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Weezer’s Yellow Fever

An earlier version of this article stated that Brian Bell is no longer part of the band and also stated that The White Album was named after the Beatles’ own White Album when this is not the case.

Part I: Why can’t I just enjoy my favorite band?

There’s something J.D. Salinger-esque about Weezer’s music that my angsty, cringy, puberty-fueled younger self subconsciously recognized and grasped onto. This is something that a variety of music journalists have noted: as early as 2013, Jonah Bayer of VICE made the analogy, writing that the band was “getting ready to unleash a new set of works on the world, the way we all wished J.D. Salinger would.” Jake Kilroy, freelancing for Consequence of Sound, compared a Weezer tour he’d seen in 2000 to “a Salinger book signing.” And Dan Jackson of Thrillist, in an album comparison of Weezer’s 10 greatest albums, for the album Pinkerton, which is in fact the main album I’ll be focusing on in this article, quite literally writes that it’s “a Salinger-esque blood-letting of ugly anger and desire.” 

Unfortunately, none of these articles particularly dive into the implications of what such a connection means. They seem to all just name-drop Salinger in relation to Weezer to hold up the band’s frontman, Rivers Cuomo, as some kind of mythic, creative genius as we all consider Salinger to be. I think even in my teens, however, I realized this wasn’t the case. Bands don’t have to be profound to be loved, and in fact the mythos that has come out regarding Pinkerton‘s release has been that it was first widely panned for its lackluster technical and lyrical proficiency before eventually finding a cult following among angsty teens.

Nevertheless, the ultimate implications of our collective invocation of Salinger, and in turn Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s magnum opus The Catcher in the Rye, is that Weezer is laughable just as Holden is. Yes, we may adore Holden for his yearning naivety and pity him for his genuine existential angst, but we still find him laughable. Why? For his creating the majority of his own problems, for his blatant self-pity which far overwhelms the pity we have for him, and for his incompetence, as in where the novel’s titular metaphor doesn’t work from its actually being a mishearing on Holden’s part of Robert Burns’ Comin’ Through the Rye. 

What saves Holden as a character is that he’s literally a child. In this context Holden’s behavior is forgivable. Perhaps Weezer too can likewise be forgiven then. After all, the first album they released that shot them to stardom, Weezer (colloquially referred to as The Blue Album) was released while they were still in college, and as detailed by countless rock hall laments, fame can put immense stress on a person, let alone someone in their early 20s. Pinkerton, which followed The Blue Album, was likewise released while Weezer’s members were still relatively immature. For many, the album’s flaws (and there are many, many flaws), far from sinking the album, in fact actually make it an imperfect masterpiece, and are at the least harmless. And honestly, for the most part, I’m inclined to agree. So what if Rivers’ lyrics demonstrate an awkward, yet still entitled attitude towards girls? So what if the entire album is utterly suffused with clear and obvious yellow fever? Are we all expected to be perfect? Why can’t I just enjoy my favorite band?

Weezer - Weezer (Blue Album) - Amazon.com Music
Weezer, The Blue Album; from left to right Patrick Wilson (drums), Rivers Cuomo (lead vocals, lead guitar, etc.),
Matt Sharp (bass, vocals), Brian Bell (rhythm guitar, vocals); Sharp is no longer with the band

Part II: “a noisy, charmless mess”

The issues with Weezer and primarily its frontman, Rivers Cuomo, didn’t all suddenly reveal themselves to me at once. It began as an aching, ambiguous gnaw at the back of my head that caused me to turn away from the group throughout my later years of high school, though not fully. Occasionally I’d still go back and listen to Weezer during depressive moments, and as I did so, this gnaw turned into full-blown cringe at lyrics such as those in “Tired of Sex”, “Butterfly”, and “Across the Sea”, all songs from Pinkerton which I’d previously screamed along with and enjoyed to my heart’s content. 

