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Why Weezer is the Definitive Gen X Band

I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout my g-g-g-generation.
 
One of the more fascinating side effects of the ever-intensifying culture wars is the emergence of generational mud-slinging battle between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Social media has played the role of both venue and promotor, and news outlets have done their best to cheer it on. As a member of the cohort that's situated between the two factions - Generation X - and thus removed from the fray, I've regarded this as an amusing sideshow in the never-ending circus of nauseating Internet discourse. The most illuminating part to me is how the conflict, and various reports about it, consistently omits the existence the generation between these two, and how very appropriate that is.
 
Now I'll start with the disclaimer that I'm well aware that no group of people is homogeneous. Generation X encompasses many different personality types, cultural experiences, economic realities, and a possible 15-year age difference (Gen Xers are generally considered to have been born between 1965 and 1980). But I do believe that because of shared mass experiences and circumstances there are certain qualities and values that each generation has generally in common.
 
This belief is furthered by the fact that the more I read what research says about Generation X, the more I feel a strong, almost eerie, sense of connection and identification. 

And that brings me to Weezer. The more I've read about Generation X, the more I've become convinced that Weezer is the definitive Gen X band. I'll lay out my argument momentarily, but first, some background.
 
Part of this springs from a conversation I had last year with some co-workers, Bill and Alison. Bill complimented Alison's new glasses, and I remarked that they looked like Rivers Cuomo's glasses. "I love Weezer," replied Alison, who is about five years younger than me (which makes her an early Millennial or Xennial). Bill, who was born in 1991 and thus firmly a Millennial, said the opposite. I figured he'd give me the typical they-used-to-be-good-but-now-they're-terrible rationale, but that's not what he said. Instead, he said he feels like Weezer is constantly trolling the music-listening public.

Besides feeling like I was in a Saturday Night Live skit, I didn't think much of it at the time. Since then, my wife and I have had lots of conversations about Gen X, and we've seen the stories about Gen X being left off of infographics or being asked to help end cancel culture. Recently I read Mellissa Vosen Callens' Ode to Gen X: Institutional Cynicism in Stranger Things and 1980s Film (University Press of Mississippi). That book has a very specific focus, but it's full of research on Generation X. 
 
Coincidentally, I have also had Weezer's album OK Human on repeat.
 
All of this now has me wondering if Bill's attitude toward Weezer is the result of a generational divide. Besides the fact of not having experienced the band in their most pure form (circa 1994-1996), Bill doesn't have a Gen Xer's inherent ability to navigate Weezer's sense of irony. And on a deeper level, perhaps he can't relate to the Gen X-specific themes that permeate their entire catalog.



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Weezer is comprised of four middle-period Gen Xers: Rivers Cuomo (born 1970), Brian Bell (born 1968), Pat Wilson (born 1969), and Scott Shriner (born 1965). Original bassist Matt Sharp was born in 1969 and his replacement Mikey Welsh in 1971. They're young enough to have been heavily influenced by slightly older Gen X musicians (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was born in 1967; The Pixies' Black Francis was born in 1965; Pavement's Stephen Malkmus was born in 1966), but old enough that when their debut album was released in 1994, its audience was primarily younger Gen Xers like myself. 

It's no wonder, then, that their catalog, and indeed much of their identity as a band, is steeped in the experiences, concerns, and mindset of Generation X. Here are nine songs (but actually a bunch more than that) to prove my point. (If you have Amazon Music Unlimited, and would like to listen along to these songs, here's a playlist I made).
 
"Say It Ain't So" (Weezer a.k.a. the Blue Album, 1994)
Gen X is often called the latchkey generation. We were largely the children of parents who divorced and/or households in which both parents worked, and we were left to our own devices. A lot of Boomer parents did their best, but were part of the "Me Generation" and thus often too involved in their own personal journeys to give us the emotional support we needed.

"Say It Ain't So" is steeped in the familial strife that was so prevalent for Gen Xers, specifically father-son issues. The lyrics are impressionistic, but there's clearly been estrangement, divorce, remarriage, and a lot of pain. It becomes clearer when you learn that Rivers's dad left the family when Rivers was five years old, and that his stepfather was an alcoholic. Rivers would return to these themes in "Foolish Father" and "Back to the Shack" (both from 2014's Everything Will Be Alright in the End) through the lens of forgiveness and reconciliation.
 
