How do you keep writing pop songs when you stop having pop-song feelings? Postwar consumer culture cemented teenagers as the key demographic to market music to, and youth as the product itself. Most popular music is about the passions of the young; flirting and the thrill (or anticipation) of sex, falling in love for the first time, and maybe getting your heart broken for the first time. But what do you do when you’re not young anymore, after you’ve had a few jobs and grown-up loves, and you’ve found your footing, or at least your feet? What genuine sentiments can pop songwriters sell, when they’ve amassed deep lakes of lived realities and the market calls for sparkling, rushing streams?
As I listened to “Happy Hour,” the fourth track on Weezer’s newest album, Pacific Daydream—a song with lyrics like, “Please don’t ever make me go home / I need happy hour / On sad days / It’s my happy hour / I can’t wait,” I had two creeping notions. One, that perhaps I was ill-equipped to review this album, as its lyrics represent an existentialism that seemingly comes when you get past 40, and I turned 27 last month. Two, that perhaps this album’s upcoming PR cycle will be similarly ill-equipped in selling these songs to a youth-hungry culture.
Granted, pop-listening audiences may be enticed by the music itself, as frontman and main composer Rivers Cuomo’s talent for melodies and hooks is as obvious as ever; every song is meticulously designed and catchy as hell. Mostly, it sounds like ’90s Weezer songwriting with updated production, but a few tracks are utterly contemporary. “Feels Like Summer” could easily be the Adam Levine track playing in every Uber you’ve ever climbed into, and speaking of Adam Levine, Weezer’s “La Mancha Screwjob” follows the recent trend of repeating symmetrical refrains, as heard in Maroon 5 and SZA’s current chart-topper, “What Lovers Do.” Sample repetitions from “La Mancha Screwjob”: “We’re getting faster, faster / Going stronger, stronger / whoa / whoa.” Yet tinges of sepia are made clearest on “Beach Boys,” where the protagonist compares the world today to the way they knew it to be as a “west side kid,” all while listening to the Beach Boys over and over: “I’ve heard that before / But I want to hear it again.” The falsetto refrain sounds like something out of the Beach Boys’ catalogue, though you can’t point to exactly which song. (Speaking of nostalgia, I chuckled when I heard the words “Ice Capades” in the lyrics. I wonder what the cutoff age is for knowing about the Ice Capades.)
I don’t mean to harp on the fact that Weezer is an older band. My preoccupation with the band’s age reveals a recent fixation on my own aging, now that I’m packing up to leave the island of young adulthood, and can no longer draw as genuinely from the well of inspiration that my teens and early twenties provided. As I gently settle into the life of a dormant volcano, no longer constantly burning and bubbling on the brink of eruption, I’m redefining what I perceive to be “good” and “bad” songwriting. What I’ve understood to be “successful” pop is in fact greatly informed by whether or not it’s themed around experiences of youth, or excites youthful feelings in me. After all, I’ve also been raised by—and now work in—a media culture yelling, Younger is better! Youth is best! Buy youth!
As I ruminated over aging and writing, a songwriter friend recommended the Song Exploder episode featuring Rivers Cuomo. On the podcast, Cuomo describes his profoundly methodical system of writing, which includes making spreadsheets of lyrical phrases, tagged in exhaustive detail based on the strength and number of syllables, as well as logging chord progressions he likes in other artists’ songs, re-recording them with a guitar, naming the recordings something that won’t remind him of the original songs when played back, then later writing over those recordings. It especially caught my attention that Cuomo draws much of his lyrical phrases from a daily journaling practice. He says, “I do stream-of-consciousness in the morning for 25 minutes. I started in 2010 after reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, it’s called morning pages […] I come back at a later time, maybe the next day, with a highlighter, totally detached. I don’t really care what I was talking about, I just look for really cool lines, I highlight those, then they end up in the spreadsheet.”
This clinical approach may sound blasphemous to songwriters who strive to encapsulate a particular moment or feeling, and to pursue a release of emotion in the writer that translates to a release for the listener. However, this apparent disinterest in commanding a song’s narrative from the very beginning of the writing process reminded me of the way David Lynch describes the creation of his films, which also lack traditional linear storytelling, yet contain a clear internal logic and profound emotional effect. In an interview with the American Film Institute, he states, “Ideas come to us. We don’t really create an idea, we just catch them like fish. No chef ever takes credit for making the fish, it’s just preparing the fish. So you get an idea, and it is like a seed, and in your mind the idea is seen and felt […] So the whole thing is translating that idea to a medium. And what you realize is, the idea is more than you realize, and if you’re true to it, when the work is finished and some years go by, you can even get more out of it, if you’ve been true to the idea in the first place.”
In his Song Exploder episode, Cuomo makes a similar comment about how he doesn’t attempt to control what a work is “about.” “I’m trying to write songs that I don’t understand. So if I could […] tell you what it was about, then I failed as a songwriter. I want to enjoy my own songs, and once I feel like I totally understand the song and there’s no mystery there, then I can’t really enjoy it anymore. So I like to create these enigmatic three-minute adventures that have me scratching my head for years.” Both Cuomo and Lynch are avid practitioners of meditation, and perhaps this practice has some bearing on their methodologies. Neither of them seem too concerned with inserting the “self” or ego in their artmaking, and instead allow the subconscious and circumstance to dictate the process, painting pictures as they come rather than attempting to provide any answers.
A fascinating paradox then emerges. Omitting an ego or preconception of what the songwriter would like their work to be about, and leading the creative direction with the subconscious—what simply “sounds good” in each moment—allows the writer to depict their state of being without the extra filter of how they want to be perceived. In the case of Pacific Daydream, it becomes an honest representation of a middle-aged rock star (as much as I dislike the word “honest” in any critique of songwriting) who’s become an expert at a craft that’s now less mysterious and more routine, and who searches for a new kind of unknowing, or a return of that old unknowing. By not imposing his “cool alt-rock star” self-image onto this music, Cuomo winds up revealing his ideals nonetheless—who he’d like to be, who he’d like us to see.
Your music always exposes you in the end, if you let it. Weezer’s newest album has provided unexpected clues in an examination of my own writing, too, as I inevitably age and negotiate an ever-evolving self with an enduring idolatry of youth. Maybe I should also endeavor to write of myself, today, not of how I think I should (still) be. I may even end up excavating the person I’d like to become.