Journalist Suzanne Moore said, “it’s easier to write about something you hate than something you love”. She’s probably right. We can spend hours in the pub detailing why Bob from accounts is a prick, with an alphabetised mental list of his wrongdoings, shortcomings and fashion faux pas, yet Becky on reception is just “alright”, really. Although writing criticism by its very nature implies perceived authority, it’s much easier to not come across as self-important when you’re not telling people how objectively brilliant something is.
The fact is that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and there’s a big difference between recommending a TV show or restaurant to a friend and waxing lyrical about something to the entire, incredibly diverse world. What I’m saying is subjective beliefs are absolutely fine but preaching the good word of Weezer to you is not necessarily my business. So, I can only apologise if I come across as some kind of musical Jehovah’s Witness, singing the hymn ‘Say It Ain’t So’ in to your intercom at a particularly unholy hour of your morning lie-in. You were expecting a package, but you got ‘90s geek rock.
I was deep in a YouTube rabbit hole. We’ve all been there… Accidentally spending our Tuesday evenings watching ‘try not to laugh’ compilations, a WWF bout from 1996, clips of Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, or whatever else the internet gods deliver us. But on this occasion, I stumbled upon a 23-year-old VHS upload of the American group Weezer performing ‘Say It Ain’t So’ on the Late Show with David Letterman.
As my ears pricked up and my pixelated eyes began to focus, I became transfixed. It reminded me of how I felt when I first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and that’s a pretty big deal. Losing my Nirvana virginity triggered a chain of events that made music my hobby, my career, my life; leaving indelible marks on both my musical perceptions and taste. Considering the stature of both songs it may seem like a disproportionate comparison, but both had the same effect on me: I thought it was great, I wondered how I’d not heard it sooner, I wanted to hear it again and again, and I wanted to share it with friends.
Through social media, I did exactly that. Those people all thought it was… well, fine. Fine. Only fine?! It’s great! I mean, I do have the ability to look objectively and understand that it is a technically imperfect performance of a bog-standard rock song, but what the hell is objective about taste? Throughout the last month I’ve watched it around fifty times. Are they the idiots, or am I?
Regardless of subjectivity, I really want to try and explain what it is that sets it apart in my mind from other songs by Weezer and by countless other ‘90s rock groups. It might not make you like it, it may make you think me a moron, but it may also make you consider the reasons you have your own tastes.
To me, this is an authentic performance. It is an original composition. Every band member appears to have an emotional investment in their playing of the song. On national TV, they barely have a hairstyle between them – that is to say nothing seems manufactured or contrived – and therefore I believe what they’re doing and saying.
Of course, authenticity is entirely unquantifiable. Whether you identify with lyrical content, artist image, the geographical origins of the artist, or anything else; your perception of authenticity will in some way reflect your life experience, upbringing and previous musical taste. One comment on the video accuses Weezer of being “a group of social outcast nerds/geeks who started listening to nirvana then learned how to play instruments”. It’s a claim which is all too easy to make about countless rock bands in a post-Cobain America, but it’s one which could just as easily refer to me and my friends as teenagers in Britain. If Weezer did relate to Nirvana like I did, that may explain why I like their musical approach as well…
Musically, there’s a clear Nirvana comparison to be made through the quiet verse / loud chorus template of the ‘Say It Ain’t So’ sound. Kurt Cobain would stamp on a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal to make that change in dynamics and timbre, although there’s an even simpler approach from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo who just uses his guitar’s volume knob to control the change. In a world of pedalboards and gizmos, this minimalist approach keeps one crunchy tone throughout, leaving the listener focused on the quality of the songwriting and not the variety of the sounds on display. There is a simplicity to the bones of the song too; its four-chord hook never bothered by a doubled chorus or cheesy key change overkill.
