Friday, January 12, 2007

The Weezer Formula

Brian

Weezer, the band that made popular Mary Tyler Moore, unraveling sweaters, sunny islands, and, most recently, the unholy union of Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump, is often understood to have a “formula.” A Google search for “Weezer formula” turns up a healthy ninety-one hits, not as many as formula combined with longer-lived, better known acts—“Hendrix formula” turns up 215 results (not all having to do with Jimi); “Zeppelin formula,” 140; and “Beatles formula” a whopping 257—but certainly more than comparable bands Green Day at fifty-three and Pearl Jam at thirty-six, and far surpassing mainstays James Brown and the Rolling Stones at thirteen apiece. The evidence suggests that the ratio of mentions of the band’s formula to total mentions of the band itself is higher for Weezer than almost anybody. So just what do writers who cite the Weezer formula understand it to be?

One of the favorite space-fillers of music writers is the comparison of the subject musical act to another. Early mentions of Weezer’s style frequently turned up as yardsticks against which other bands could be measured. A year after the release of Weezer’s self-titled debut album, several newspapers reviewed other bands’ “Weezer-style pop punk” and “Weezer-ish harmony vocals.” In an August 29, 1995, Los Angeles Times interview, Joey Ramone mentioned Weezer as an example of a band that had “bought into the system, the whole business of it, the formula,” presumably the generic pop-business formula. The first true mention of a Weezer formula came in the Guardian on October 4, 1996, when Caroline Sullivan, Kathy Sweeney, and Dan Glais mentioned Weezer’s strength as an “indie-guitar-cacophony-versus-retiring-vocals-and-cracking-pop-tunes formula.” Just how to render these elements in mathematical terms is unclear. Should the pop punk be added to the harmony vocals or multiplied? Does “versus” mean we should subtract the retiring vocals from the indie guitar cacophony?

Weezer dropped out of the music scene for a half-decade, prompting the question whether a formula no one is around to use ever yields a result. When Weezer launched its “Green Album” in 2001, many critics were reminded of the sound, or at least the look, of the original “Blue Album,” the mentions of the formula came back full force. The formula had many incarnations:
“chugging fuzz guitar” + “sweet, infectious melodies” + “[lead-singer Rivers] Cuomo's nerdy bad-luck charm”

“sugary power pop” + “smart-assed rants”

“instant[] hummab[ility]” + “[difficulty]-get[ting]-out-of-one’s-head”
It also apparently helps to have “handclapping.” But when, in its August 8, 2002, issue, influential rock ur-magazine Rolling Stone took its own stab at describing the Weezer formula (“booming electric guitars” + “Beach Boys melodies” + “lyrics about depression and isolation”), the conventional wisdom about the existence of such a formula became undeniable. By the time the newly influential, neolithic Pitchfork invoked the formula in panning Weezer’s latest album, it was old hat.

On the one hand, pop music itself is said to been rooted in a perfect pop formula, and to the extent Weezer is a pop band it follows that its music would be formulaic. On the other, Rivers Cuomo, though an English Lit major, may have helped along his unique left-brained image by engaging in well-documented numbers-crunching musical analysis. Jack Black was prescient in a November 2001 interview published in the Seattle Times when he called the Green Album a “mathematical masterpiece”; by June 2002, Jenny Eliscu was reporting in Rolling Stone that Cuomo kept a binder called the Encyclopedia of Pop in which he compiled data collected from mathematical analyses of Nirvana, Oasis, and Green Day. “‘He figured if he could home in on Kurt's formula, he'd figure out his own formula,’ says Todd Sullivan, Weezer's A&R man. ‘That way, he would be a never-ending supply of songs.’” The legend of Cuomo’s Encyclopedia made rumors of Weezer’s formula seem even more literal. Reports proliferated that he’d “found mathematical patterns in work by bands such as the Beatles and Nirvana that have helped him in crafting his own hit songs,” that he “writ[es] songs by mathematically analyzing old Nirvana tunes,” and that he “carries around a bulging notebook ripe with mathematical equations for the perfect pop song.”

Whatever its terms are, and whether it’s unique to Weezer or a new incarnation of the old charge against pop in general, the Weezer formula, or at least its legend, looks to stick around for some time. But there will always be folks like Chris Walker, who reviewed a 2001 Weezer concert for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “Weezer's never been predictable or formula-driven,” Walker wrote with the confidence that can come only from obliviousness. What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl?

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Image credits: Still-Life with Instruments, Evaristo Baschenis, 1667-77.