But first off, what is Pinkerton? Mike Powell, of The Village Voice, is harshly incisive:

“Pinkerton is a noisy, charmless mess. In 2001, Cuomo called it “hideous”…Each song deals with a different aspect of Cuomo’s own romantic failure. Conveniently, the series of girls he is cursed to fuck on “Tired of Sex” have names that rhyme. He sniffs a letter from a young Japanese fan and fantasizes about her masturbating [“Across the Sea”]…At one point, he blames it all on his mom.

Basically, he revels in the kinds of thoughts that a lot of angry heterosexual adolescents have, but would be mortified to even admit to having…Pinkerton is the self-portrait of a guy so desperate for true companionship that he doesn’t realize companionship involves other people.”

Mike Powell, “Rivers Cuomo, The Ugliest American”

So yes, the album, without question, is flawed. But perhaps the most blatantly questionable song on Pinkerton in regards to yellow fever is “El Scorcho”, which opens with a yelp of “Goddamn you half-Japanese girls / Do it to me every time” and then goes on to reference the opera Madame Butterfly’s Cio-Cio San (“Butterfly”), the opera from which Weezer’s own album gets its name. For context, Butterfly is a 15-year-old Japanese girl who the album’s eponymous Pinkerton, a U.S. naval officer stationed in Japan, intends to marry for convenience and then leave once he finds a proper American wife. By the later acts of the opera, Pinkerton has left Japan while Butterfly dutifully cares for their daughter and holds out hope that he will yet return for her. Three years later, against all odds, he suddenly does, only with a new American wife in tow. Upon realizing this, Butterfly’s joy turns sour and she kills herself. Pinkerton is left to raise their child with his new wife and regret the sum of his actions.

At best, this reference could be taken as to represent romantic loyalty and devotion. In reality, the lyrics seem to speak to the sexual entitlement Rivers holds in spite of his awkwardness and self-pity, and Rivers actually confirms this for us in a 1996 interview:

“Well, I suppose that halfway through writing the album, I started to realize…that I seem to be having a lot of disastrous encounters with half Japanese girls. And then it developed into disastrous encounters with Asian girls of all sorts. Yeah, I suppose it’s fair to say that I’m fascinated by Asian girls [grimaces]. For some reason, they’re particularly beautiful to me. I don’t know why. And when I became aware of that and also the fact that it was the masculine part of myself…I remembered the story of Madame Butterfly and the story of the character Pinkerton…Pinkerton is the ultimate character representing male id who goes to Japan…and hooks up with this 15-year-old Japanese girl and gets her pregnant and then abandons her. He’s thoroughly despicable. [long pause] But I can’t deny that there’s some of that in me.”

Addicted to Noise, “Weezer Revealed: “The Rivers Cuomo Interview”

Here Rivers recognizes his own depravity, but still keeps the emphasis firmly on himself and away from the “Asian girls” he supposedly feels bad for. This effect is only further reinforced by the album’s later song “Butterfly”, which quite obviously also channels Cio-Cio San. An excerpt:

Yesterday I went outside
With my momma’s mason jar
Caught a lovely butterfly
When I woke up today
Looked in on my fairy pet
She had withered all away
No more sighing in her breast
I’m sorry for what I did
I did what my body told me to
I didn’t meant to do you harm
Every time I pin down what I think I want, it slips away
The ghost it slips away
Smell you on my hand for days
I can’t wash away your scent 
If I’m a dog, then you’re a bitch
I guess you’re as real as me
Maybe I can live with that
Maybe I need fantasy
Life of chasing butterfly

Butterfly Pinkerton

Several other critics have taken “Butterfly” as a sort of apology for the rest of Pinkerton. For one thing it has a much slower tempo, and it’s also the only acoustic track on the album. Todd S. Inoue, in his aptly named article “Pinning Down the Butterfly of Fame”,  notes that Rivers’ voice nearly cracks as he “begs for forgiveness”.

