Undone” raises a fair amount of ruckus for the sake of a banality; it’s like listening to a six-year-old’s tantrum over a stuffed bee. The party chatter interwoven through the riff reinforces the suspicion that “Undone” communalizes misanthropy, if this contradiction is possible. The metaphor is potent, and it’s possible Cuomo had in mind Steely Dan’s “Third World Man”: the depiction of a mollusk hiding from the sun, drying out as rays penetrate the shell. But it goes nowhere and delivers nothing.
Building on the purchasing habits of thousands of repressed young men, Weezer would mount an impressive comeback at the dawn of a new millennium, releasing a 2001 album baited with “Hash Pipe,” the only single of theirs I’d defend. I saw them live in 2001 because critics should conduct anthropological experiments even when they pay for tickets. They score their first pop top ten in 2005 with “Beverly Hills,” a Steve Miller sample with none of the space cowboy’s esprit and lightness of being. A couple years later they released an album whose sleeve had a flying dog, symbolism they didn’t understand. They’re back with a colorless — in every sense — faux funk single that shares a title with one of Jay Z’s most iconic songs. They have fulfilled every promise that my former friend held them to.