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For several reasons, it was a hard decision to write about “Pinkerton.” The first is that since its infamously tepid reception in 1996, which sent Weezer on an identity-searching downward spiral, critics have all but begged frontman Rivers Cuomo for forgiveness, decorating the album with perfect scores and calling it one of the best releases of its decade. To write about “Pinkerton” is to, inevitably, contribute my own washed-out opinion on an album whose legacy has already been cemented in Weezer’s discography and, indeed, among its contemporaries.
The second reason is that I really fucking hate “Pinkerton.” I hate its casual racism and misogyny. I hate its anthematic choruses that wouldn’t turn heads if my high school’s marching band played them at our feebly attended pep rallies. I hate how in the very first line of the album, Cuomo offhandedly remarks, “I’m tired, so tired / I’m tired of having sex.” So when I say that “Pinkerton” is an important album to me, I don’t mean that listening to the album sends chills down my spine or transports me to another dimension. In fact, “Pinkerton” has the opposite effect: the world in which “Pinkerton” resides feels like that of my own, familiar mind.
“Pinkerton” is a voice for the masses—for me, much more so than anything AFI or Fall Out Boy ever wrote. While Davey Havok and Patrick Stump were singing about teenage angst and unrequited romance, Cuomo was describing himself sniffing and licking fan mail just to exchange weeks-old saliva residue with a Japanese girl he had never met. And while critics called “Pinkerton” Cuomo’s way of dealing with his newfound fame, I think it wasn’t the fame that drove him to create the album, but a more deeply rooted and unsettling instinct that everybody faces as they grow up. But to describe the antagonist of “Pinkerton” as adolescence is similarly trivializing. It’s a deeply disturbing but—ultimately—human idea that rubs gratingly against our domesticated, repressed society. Instead of burying it like the rest of us, Cuomo makes love to it and then beats it to death, leaving it strewn across the whole of “Pinkerton.”
In a sense, “Pinkerton” is Cuomo’s “Lolita.” It doesn’t deal with issues quite as dark as pedophilia, but it similarly tests what society is ready for regarding honesty in art. “Pinkerton” brings up questions that I refuse to answer, because daring to answer them feels like teetering on the brink of a deep, disgusting sinfulness. Sure, I can claim with confidence that it’s wrong to exoticize Japanese girls. But is it wrong to admit that sometimes you hate yourself because you find yourself doing it? And is it wrong to find that kind of relatable?
The truth is that every cringeworthy line in “Pinkerton” is just as much a reflection of the world as it is a reflection of Cuomo. Being a man, I can’t forgive Cuomo for the things he says. But the truth is that I would never have the guts to talk so openly about my own internalized misogyny and racism, much less announce it to the world on the heels of a multi-platinum debut album. It’s all too easy to turn Cuomo into a martyr, but in my eyes, “Pinkerton” is just a thinly veiled attempt to talk about the prejudices that society perpetuates in secret. In that light, it’s the rest of us, the silent masses, who are the guilty ones.
The urge to condemn “Pinkerton” as tasteless rock fodder is exacerbated in part because its most superficial moments are often the ones that hit hardest. The closing track, “Butterfly,” is by far the most tender on the album and wields some of its heftiest lines. “If I’m a dog, then you’re a bitch,” Cuomo whispers, delivering the expletive almost lovingly. And of course there’s the shockingly blatant chorus, in which he declares, “I’m sorry for what I did / I did what my body told me to, I didn’t mean to do you harm.” But it’s the lines that are interspersed among these remarks, Cuomo’s internal monologue, that make “Butterfly” sound more introspective than offensive. “I guess you’re as real as me, maybe I can live with that,” he muses. And if the role of “Butterfly” as the album’s thesis wasn’t clear enough already, Cuomo ends the track—and “Pinkerton”—with a simple apology: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Sure, Cuomo spends a lot of time milking his own faults, but he then wages war on them with ideas as beautiful as his faults are disgusting. It’s a simple thought, but it’s one I’ve never had. That’s why, when I first heard “Butterfly,” it almost brought me to tears. Although I find fragments of myself in Cuomo at his worst, I can only admire Cuomo at his best from afar.
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how fans and critics alike missed the point of “Pinkerton” when, throughout most of the album, Cuomo couldn’t be any more explicit. In the bridge of “El Scorcho,” the lead single that doomed the album, he frantically professes, “How stupid is it? I can’t talk about it, I gotta sing about it and make a record.” But in spite of this slew of unadorned confessions, I remember that I, too, hate “Pinkerton.” I remember that the same lead single opens with a racist turn-off (“Goddamn, you half-Japanese girls / Do it to me every time.”) and then proceeds to reduce a woman to a few common interests and quirks.
Regrettably, at the end of the day I can’t separate myself from these ideas and claim that “Pinkerton” doesn’t speak to me. For that reason, the war Cuomo wages on the album has caught me in its crossfire, turning his confusion, uncertainty, and self-hatred into my own. Perhaps that’s why “Pinkerton” is so difficult to love: it’s loathing, not remorse, that Cuomo exudes. The self-destruction of Weezer, ironically, was born out of the mass misinterpretation of the album’s own self-destructive nature. I still fucking hate “Pinkerton.” But the more I listen to it, the less unfamiliar the album’s darkest points become. Sure, I think half-Japanese girls are pretty hot. I’m just too much of a coward to admit it.
—Staff writer Se-Ho B. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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