For myself, however, regardless of whether the song’s emotion is genuine or not, I believe it’s a false, hollow apology that directs blame as much as it accepts, with Rivers ‘doing what his body told him to do’ to calling Butterfly “a bitch”, implying that his urges were uncontrollable (note the reference to scent). Overall, Rivers doesn’t even seem to see Butterfly as a person — she is quite literally objectified for the sake of metaphor, and Rivers’ attempt to resolve this problem is pathetic. “I guess you’re as real as me / Maybe I can live with that / Maybe I need fantasy / Life of chasing butterfly”: he guesses she’s as real as he is, he supposes he can live with that, or not. No, he needs “fantasy”, he needs a “Life of chasing butterfly”, in this case not not even capitalized and simply referring to all girls. In one breath Rivers provides an apology and takes it back. It doesn’t matter then that he’s “sorry for what he did” and” “didn’t mean to do…harm”. Though he demonstrates an understanding of the wrongfulness of his actions, he also simultaneously demonstrates no intention to stop. At this point we see Rivers surpass Pinkerton (the character), even: nowhere in Madame Butterfly is it portrayed, either implicitly or explicitly, that Pinkerton intends to continue “chasing butterfly”, chasing Asian girls. This line is solely Rivers’.

Part III: Why do white boys like Asian women so much?

Before moving on, I wanted to briefly lay out the full case for Rivers’ yellow fever. Beyond the Pinkerton material we’ve already covered, the album’s cover art is “Kambara yoru no yuki” (“Night Snow at Kambara”) by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige, selected for it having been on a postcard he received from his then ‘on-again-off-again’ Japanese girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. Otherwise, “Across the Sea”, which we’ve touched on, opens with a shakuhachi flute melody. And past his music, Rivers has a well-documented history of selectively pursuing Asian groupies. Take these excerpts from a site composed of stories of his past hook-ups (Rivers himself has acknowledged the site), now only available on the wayback machine: 

“Weezer came to Amsterdam in ’95…I didn’t go to the show with the intention of hooking up with anyone in the band, especially not Rivers. By the way, yes, I am an Asian girl, but I didn’t know anything about Rivers [sic] Asian fetish thing that he has going on…”

“Rivers had a mob…around him…I joined…and quickly felt very out of place. First of all, there were like ten asian girls withinn [sic] five feet of him and he was completely talking to them, and didn’t seem to [sic] involved with everyone else. He’d sign the guys [sic] stuff, answer question, [sic] and then be like “scram”

“Twenty minutes [after the concert] the guy [a roadie] comes up to me. “What’s your name? Are you Asian? Would you like to meet Rivers?”…I answered all three and he told me that I’d definetly [sic] get back stage…Rivers immediatly [sic] talked to the flirtatious Asian girls, signed ther stuff, etc…Rivers actually came up to me…he started asking me questions. “What’s your name? Where do you go to school? How old are you?…” there were a few other girls in the same conversatrion. [sic] he seemed equally interested in us all [Asian girls]”

“Pervert vs. just being a rockstar”

Rivers himself, of course, doesn’t believe in this characterization. He’s often quite combative towards media coverage of himself and his band, having kept a “running tally” of such “disagreements” on his MySpace blog. Specifically, in regards to his Wikipedia page stating in 2007 that he had an “affinity for Asian women”, he wrote:

“Wrong in so many ways…only a small minority of my songs are about Asian women. Let’s break it down…”

Jake Brown, “Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo On Asian Women”

In his ‘break down’, Rivers very specifically separates those songs he’s written about Asian and Half-Asian women. But I digress, the defense is odd, to say the least.

Rivers ends with the following:

“In any case, I’m married now, so please, let’s take it down. I only have an affinity for my wife. And, yes, she happens to be Asian. That doesn’t prove anything.”

Now, I’m no psychologist, and I don’t want to psychoanalyze Rivers Cuomo as it seems many fans have (the phenomenon even makes a cameo in an SNL skit — “I understand Rivers better than he understand himself”). Yet there are notable troubling parallels present between Rivers relationship with masculinity and Asian women, and the manosphere as a whole’s problematic relationship with Asian women.