3. It’s Better Than the Studio Version
My obsession is as much about the performance as the song itself. I don’t watch, for example, this performance from last year and get even 1% of the same feeling. Features of the Letterman performance, such as drum fills and lead guitar parts, had been slightly developed since the recording of the studio version of the track. On top of this, the whole performance features a slightly quicker tempo and a satisfying, rawer guitar sound. Whether those changes were due to dissatisfaction with the studio version, or simply that they better reflected Weezer at that time, particularly Cuomo delivers his parts with more confidence and conviction. I therefore consider this Letterman performance to be the definitive version of ‘Say It Ain’t So’.
4. The Guitar Solo
This live version features one of my favourite guitar solos of all time. It’s not some virtuosic, faux-epic Guns ‘n’ Roses bullshit (thank God), but those bends wail, they’re emotional. The melody sits perfectly against the backing and, unlike on the overly clinical solo found on the studio version, the heavy vibrato technique which leaves other strings rattling through the engrossed Cuomo’s amp (3.05) perfectly encapsulates the vibrancy and the grit of this performance. The way Cuomo uses the same technique to let the final note hang in to the last chorus is even better, strangling every last breath out of his guitar’s neck.
5. The Chorus
Despite the heavier rock sounds of the guitars, ‘Say It Ain’t So’ unashamedly boasts a chorus just as catchy as pop songs with far greater reputations. Both Rivers and rhythm guitarist Brian Bell play and sing identical parts. No harmonies. No lead guitar parts to distract or complicate. It’s a team effort to deliver one simple idea as a straight down-the-line onslaught.
6. Mr. Matt Sharp
When watching the Letterman performance, it’s particularly hard to ignore bassist Matt Sharp, whose bad timing in the chorus would get him fired if he was standing still. However, his variety of leaps and poses, and the strumming techniques he attacks his bass with more than make up for this, enhancing the visual performance of the group no end. Despite his attention grabbing, he doesn’t come across as a cocky rock star; his moves are excitable but awkward. Plus, the way Sharp extends the word bubbling (0.50) is a perfect indicator of how he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. While I’ve got a lot of time for the Radioheads of this world, it’s nice to hear something which has an outlet in humour alongside the serious subject matter found in the lyrics.
7. The Eyes
The other members may not match Sharp’s performance level physically, but they match his dedication. With frontman Cuomo, who was actually recovering from surgery and unable to walk without the aid of a cane (which you can even see hanging off of his mic stand), the performance is in the eyes. Take, for example, the possessed look he gives when he “wrestles with Jimmy” (0.48) or the moment of realisation that he is “drowning in the flood” (2.48), his eyes seeing the light after having kept them shut for the majority of the bridge.
When he does open his eyes, breaking his own spell, his voice breaks. It’s the least noticeable of three times this happens (the most noticeable undoubtedly at the beginning of the final chorus), but I even love the mistakes. Why? Well, it’s unashamedly subjective, but as an unexceptional vocalist myself who has made similar mistakes on stage, it’s nice to see that an imperfect performance can (or at least could in the 90s) still be given a platform to reach millions of people. Throughout popular music history, many bands have been branded around their frontmen. It’s arguably just an unavoidable component of celebrity culture, but Weezer come across very much as a ‘band’s band’, on stage because of group ability rather than individualistic talent.
The ‘realness’ of live performance comes from the potential of human error, and the level of performance above the studio version comes from human development. There is an appropriately youthful mix of both vigour and naivety in this performance that perfectly suits Weezer’s anxious ‘geek rock’. 1995 seemed to be the perfect time for ‘Say It Ain’t So’.
I may not have convinced you that this is a great performance, but I do better understand why I think it is. Clearly, the grunge ideologies from the conception of my musical interests have stuck hard. I hope that as an old dog I’ve learnt some new tricks since 2001, but it’s clear that I also have to recognise that the leopard in me hasn’t changed its spots. To be honest, I should probably be more worried about the number of animals in my psyche than why I like a bit of music.
Anyway… must stop writing. I’ve got things to watch.