"The Underdogs" (Raditude, 2009)
Another nickname for Gen X is the forgotten generation. As kids we often felt unheard and overlooked, and that feeling has followed us into adulthood. The Boomer vs. Millennial conflict has served to highlight and underline that. I have no doubt that people in other generations have felt consistently ignored, but for Gen X it's a collective identity. The first verse of "The Underdogs," a bonus track on Raditude, lays this out explicitly:
 
"Everything we fight for,
Seems to get shot down.
No one seems to notice,
It's like we ain't around.
They tear us into pieces,
And throw us here and there.
No one knows how much we care."
 
Their song "Hero" (from Van Weezer, 2021), revisits this with its prechorus: "on the inside, I'm an outcast." As Gen X aged into teenage years this hardened into an outward shell of cynicism (more on that later), anger (more on that soon), and apathy, which led our parents and grandparents to perceive us as unmotivated and rudderless. "Slob" from 2002's Maladroit features a narrator being upbraided for his lack of ambition ("I don't like how you're living your life / get yourself a wife / "get yourself a job"). 
 
"Everybody Get Dangerous" (Weezer a.k.a. the Red Album, 2008)
In addition to feeling undervalued and dealing with absentee parents, Gen X saw more than its share of economic turmoil and inequity. In our formative years we saw multiple recessions that affected us directly, and we witnessed consistently bad behavior from elected officials, corporations, banks, and other institutions we were supposed to trust. We lived under the threat of nuclear attack, with a president who was a nonchalant movie cowboy.
 
The "war on drugs" didn't work, and its overly harsh penalties disproportionately affected Black Gen Xers. As a result of all this and more, we became cynical about politics and big business, and less likely to want to become involved directly in those things. This made Gen Xers an inordinately angry group, and a lot of our music reflected that: grunge, rap, and hardcore.
 
Weezer are not an angry band by any stretch, but they occasionally touch on it. "Everybody Get Dangerous" is more funny than angry, but it describes real acts of wanton destruction that were expressions not just of mischief but of suppressed rage. Similarly "Let It All Hang Out" (from Raditude) and "Blowin' My Stack" (from 2010's Death to False Metal) also weave between funny/angry/sad, and tout the virtues of letting off steam.
 
But that anger can turn inward, too, and that's where it gets dark. Every generation has its share of self-destructive people, but cheaper and harder drugs combined with a sense of alienation sent an inordinate number of Gen Xers went down a path from which they couldn't return. In addition to losing a member to drug addiction (bassist Mickey Welsh, who played on 2001's Weezer a.k.a. the Green Album, ), the band have several songs referencing drugs themselves ("Hash Pipe," "We Are All on Drugs," "No Other One," "High as a Kite"). Even a seemingly fun hit-the-club tune like "Can't Stop Partying" (from Raditude) feels more cautionary than celebratory.
 
“Screens” (OK Human, 2021)
Gen X grew up without the Internet or most of the technology we now use daily, and have spent our adult lives adapting to many iterations of media and computing. Because our lives have straddled that digital divide we feel fairly comfortable with technology, but we also fear its long-term effects.
 
Weezer were one of the first bands to establish a presence on the Internet and harness their fans into an online community. They even had their own webmaster (Karl Koch) and shared mp3s almost daily in the early 2000s. But like many of his fellow Gen Xers Rivers is worried about the effects of social media and ever-present devices of but are unsure about the ways it has changed our relationships with our peers, our parents, our children, and ourselves. That’s what “Screens” is about. Rivers looks around and finds his whole family addicted to their devices, and become anxious about what it all means: “Now the real world is dying /As everybody moves into the cloud / Can you tell me where we're going? / Where will we be, 21 years from now?” He ends it by saying he misses his friends and family.
 
Though the song was written and released during the COVID-19 pandemic – meaning that everyone was looking at their screens a bit more than usual – it addresses problems that existed before, namely the fear that these things that have connected us to the world are actually isolating us from those we’re supposed to be closest to.
 
"In the Garage" (Weezer a.k.a. the Blue Album, 1994)
Gen X was raised on pop culture. We were the first generation to have spent our preschool years regularly visiting Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. We were the generation of the blockbuster (Star Wars came out when we were kids and teens) and Blockbuster (VCRs and video stores ruled our childhoods). We were kids and teens when video games made their rise (both in arcades and at home).
 
Gen X didn't invent geek culture but we took to its logical next step, bringing it into the light and treating it seriously. For many of us pop culture was a refuge and a lifeline, and a source of social connection. At the same time we were told by our parents that a lot of the things we liked - heavy metal, role-playing games, video games, rap - were harmful to us. 
 
To us, these weren't just forms of entertainment, they were an integral part of our identities, and one thing we could rely on when everything else seemed to be going wrong. If you have even a passing knowledge of Weezer, I probably don't have to spend too much time extrapolating how much pop culture has played a part in their music and videos. From "Buddy Holly" to the Muppets-starring video for "Keep Fishin'" to the band naming an entire album after a character from Lost (2010's Hurley), it's woven into their identity. 
 
