Discover more from Songs & Stories
the voice-crack heard round the world
Title: Undone (The Sweater Song)
As I seem to always be saying, the author is dead and, once released, art belongs to its consumers, not its creators. But, of course, when it comes to contemporary art, the proverbial authors aren’t necessarily actually, literally dead. They’re living, breathing people, experiencing the passage of time just like the rest of us. And the chronology of that lived experience matters.
This is a story about that.
In my consumptive opinion, Weezer’s debut, the 1994 masterpiece commonly referred to as the Blue Album, is timeless.1 And, as best I can tell, Weezer—or at least Rivers Cuomo, the band’s figurehead—wants, desperately, to be cool.2 And the thing he became famous for, maybe even beyond his ability to craft immaculate rock anthems and release timeless records,3 was being textbook levels of uncool. Because obviously. I mean, look at Cuomo (far right) and the rest of these guys:
Even for 1994, that’s a shocking degree of ill-fitting, questionably-curated clothing, to say nothing of the visible lack of social confidence. Does it surprise you that these four dudes, on that very album, included a song about how much they love Dungeons & Dragons, the X-Men, and the hair-metal stylings of KISS? Of course not! “In the Garage” is maybe the most on-brand song in the history of modern rock.
But Weezer’s uncool fate was sealed before the band ever put “In the Garage” to tape. The band’s very first song and, subsequently, very first single was “Undone (The Sweater Song)”. You know the one, with the big chorus and the ridiculously exaggerated party banter.4 In 1994, those lines of dialogue qualified as solidly funny, so maybe that comic sarcasm is proof that Cuomo and Co. were actually cool after—oh, wait, nope:
When I wrote “The Sweater Song,” to me it was a very sad song about depression, and people heard it on the radio and thought it was hysterical.
“The Sweater Song” was the first Weezer song I ever wrote, back in 1991. I was trying to write a Velvet Underground-type song because I was super into them, and I came up with that guitar riff … It wasn’t until years after I wrote it that I realized it’s almost a complete ripoff of ‘Sanitarium’ by Metallica. It just perfectly encapsulates Weezer to me—you’re trying to be cool like Velvet Underground but your metal roots just pump through unconsciously.
Cuomo can’t help himself. He is who he is. And he isn’t who he isn’t. He isn’t cool. At least not like he wants to be. In a lot of ways, this is indisputable,6 but it's academically implausible. Cuomo is the frontman for one of the biggest rock bands in the world. He’s been unbelievably successful at a job in which success is almost definitionally tied to coolness.7 How is it possible that he's so uncool?8
There’s a long discussion to be had, somewhere else, about Cuomo’s seeming inability to understand his audience and his unrealistic expectations of how his work will be perceived. But today I want to focus on one granular moment that, I think, shaped so much of what Weezer became. Because the disconnect that has proved so confounding for Weezer and Cuomo—the distance between intent and interpretation—can be captured in one vocal slip-up.
At 3:12 of “Undone,” as the song is blasting full-speed into its outro, Cuomo wraps up the song’s final chorus by wailing “I’ve come undone” one last time. At the 3:17 mark, as Cuomo is reaching up and stretching out the final vowel of “undone,” his voice cracks. And that’s why Weezer can never be cool.
Three elements require our consideration here. The first is Cuomo’s vocal performance. Prior to the voice-crack, Cuomo’s vocals in “Undone” have been workmanlike. He’s getting the job done, but there are no fireworks. In the moment when he finally extends himself to really go for something impressive, his voice cracks. Keeping your head down, being unexceptional, and then really trying for something big only to make an embarrassing mistake, like your voice cracking? Textbook uncool.
Next, we have to consider the context. All that party banter that Cuomo uses to decorate the serious song that everyone thought was a joke? It’s hilarious because it’s too on the nose. It’s arch, clichéd social chatter. It’s party talk, as written by some nerd who has never been to a party before. And it amplifies the band’s latent nerdiness by a sizable degree, until there’s no room for any other vibe within the song.
Last of all, we have to ask: Why is the voice-crack even in the recording? For all its casual, off-the-cuff charms, “Undone” wasn’t recorded live. Like the rest of the Blue Album, it was recorded at Electric Lady Studios, one of the most storied studios in America, and produced by Ric Ocasek, who wrote a timeless banger of his own with the Cars’ “Just What I Needed.”9 That setting is extremely professional and Cuomo and Ocasek were meticulous. They could have re-recorded any vocal mistakes, just as Cuomo re-recorded all of Jason Cropper’s guitar tracks10 when Cropper was fired during the sessions. But they didn't. They left it in. During a live performance, a voice-crack is an unintentional mistake. But leaving one in a studio mix? That's a conscious choice.
So what does that all mean? It means that Weezer and Cuomo and Ocasek knew what they were doing, and what they were doing was intentionally creating imperfection. In a song about depression, they were showing their work, proving that Cuomo had weaknesses and was vulnerable.
