A Totally Necessary Debate About Saturday Night Live’s Weezer Sketch

Photo: Jeff Daly/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The most recent episode of Saturday Night Live featured a sketch where an entire dinner table got into a debate about whether Weezer is still a good band, prompted by their cover of Toto’s “Africa” coming up on shuffle. In the interest of taking this sketch to its very extreme endpoint, Vulture Music editor Sam Hockley-Smith, music columnist Craig Jenkins, music writer Dee Lockett, editor Neil Janowitz, and staff writer (and former classmate of Rivers Cuomo) Abraham Riesman took all of the talking points raised during the sketch and sort of earnestly discussed them all. What follows is a lot of real words about Weezer prompted by a fake argument between Leslie Jones and Matt Damon.

Is Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa” good?
Dee Lockett: Well, it’s certainly better than Pitbull’s version, I’ll give it that.

Sam Hockley-Smith: It’s good in the sense that it sounds like “Africa,” which is good because it’s cheesy and undeniably catchy, but its bad in the sense that, if you are a Weezer fan of a certain age, it is another moment in which they capitalized on the vague desires of the collective internet and made something designed to go viral, which feels sort of cynical.

DL: I mean, its video for the cover clearly sides with Leslie in this debate. They remade the “Sweater Song” video starring Weird Al as Rivers because even Weezer prefers Weezer circa 1994 and definitely the internet circa 1994.

Abraham Riesman: I mean, it’s perfectly serviceable as a recording. It got me listening to the original on repeat for a few weeks, so I thank it for that. It’s not especially terrible, but it doesn’t really innovate in any meaningful sense. It’s a decent band playing ’80s covers at your dad’s second wedding.

Craig Jenkins: With respect to Dan Ozzi from Noisey, whose Twitter campaigning we have to thank for the cover, I agree that it is serviceable, in the same way that coloring-book art is serviceable. It’s a function of good design that the cover sounds good. Play all the right notes in order, and it sounds good. My college buddy Greg got drunk and made a home recording once, and it sounded good. You can’t sink an airtight melody. Weezer’s “Rosanna” cover, though … Napalm.

Is Weezer’s “new stuff” (as defined by every album after 2002’s Maladroit) any good? Do you listen to it?
AR: I listened to “Keep Fishin’” and “Beverly Hills” a fair amount in 2004-5, and I have a lot of affection for this one B-side from The Red Album called “Pig,” but other than that, I don’t really track most of it. I listened to their latest album, Pacific Daydream to prep for an interview with Rivers last year, and though I enjoyed it, I haven’t gone back to it since then. I always admire their precision and smooth delivery, but — and I know this makes me sound basic — only The Blue Album and Pinkerton have the raw personality that I crave from Rivers and crew. They’ve been emotionally guarded in subsequent albums, I’ve found. And I can’t really blame Rivers — he was astoundingly confessional on Pinkerton and has been mocked for it ever since.

SHS: In 2010, I was covering a music festival in Seattle that Weezer was playing. It seemed like Cuomo was going through something: He climbed into the rafters, he shouted platitudes about how he does everything for his fans. He threw beach balls, toilet paper, and, for some reason, rubber chickens into the audience. He wore a wig and covered Lady Gaga. Whenever the band dipped into songs from their first album, a large swath of teenagers looked down at their iPhone 4s or Motorola Droids or whatever was popular at the time. They all looked up and sang along to the chorus of “Beverly Hills” like it was the best Weezer song ever made. It did not resonate for me at all, but I also recognized that Weezer had managed to make the jump from being “my” band to being appealing to a whole lot of people way younger than me, and that’s hard to do!

DL: Speaking as someone who was today years old when I learned Weezer put out albums the last two years (????), gonna say it’s been awhile since I kept up. Make Believe is the last Weezer album I listened to in full; it slapped then and it slaps now. Since then, though, it’s been a lot of swings and misses for me. I’m with Abe. For lack of a better word, there’s no — I guess — soul to Rivers’s writing anymore.