"In the Garage" is a Gen X take on the Beach Boys' "In My Room". The latter song was about using one's bedroom as a refuge and escape from the "worries and fears" of everyday life. "In the Garage" transfers the location but not the purpose. But whereas "In My Room" is nonspecific, "In the Garage" is hyperspecific. Not only does Rivers feel safe in the garage, he's able to listen to KISS records and read X-Men comics and play Dungeons and Dragons and his guitar. I love both songs, but it's no question which one I relate to more.
 
“In the Mall” (Raditude, 2009)
Gen X was marketed to relentlessly through pop culture, not only in commercials and TV/movie product placements, but in entire Saturday morning cartoons created to get us to buy toys. This continued in our teen years. We were led to believe that everything was attainable with the right clothes/hair/body/car/etc. 
 
Raditude's "In the Mall" (which was written by drummer Pat Wilson) is an ode to the center of Gen X teen life. During Gen X's formative years, the shopping mall was at the height of its economic vitality, and while going to the mall was often more about one's social needs over one's material desires, it was still a place where a lot of our pocket money was spent. "Beverly Hills" (from Make Believe) was often cited as being sarcastic, but it wasn't intended that way at all. It arose from a genuine fascination with the perks of fame and wealth. After all, Gen Xers grew up watching the likes of Silver SpoonsDallasFalcon Crest, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
 
But as much as Gen X bought in to the idea of wealth and possessions as a means to happiness, we also were deeply wary of corporations and being a target demographic. This made us into a contradictory group who loves the products but not the producers. Weezer also expresses this aspect of Gen X, but often do so with their tongues in their cheeks. A song like "Surf Wax America" (from the Blue Album) with its "you take your car to work / I'll take my board" chorus is a seeming call to abandon the rat race, but Rivers has said that - unlike "Beverly Hills" - he actually intended that one to be sarcastic. On Red Album opener "Troublemaker" he claims to hate school, books, TV, and movies ("so turn off the TV, cause that's what others see"). It's hard to see this as an actual expression of the views of someone who graduated from Harvard, but we all have friends who claim to not watch (or even own!) a TV.
 
"Beach Boys" (Pacific Daydream, 2017)
Though it falls under the umbrella of pop culture, Weezer's relationship with other musical artists deserves its own category. Gen X is the MTV generation. As long as it had a cool video in rotation we listened to it. We were kids and teens through the rises of new wave, rap, heavy metal, and hard rock. We invented grunge and post-grunge alternative, and (sorry to say) rap rock. 
                                              
We were also in the position of being the first generation to have parents who grew up listening to rock and roll. So besides listening to new songs on hit radio we also heard our parents' Beatles, Jackson 5, Elton John etc. records, and classic rock radio stations. That created a unique mix of influences that is exemplified in Weezer's music: new wave, hard rock, punk, power pop, hair metal, British Invasion. And as I said earlier, they also embraced the trends begun by older Gen Xers, namely grunge, college rock, and hip-hop (the vernacular of hip-hop is sprinkled throughout Weezer's catalog, starting with "What's with these homies dissin' my girl" in "Buddy Holly" all the way through to "Can't Knock the Hustle" on 2019's Black Album).

Rivers had a job at a Tower Records when he was younger, and claims to have listened to anything and everything. That's how you end up with a song celebrating the "Beach Boys," in which Rivers sings, "Let me tell you about a band I loved / When I was a westside kid / Turn it up, it's the Beach Boys / singing out in a sweet voice." It was far from the first time Rivers had celebrated his influences. In addition to the KISS shout-out in "In the Garage," the Red Album's "Heart Songs" is a love letter to pop music, name-checking a diverse group of artists including Eddie Rabbit, Devo, ABBA, Slayer, Debbie Gibson, and Nirvana.

2019's Weezer (a.k.a. the Teal Album) underscores all of that, with covers of songs from every decade Gen Xers have been alive: The 1960s (The Turtles, Ben E. King), 1970s (Black Sabbath, E.L.O.), 1980s (Tears for Fears, Michael Jackson), and 1990s (T.L.C.). 

"Back to the Shack" (Everything Will Be Alright in the End, 2014)
Also in "Beach Boys" Rivers says, "everyone wants to be cooler than everyone else." It would be difficult to find a better summation of Generation X than that. We desperately wanted to be cool, but the definition was always shifting, so we had to start pretending we didn't care about being cool. We knew if we could get to a point that we genuinely didn't care about anything we'd have reached the ultimate level of cool. Like all of us Gen Xers, Weezer have been eternally engaged in a battle to get to that place, and like all of us, they've been perpetually losing that battle.