Yellow fever exists through the stereotype of Asian women being subservient, hyper-sexual beings, a myth rooted in American military foreign adventurism. From the post-WWII occupation of Japan, to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, thriving sex industries catering to American G.I.s sprung up essentially unchecked. As these soldiers returned to the US, they likewise brought back the pigeonholed experiences they’d had with Asian sex workers. Unfortunately the extremely limited context by which they interacted with and came to understand Asian women has persisted to date. It exists in online pornography habits, how Japanese anime caters to its audiences in its depictions of its heroines, and the way Asian women are treated (and unsavorily entreated) in their day-to-day lives.

From Pornhub’s 2019 Year in Review

A byproduct of all this is how Asian women have been adopted by certain disreputable circles as an alternative to white women. Where white women are perceived as having become too feminist, empowered, and contradictory to traditional masculine norms, Asian women are seen as a suitable alternative who yet remain docile and unthreatening.

We can apply some of this thinking to analysis of Rivers’ lyrics. Weezer has never been a traditional rock band: its debut album, The Blue Album, famously embraced nerdom, name-dropping Dungeons and Dragons as well as Marvel heroes Kitty Pryde and Nightcrawler. The bands has long served as a group, really the group, for wallflowers, social outcast, and people who otherwise don’t fit in nicely with social norms, hyper-masculinity being one such standard. As such, in many ways Pinkerton was Rivers’ attempt to reconcile his nerd roots with his then new globetrotting, rock star lifestyle. On “Tired of Sex”, despite making love to a string of women day-after-day, Rivers is still regardless held back by crippling anxiety and bemoans his inability to find genuine love. In “Why Bother?”, off the same album, Rivers takes this sentiment to its logical conclusion, singing about a girl: “it’s just sexual attraction / Not somethin’ real so I’d rather keep wackin’ / Why bother? / It’s gonna hurt me / It’s gonna kill when you desert me”. Though by this time he had far transcended his roots, his continued self-victimization speaks to traditional schoolyard torments resulting from a supposed lack of masculinity. As further evidence, he once told Rolling Stone the following regarding his ‘on-again-off-again girlfriend Jennifer Chiba’ (a major influence on Pinkerton, if you recall):

“[I] had every hope I was going to be this huge rock star, and have all these other [better] options for girlfriend/wife.”

But of course, though Weezer did indeed continue its success, it became clear to Cuomo that he would be unable to live up to the traditional masculine stereotype of a rock star:

“I seriously thought we were the next Nirvana…And I thought the world was going to perceive us that way, like a superimportant, superpowerful, heartbreaking heavy rock band, and as serious artists….” [Rolling Stone:] The first clue that the world would see it slightly differently came in a lunch with Sullivan [a record label guy], who praised the humor of some of Cuomo’s lyrics, even using the words “comical band” [Cuomo:] “It was just like a gut punch,”

In this context, the myth of the “subservient, hypersexual Asian woman” seems to arise as a natural solution to someone’s lack of perceived masculinity. If “Denise”, “Sharise”, and “Louise” from “Tired of Sex” aren’t working out, perhaps a more ‘docile’ Asian woman would do better?

Post-Pinkerton, Weezer would receive an offer to play at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, an opportunity that would launch the Japan Tour. On this tour, there’s a possibly apocryphal story of Rivers, unconfident in how to proclaim his desires, supposedly telling all the girls (most likely Japanese) at one of his after-concert parties to either take off their clothes and get on the hotel room bed or get out. The source for this story? An essay of Rivers’ own writing:

“one night, I plucked up my courage [after long having been unable to] and boldly proclaimed, ‘OK, whoever wants to stay in the room has to . . . uhh . . . take off their clothes and…uhh…get on the bed’. The women tittered and most of them left, but four of them stayed, and to my amazement, did as I asked.”