Neil Janowitz: I can’t get into any of the albums as start-to-finish experiences, but I liked a handful of songs on Make Believe (“This Is Such a Pity” was easily among my most-played songs in 2005), a few tracks from The Red Album are good (we’ll get to “Pork and Beans,” and I’m fascinating by — and enjoy— “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived”). “I Want You To” from Raditude reminds me of songs from this collection of, as I understand it, unreleased Weezer demos that I somehow found in college via FTP searches, where it was clear that Rivers had a fondness for a sort of sweet ’60s pop sound and wanted to incorporate it into his music. The more recent stuff is definitely more inconsistent, but it’s also so obvious — including by his own admission — that Rivers is way too deep in his head, trying to live up to impossible standards and recapture past magic while also continuing to evolve.

CJ: It starts getting rocky for me at Make Believe. Make Believe and Red are the era where I felt that band’s interest shift from the winsome sad guy stuff I got onboard for to the more peppy, party-rocking stuff of the last decade. (You can probably argue that Green is the birth of happy Weezer, but they still had a little of the old glow left on that one.) It seemed like a conscious decision to grow traction outside the ’90s nostalgia circuit. I think the shift cost them some of the purity of their music. So it goes. Can’t knock the hustle. That said, Raditude and Hurley and Everything Will Be Alright in the End all have moments. I saw them play a bunch of White Album and Pacific Daydream at a festival a summer or two ago. A lot of it felt good. I might’ve been under the influence too.

Was Pinkerton the last good Weezer album?
SHS: No, but it was the last great Weezer album.

AR: Yeah, agreed. I wish I could be a contrarian and make an argument for the massive significance of Hurley or whatever, but no. Pinkerton is all killer, no filler. Deeply problematic from the standpoints of gender and race, but I think of it the way I think of R. Crumb’s depictions of women and people of color: somewhat inexcusable, but unendingly fascinating.

CJ: Maladroit is a great album and an insane promotional campaign we don’t talk about enough. They let us have demos for free! Who else would dare? (In fairness, Ryan Leslie once dared.) On the matter of how well Pinkerton holds up, it is rough listening to creepy stuff like “No Other One” and “Across the Sea” as an adult, and I’m still fried about learning that the “half-Japanese girls” line in “El Scorcho” was not about Jad Fair fans. Low key, everything from the ’90s is messy under a microscope. I haven’t figured out what to do about that yet. I’ve been too fixated on messy new releases to figure out a strategy for the classics.

SHS: I like Maladroit more than the Green Album, I think because it took a lot of the darker ideas on Pinkerton and just … kept going with them. The songs themselves aren’t memorable, and it pales in comparison to the first two records, but it’s there in a pinch if you’re in the mood to, like, reevaluate the part of a band’s career that you typically ignore (is that something anyone besides me is in the mood for ever?)

DL: … I don’t think Weezer has a great album. To echo Craig and Abe, too much of Pinkerton is too wildly sus to ever be considered part of any canon if we wanna be decent about such things. But also let’s just nuke the canon while we’re at it and start fresh.

CJ: Cannon the canon. I just got to “Burndt Jamb” and I would like to scale back calling Maladroit “great” to “good.” It’s possible that I enjoyed watching that album happen more than I enjoyed that album after it happened.

On that note, is “Pork and Beans” better than “Buddy Holly”?
NJ: No, but that was a thoughtful pull as far as more recent singles they could use for the comparison, as opposed to, like, “Beverly Hills.”

CJ: “Pork and Beans” is mid you break out when there’s absolutely no other options. But there’s always other options. Like actual pork and beans, it’s unremarkable but still sorta filling. I’d play it a lot if all other music ceased to exist, and I needed to remember what rock and roll sounded like, but then and only then.

AR: I have a lot of affection for the “Pork and Beans” music video, which is going to stand as a bizarrely important documentation of the late-aughts Internet.

DL: Abe I was just gonna say that! The “Pork and Beans” video is a better piece of art — or whatever the haters wanna call it — than “Buddy Holly,” but song — ha, no.

CJ: I’d argue both videos mean the same thing to two different generations. If I may speak for people who grew up on reruns of schmaltzy, comforting Americana like Happy Days, “Buddy Holly” was a cute “I see you seeing the same thing I see” moment. Rivers tracking down Tay Zonday is the internet-kid version of that, no? RIP Mikey Welsh, it must be noted.

