What The Devil Is That Song About?

What the Devil is that Song About? by Rivers Cuomo 21 December 1994

The question most frequently asked of Weezer - besides "What was it like working with Ric Ocasek?" - is definitely: "What the devil is that song about?", referring to either "the Sweater Song" or "Buddy Holly". This question isn't a problem for my bandmates: they're all magnificent liars. Each time someone gets the bright idea to ask it, they never fail to fabricate some totally original, imaginative and exciting story involving hot air balloons and high speed car chases, all explaining the origin of "ooo-wee-ooo I look just like Buddy Holly". Unfortunately, I wasn't blessed with this gift. To date, my sole response has been to shrug my shoulders and try and pass myself off as mentally retarded. This usually works remarkably well. But after nine months of dodging this most simple and sincere of questions, I'm beginning to wonder why I have such an aversion to answering it.

The most obvious explanation, and possibly the most truthful, is that I sound like a complete asshole when I talk about my own lyrics. Even now I already sound like an asshole, and I haven't even started talking about them yet. I'm just talking about talking about them. Not even. I'm talking about not talking about them. And I sound like an asshole. You know why? It's because I used the word "my". "My lyrics". That sounds awful. I suppose they are my lyrics, considering that I wrote them, but for me to actually come out and say "my lyrics" sounds awful. I sound like a "composer". I sound like I'm wearing wire-rimmed glasses, sipping Chianti, and "composing" up in my loft. And that's not me. I live in a garage and "compose" through a full-on Marshall stack.

I'd hate to pick up a copy of some interview I've done and read my explanation of the sociopolitical ramifications of "the Sweater Song". The fact is, I write stupid pop songs. Unfortunately, they're not quite stupid enough that I can get away with calling them that unqualified. I have to admit they are, perhaps, a notch more involved than the songs of, say, Boys II Men. There is some metaphor, there is some unusual imagery, and often there is a deeper meaning, but for me to talk about those things makes me sound like Chianti-guy. Until someone figures out a way to talk about lyrics honestly and sincerely without sounding like a total smeg-head, I'm going to keep my mouth shut. And I expect that won't be for a long time.

There is another reason I don't like to talk about lyrics, and although perhaps not quite as obvious, it is even more important. Because good lyrics have meaning beyond the literal, they must be interpreted to be fully appreciated. And who more qualified to interpret a song than its writer, right? Wrong! True, the writer lived through the experience that inspired the song, but does he have the perspective necessary to fully understand it? Hopefully not. Hopefully, the writer is so consumed by inspiration that he has no perspective at all and no conscious knowledge of what he's doing. So when he tries to interpret his own song, first hand personal experience is just as likely to lead him to ridiculous bias as to privileged insight.

For example, I'm tempted to think that a certain song of ours (which will remain unnamed to protect the innocent) is about the day my girlfriend left me. I remember that sad day; I picked up my guitar and spilled tears of grief and loss over those four sad chords. But if I think very carefully, I also remember that a week later I met this new girl named Sonia (who speaks Spanish, Italian, and Portugeuse) and forgot all about the first girl. But still, to this day, that song makes me sad, and it still rings true. So maybe it wasn't about what's-her-name after all. Maybe it's about the time my Mom refused to give me a warm banana before bed. Who am I to say?

As you see, well-written lyrics can have a myriad of meanings. There's only so many ways you can take "Shoop, Shoop-be-doop, Shoop-be-doop-be-doop-be-doop", but bite into a classic like "Cum on feel the Noize" or "We're not Gonna Take it" and you'll find as many different interpretations as there are spikes on Rob Halford's wristband. For the writer to give what he considers the one true interpretation of a song is to limit what could otherwise be poetry, or at least somewhat confusing. And the real crime is that the audience believes the writer unquestioningly because he wrote the damn thing.

Hopefully, the greater part of any writer's inspiration is subconscious. I hate to think of a song being written by a wholly conscious creator: "Yes, the melody should ascend here to underscore the protagonist's increased expectations at the appearance of his lover, and here, fall suddenly as disillusionment, shame, and a forcibly-ejected ball of her saliva settle upon him." I've tried this and the results are sucky. Consciousness should be avoided at all costs.

Lastly, even if a writer could feel confident that he completely understood his own work, that he would take into account all of its sordid subconscious origins, and that he would not diminish its value or misrepresent it by speaking, the chances of him successfully communicating all of this to Stacy, ace-reporter for the Chelsea High school paper, are slim at best. Compound this with the fact that said writer has gotten four hours of sleep and has tried to explain "the Sweater Song" six times a day for the past nine months to reporters just like Stacy, and the results are downright gruesome.

The point is: when a writer talks about his songs, he only hurts that which he wracked his soul to create. Instead of opening up new avenues of understanding for his audience to explore, he limits their view to his own twisted, road-weary, and cynical Gospel. He leads them astray with his personal biases. He confuses them with his foggy, fatigued brain. Worst of all, he turns into Chianti-guy and makes a complete ass out of himself. This is a fate I would like to avoid. Let the songs be; there's no need to dissect them. If you like them as stupid pop songs, that's fine with me. If you want to go digging for a little more, that's cool too. All that being said, I think I'd better shut up.

Further Reading:
Beverly Shoenberger
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