Rivers Cuomo, “A Mad and Furious Master”

Part IV: Closing Statements (or how nothing has changed)

By now I’m sure I’ve lose Weezer diehards, but I do hope that past the criticism I’ve put forth that the love I hold for Weezer, and specifically Pinkerton, has shone through. I’ve put an immense amount of effort into this article, and I wouldn’t have done so if the band didn’t hold a special place in my heart. Pinkerton is indeed “a noisy, charmless mess”, but in this sense it’s similar to how many of us were in our youth. At times, we were racist, sexist, incredibly horny, and otherwise problematic, cringey and lacking all self-awareness. In need of a socially acceptable outlet to articulate ourselves, Pinkerton, without casting any judgment or asking why, provided us what nothing else could. It’s just as Rivers sings on El Scorcho: “How stupid is it? I can’t talk about it / I gotta sing about it and make a record of my heart”. ‘It’ was his “ugly, angry desire”, that through his music acted as our “ugly, angry desire”. In this sense his baring his soul to the world through his music was almost heroic. As such, any regret we might feel about having listened to Weezer isn’t really fair. Since those days, we’ve grown and moved on from Weezer. But though we no longer need the band now, we sure as Hell needed them then. Rivers’ own thinking about the album reflects this. Two months prior to Pinkerton’s release, he forewarned members of Weezer’s fan club (now defunct) about the album’s content:

“There are some lyrics on the album that you might think are mean or sexist…I really wanted these songs to be an exploration of my ‘dark side’ – all the parts of myself that I was either afraid or embarrassed to think about before. So there’s some pretty nasty stuff on there”…

“You may be more willing to forgive the lyrics if you see them as passing low points in a larger story. And this album really is a story: the story of the last two years of my life.” [touring in his 20s]

Rolling Stone

And I wish I could leave you all with this bittersweet conclusion of Pinkerton being a flawed, yet forgivably loveable album. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, however, Weezer’s issues didn’t reveal themselves to me all at once, but rather came slowly into perspective. This was not only in the context of my maturing and becoming more aware of problematic language and aspects of our culture, but also with the backdrop of Weezer’s continued existence as a group. Just last year, in fact, they came out with two albums, The Teal Album, a cover album, and The Black Album. If we are truly meant to believe Rivers’ statement then, that Pinkerton was a “passing low point…in [his] larger story”, you would think that Weezer’s follow-up releases would demonstrate a new Rivers Cuomo, one that was married, had children, and is now aged 50. But this doesn’t really appear to be the case.

The last Weezer album that was considered ‘good’ was 2016’s The White Album. Many called it “a return to form”. Musically, Weezer manages to wonderfully channel the surf-rock style of The Beach Boys while still remaining true to themselves. At the same time, however, The Beach Boys are perhaps not the only 60s ethos they manage to recreate. Caitlin White of Brooklyn Magazine wrote the following for her article “Weezer and Women”:

The White Album is so…oddly out of touch with the current wave of #hashtag #feminism…“LA Girlz” is “El Scorcho” part two… “Thank God For Girls” is basically the virtual reality suit for simulating sex with women in song form. “Summer Elaine And Drunk Dori” just picks two imaginary women to be playthings for Cuomo while he’s sad over yet another relationship’s demise.”

Rivers does manage to demonstrate some growth in the album. On the song “King of the World”, Rivers sings directly to his wife Kyoko Cuomo:

Dad hit you on the hand
Just for holding your chopsticks wrong
Then your Mom locked you in a shed
And Uncle Sam dropped an atom bomb

At first glance, the lyrics seem contrived and based on common stereotypes of Asian families, but reading Kyoko’s Genius annotations, a rather heartwarming narrative emerges. Kyoko speaks frankly about how each line is based on actual real-life traumas she’s gone through. She really was hit on the hand and locked in a shed by her parents, and in regards to the atom bomb line, she discusses how culturally devastating it was to grow up in the only country in the world that had been subjected to a nuclear weapon. In his lyrics Rivers declares how if he were “King of the World” he’d protect her, and for once he’s singing to a woman with a voice of her own who writes back “Thank you & I love you, Rivers.” 