SHS: I went to college with Tay Zonday. I just want to make sure that fact makes it onto the internet. The rumor was that he was James Earl Jones’s son, which is obviously not true.

CJ: I went to school with Tony Bennett’s granddaughter. We were jealous cause she knew the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

SHS: You guys are being really fair to “Pork and Beans”! I think I have to embrace my inner curmudgeon, because I find it, and most of Weezer’s recent albums, to be unlistenable. I don’t mean that in the sense that they are objectively terrible, just that they are objectively not for me.

Leslie Jones, a Weezer traditionalist, was willing to ride for the Green Album. How do you feel about it?
DL: I am choosing to believe Leslie was only thinking of “Hash Pipe” cause there’s no standing behind anything else happening on that album. (Don’t even try me with “Island in the Sun.“) And don’t come for me with the “I got my ass wiped” debate either!

SHS: The Green Album is fine for what it is, which is a Blue Album–era catchy album, but without any of the sensitivity or moments that really got at the pain of being nerdy and alone. The songs are memorable, but they don’t make me feel anything at all. “Hash Pipe” is still good. “Island in the Sun” was always terrible.

CJ: Green’s rep suffers because it followed a long hiatus, and it took some different turns, and it came out less than “classic,” but a few of those records are murder. “Photograph” goes, and “Island in the Sun” is fun, dumb easy listening. That said, when I want to hear the Cars, I mostly just listen to the Cars. (Green will always hold a special place in my heart because I discovered Pavement listening to what I thought was a leak of the Weezer album but was, in fact, a deliberately mislabeled Slanted and Enchanted. Shouts out whoever did that. You looked out.)

SHS: I skipped class to buy the CD of the Green Album at Tower Records … which is one of the more dated sentences I could possibly type.

Are Weezer the best band that became the worst band or are they the worst band that became the best band?
AR: Superlatives are hard for the Weez. Some of the stuff on The Blue Album is among the best material to emerge from the alt-rock boom and Pinkerton is certainly one of the most emotionally pornographic mainstream pop-rock albums ever recorded, but I hesitate to place the band itself on a pedestal or in a trench.

NJ: I’ll go with “fascinating,” though for varying reasons over their lifespan.

DL: Neither. Weezer was a fine band that is still a fine band that mostly minds its business and that is why it’s 2018 and they’ve managed to have an entire SNL sketch devoted to how silly (and painfully old) we all sound trying to take any firm stance on their legacy. Weezer and stan culture truly are a hilarious marriage.

SHS: I was honestly shocked that this sketch ended up existing. Seems like the kind of thing that is way too specific for SNL, but I guess Weezer are one of the more enduring bands of our time. As I said before, Weezer’s great achievement is that they’ve managed to appeal to multiple generations without ever really changing their sound in any notable way.

CJ: Weezer’s never exactly the cream, but they always float. Even the shaky stuff carries a charming willingness to be silly and self-effacing, which is maybe how that band got out of the ’90s in one piece. I’ve spent the last 10 minutes listening to “Zombie Bastards” off the upcoming Black Album trying to figure out if I hate it or I love it. That’s a better spread than a lot of the year’s big rock singles could muster.

Is “Memories” from Hurley (and Jackass 3D) a good song?
DL: I am still not convinced that “Memories” isn’t also a Toto cover.

CJ: Horrid. Torrid. Render unto Andrew WK that which is Andrew WK’s.

AR: I’ve never gotten through the whole song. I’m reading the Genius annotations and user BlueMissed really nailed it: “Could be a coincidence, but in episode 1b of Ren and Stimpy, Ren says the word ‘memories’ to same tune Weezer sings it in this song.”

SHS: Weezer can do nostalgia so well. “Memories” is about nostalgia. “Memories” is also terrible. It feels like Weezer are pandering, and maybe that’s the point? Rivers Cuomo always seemed to have a complicated relationship with the music industry. Is this just him playing into it and doing a basic version of what he imagines people want?

DL: I just always assumed we lost Rivers to extreme metaness over a decade ago but also, like, we’re all better for it? I know I’m not particularly mad. Look how much fun he’s having!

A Totally Necessary Debate About SNL’s Weezer Sketch