In terms of their public perception, Weezer want to feel the way they claim to in "Buddy Holly" - "I don't care what they say about us anyway / I don't care about that" - but they just can't. They know that it's more cool to be unpopular, but they can't unring that bell. In "El Scorcho" (from 1996's Pinkerton) Rivers asks a girl to go to a Green Day concert, but she doesn't know the band. "How cool is that?!" he exclaims. It's fitting that this happens on Weezer's most beloved album, which is also the one that sold poorly and most mainstream fans disliked. 

"Back to the Shack" continues the band's struggle. The song is a response to outcry from fans that the band's work had steadily declined since 2001, and had "sold out" on Raditude and Hurley by working with hit-making songwriters. When Rivers apologizes by saying "I forgot that disco sucks" it falls flat because it isn't believable. He already told us in "Heart Songs" that he likes ABBA, so the song is really just revealing how much he cares about being cool. (His use of "disco sucks" also bothers me because, though it does demonstrate the Gen X belief that what's popular can't be cool, hating disco was more of a Boomer thing.) 

As "Back to the Shack" concludes, Weezer have seemingly come to a significant realization:

"We belong in the rock world
There is so much left to do
If we die in obscurity, oh well
At least we raised some hell"

Taking a song that's a transparently desperate plea for acceptance and ending it with a declaration that you don't really care is so purely Gen X that it hurts.

"Trainwrecks" (Hurley, 2010)
Paying too much attention to how your work is received is not healthy for any artist, but this is just another way Weezer embodies Gen X. Their awareness of and reactions to how they are perceived puts illuminates how stereotypically Gen X the reaction to them can be. Taking a band who out of the gate were on a major label working with a superstar producer (Ric Ocasek) and accusing them of “selling out” is one of the pretzel logic conundrums we Gen Xers tend to lose ourselves in. Nearly every popular Gen X band has had to endure accusations that they’d compromised their values, mostly because of that contradictory nature of Gen Xers to both embrace and reject corporate offerings - Rage Against the Machine were signed to Epic, which is owned by the Sony Corporation; think about that for a moment.

Weezer also have the extra obstacle of people questioning their intentions, both musical and lyrical. There are many, like my co-worker Bill, who assume the band are fucking with us.

A 2019 Reddit user u/Fendermustank created a post titled "Is Weezer serious/ironic?" It reads:
"Only discovered this band somewhat recently. I can’t help but get distracted by how 'sarcastic' the band is. I think it might just be me but when I listen to songs like Hash Pipe or Buddy Holly, I get a strong sense of irony and that the band is trying to mock something. Can anyone else relate?"

Blogger Mark Lisenmayer wrote in 2010 that he thought Weezer dialed back their use of sarcasm after their first two records: "The irony has also become more subtle and I would say more humble," he wrote. "Sneering requires a self-regard that most self-reflective people outgrow." But then he goes on to celebrate Hurley's "Trainwrecks" – which is a thematic mix of “Slob,” “Beverly Hills,” and “Troublemaker” – as an example of "unsubtle lyrical irony."

It isn't just fans. In a review of OK Human, Rolling Stone critic Kori Grow called Rivers "an onion of irony - layer upon layer of smirking innuendo, gentle obfuscation, [and] smarty-pants witticism" and said the new album was as close as we'll get to him dropping his guard. 

A protective layer of sarcasm is a common Gen X trait, and Weezer do sometimes employ it (for instance, as demonstrated above, on "Surf Wax America" and "Troublemaker"). In the nostalgic "Memories," (from Hurley), they admit to "messing with the journalists and tellin' stupid lies" in their early days. It also doesn't help that Rivers has a deadpan singing style and a tendency to smirk in photos and videos. Like most of us Gen Xers, Weezer have a hard time expressing ourselves without some level of detachment and ambivalence mixed in. Sincerity is regarded suspiciously. And because we sometimes hide behind behind sarcasm, people think we're always doing it.

Pat Wilson said when discussing "Beverly Hills,": "I think that’s - that happens a lot with Weezer songs. People think we’re being funny, and then somehow it changes into something [else]."

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So there you have it. Weezer are the definitive Gen X band. They're musically diverse and pop-culture-obsessed. They're successful but still perceive themselves as being overlooked. They desperately want you to love them, but desperately don't want you to know that. They're often being sincere but just as often sarcastic.
 
Weezer certainly aren't the most influential band of Gen X, but in terms of embodying all of these seemingly contradictory characteristics, there is no other one.

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