Unfortunately, within the same year, Rivers undercut the apparent passion between himself and his wife by leaving the following Genius annotation on “Thank God for Girls”:

I’m so jealous of the hooker-uppers
Seems like it’s so easy to get laid now
all these good looking atheletic young guys
r getting so much free sex
it kills me
laxitutes.
Such a bummer. Such a bummer.
To be evaluated by women. To be graded. To be rated.
Where do I stand? How big? How strong? How enduring? How energetic? How inventive?
So sad that it comes to this. So sad.
It IS a competition and I AM being compared.

Rivers Cuomo, Genius, “Thank God for Girls”

This statement is truly damning. That Rivers would make it voluntarily without any prompting whatsoever speaks to his own continued lack of self-awareness. He never provided any context or follow-up to the statement, making it hard for us to take it ironically. We can only conclude then that even with a loving wife and children, Rivers appears to still be unable to move past an utterly elementary pursuit of masculinity.

Moreover, we must conclude that Pinkerton, far from being merely a mere “low point”, was more likely only our first glimpses into a uniquely problematic personality. A common defense of Rivers here would be to point out his various anxieties, as well as to blame his current failure to grow on the initial backlash to Pinkerton, which was intensely traumatic to him. Again, Rivers had bared his soul only to be publicly crucified. But how much time can we really be expected to give Rivers to finally grow up? Weezer fans have stuck with the band through 13 albums now, and as previously mentioned, Rivers is now aged 50. There’s something to be said about the despair one must have at their strength and good looks going with age, but also something to be said about everyone’s needing to come to terms with such losses, and this sentiment can be applied to the rest of Rivers’ struggles. Ultimately, Rivers various trauma are uncommon, but far from unique, and they doesn’t excuse his underlying racism and sexism.

Further Reading/Inspiration

Weezerpedia, Scott & Rivers — Scott & Rivers is Rivers’ musical collaboration with Scott Murphy; the duo are notable for both being from the West yet their entire project being in the Japanese language, their latest album art is this post’s featured image

Rivers Cuomo, “A Mad and Furious Master” — author’s note: I unfortunately did not have the time to get into this essay, and was only able to use one of its anecdotes; in brief, Rivers used it to apply back to Harvard post-touring for The Blue Album, and it is an utter mess. It’s amazing that Harvard took him considering the topics, which include his visiting ‘foreign massage parlors’, belittling a women’s literature class, and an extremely graphic account of one of his sexual encounters

rateyourmusic.com: Pinkerton — author’s note: review section is a warzone

r/LetsTalkMusic, Reddit, “Let’s talk Weezer’s ‘Pinkerton’ — author’s note A Problematic Masterpiece” — pretty great look into how Weezer’s fans perceive Pinkerton (lots of denial); also led me to rateyourmusic’s Pinkerton page

digg, “Woman Does A Deadpan Rating Of Weezer Songs About Asian Women By How Racist They Are” — author’s note: it’s just a repost of a TikTok by the magnificent @saddy_issues because apparently that’s what qualifies for news theses days

Se-Ho B. Kim, The Harvard Crimson, “For the Record: Weezer, ‘Pinkerton’ — author’s note: Kim provides an Asian male perspective on Pinkerton similar to my own while excellently capturing the love-hate relationship fans have with this album in greater detail than I do

Jenny Zhang, Rookie Magazine (discontinued), “Far Away From Me” — author’s note: an Asian female perspective on Weezer (among other things)

Audrea Lim, The New York Times, “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish” — author’s note: a thorough, convincing argument as to how white masculinity is infected with yellow fever; was key to my discussion of yellow fever

About AMGV

Jack Li is a student at New York University majoring in Politics and Economics. He is an avid movie, music, and video game fan, and loves writing. The pseudonym AMGV is taken from an extremely obscure internet reference.

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