We Were Right the First Time — Pinkerton Sucks

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Yesterday I went outside, with my headphones in my ears. “Butterfly” from Weezer’s second album Pinkerton came lilting through my earbuds.

I said “Blegh!” and juggled my coffee, dog leash, and phone to delete the song.

I used to love the album. Being that I hit nerdy adolescence in suburban New Jersey in the late 1990s, bubblegum punk and emo were perfectly positioned to articulate my angst and heartache. I bought band tees at Hot Topic, regularly paid my $10 for dive club shows each weekend, didn’t recognize my scene style as another variety of conformity, and I defended Pinkerton as an underappreciated masterpiece.

Rolling Stone and all the critics just didn’t get it. The Blue Album was catchy, no doubt, but Pinkerton was raw. The distortion and garage band sound from the first track felt urgent and real. These songs were bursting with real longing and heartache, laid out track by track, and I used to play my CD copy over and over in my beat up Pontiac Bonneville and in my Discman as I went to sleep at night.

I couldn’t relate to “Tired of Sex” — I couldn’t be tired of something I hadn’t had yet — but I loved how fuzzy guitars and blunt lyrics intertwined with softer moments like the bridge of “The Good Life.” I wondered what I would do if I were faced with a relationship that scared me, like in “No Other One,” and I nodded along with the hopelessness of “Why Bother?” I never really liked “Butterfly” because of the inclusion of “bitch,” but there was still something in the song’s “I can’t help my nature, baby” message that kept me from skipping it despite the fact I’d never even been on a date.

And thank god I hadn’t. If Pinkerton was the album I related to, I had a lot of detoxifying to do.

It’s not hard to find the misogynistic currents in Weezer’s tunes, from the creepy control of “No One Else” through the fortunately-forgettable “Thank God For Girls.” But now, especially as I find myself firmly planted on the other span of the gender spectrum, Pinkerton feels like an anthem for incels. Love and hate mix with possessiveness and fear as each song tilts from unrequited lust to treating women as nothing more than disposable.

And don’t even get me started on “Across the Sea” and “Pink Triangle.”

I could go on about the album’s sound. How the guitars and vocals weave together in a kind of controlled chaos that has more energy than the band’s live show. The tones ease from aggressive and distorted to twee and even ethereal at times. But even as I play the album again while typing this, I just can’t connect the way I once did. I think that’s a good thing.

Weezer’s frontman talked about how ugly the album is around the time of its release. And plenty of digital ink has been spilled about the unabashed toxicity of emo, pop punk, power pop, and, really, music in general before. After Pinkerton helped set the tone, it wasn’t unusual to hear bands like Fall Out Boy, Story of the Year, and Finch rhapsodize about violence against those who didn’t return their love — usually some variation of slitting someone’s throat or choking them to death. Those weren’t moments that made me go “Ugh, what the fuck?” at the time. They were normal. And when I’d read articles calling out the stream of violence and misogyny, I didn’t internalize the warning, reacting with a “Well, but…” instead of hitting the eject button on my CD player.

But changing my gender also changed how I see the world, and just how rotten we train many young cisgender heterosexual men to be through commiseration. The woman you want is always a prize. The one you have a relationship with is never enough. If you’re single, it feels like you’re going to die. If you commit to someone, you lose your vitality and slowly suffocate.

There’s no moment of reflection in Pinkerton — just “poor me.” And given that the album has been so influential with other bands that skulk around the same musical territory, it seems that the album’s rehabilitation is complete. But I just can’t listen to it — or, I write with a twinge of regret for the times I did — sing along anymore. There’s not a turning point of “Hey, maybe I’m the problem.” Instead, we can only apologize for what our bodies told us to do. “I’m a pig, I’m a dog, so ‘s’cuse me if I drool.”

I can already hear the counterarguments. That Pinkerton was ahead of its time, but before our current age of social awareness. Or that it’s real, even if it represents views now considered acidic, and therefore remains worthy.

I call bullshit.

If Pinkerton is a relationship drama, there’s no growth. The album reads as a tragedy where our central figure clutches for affection, destroys it, and learns nothing. The end notes are somber, carrying guilt but signaling no understanding. And that’s what has come back around as music aficionados have confused influential for good.

“The Good Life” used to be one of my favorite tracks, a song I took as motivation to try to reclaim — or even just claim — the vibrant life I felt I missed. Now “I don’t want to be an old man anymore” is the only line that makes me smirk, for reasons nothing at all to do with the song’s content. I’m living a good life now, and a key step was moving away from the echo chamber of white dude entitlement that makes Pinkerton what it is.

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