And that’s the key: Vulnerability.
Coolness is and can be a lot of things to a lot of people but, at its fundamental core, being cool is about being casually confident and seeming to be, effortlessly, invulnerable. Vulnerability is in direct opposition to coolness.
Here we come back to the idea that started all this: that there is tension between a belief that the artist is figuratively dead and the reality that they are often very literally alive. That tension matters here, as does the order of operations. Cuomo and Ocasek left that voice-crack in “Undone” because it displayed vulnerability within the context of the song, but I don’t think they had considered what that meant within the broader context of Cuomo or Weezer at large.
They forgot that the author is dead, that their perspective is not the perspective of their listeners. Ocasek was already a rock star and Cuomo was recording his first album in one of the most storied studios in history. That’s a cool scenario! But this was Weezer’s first record, in a time before the internet made information readily and easily available. When listeners heard “Undone,” when they were introduced to Weezer, they likely didn’t know the context of the song’s creation, just like how they didn’t know that Weezer were going to be huge rock stars. The listeners’ chronology skews their perception and conclusions.11
From the internal vantage point of Cuomo and Ocasek, the voice-crack is just a tool to further express the content of the song. But if Cuomo thought he could use a voice-crack as a tool, it’s because he had forgotten what a voice-crack means to any average person who experiences one: embarrassment. I was a teenaged boy once so I can confirm that it is embarrassing as hell when your voice cracks; that’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone for a variety of reasons, but for our purposes here, my god, the vulnerability. And so, to consumers, that voice-crack wasn’t a symbolic stand-in for vulnerability, it was proof of it. And that perception matters because, in the realm of public opinion, perception is reality.
This was all rolled up in the first experience that the public had with Weezer and Cuomo, experiences that were formative and defining for everyone involved. Why aren’t Cuomo and Weezer cool? They’re vulnerable. Always have been, from their very first song.12
They never had a chance.
I give “Undone (The Sweater Song)” four out of five stars.
It’s possible this is just the elder millennial in me talking. I’m fine with that.
We’re going to talk about what it means to be cool in this piece and I’ll get to a sort of definition later in the piece, but if you’re like me, you’ll want to know the context that you’re working with along the way, so I’ll offer up this in advance of what’s to come: Admitting that coolness is, by its nature, somewhat difficult to define—defining coolness is certainly an uncool thing to be doing!—our working definition for this piece is essentially anything or anyone that seems to be casually confident and effortlessly invulnerable. We’ll come back to this, particularly the part about invulnerability, later.
And the Spotify embed up above, obviously.
The following line of that interview is worth citing for how on-brand this dumbfounded misunderstanding is for Cuomo: “Then I wrote ‘Beverly Hills,’ a very sincere song about my cravings for notoriety and celebrity, and everyone thought I was making fun of the Beverly Hills lifestyle.” It’s possible Cuomo is playing Billboard here, and making them the butt of a meta-joke with his fans. But, as best I can tell, that conclusion would be based on an external interpretation of Weezer’s body of work, rather than anything Cuomo himself has ever done or said. It seems like he’s just a weirdly sincere guy, which is a painfully uncool thing to be.
Weezer followed the massive success of their self-titled debut with 1996’s Pinkerton, an album that bombed on release—Rolling Stone’s readers called it the third-worst album of the year—only to be reappraised as a masterpiece decades later. That initial failure was devastating for Cuomo. The success of “Undone” and “Buddy Holly” had taught him that he could be his nerdy self and still be successful, maybe even cool, and so he leaned into his nerdiness on Pinkerton and made an achingly honest record. Then everyone hated Pinkerton, crushing the exposed Cuomo in the process. Per that link above, while Cuomo was very much in his feelings about Pinkerton’s reception, he “painted the walls and ceiling of [his] bedroom black and covered the walls with fiberglass insulation.” Just like all the cool kids do.
You could argue that successful butt rock bands are uncool, but only to people who don’t like butt rock. Among the crowd that listens to and supports butt rock, those dudes are legit rock stars.
Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been a Weezer fan since 1994 and I’m not sure that I know a single person who would claim that Cuomo, or even the band Weezer, is cool in the Velvet Underground way that Cuomo seems to want to define it.
What an absolute banger that one is, too.
Reportedly in one take. Cuomo may not be cool, but he is very good at playing guitar.
For the sports enthusiasts out there, I’ll paraphrase a Bill Barnwell talking point about how important the order of operations can be for public perception: Peyton Manning started his career by piling up incredible numbers but became maligned as a “regular season” guy—someone who couldn’t win the big game—because he didn’t lead his team to a championship over his first decade in the NFL. Even after Manning won a title, his reputation didn’t change. He still wasn’t a winner in the eyes of most observers. (He was great on SNL, though.) His reputation was too established by then. But things could have been different if the order of operations had been flipped. Ben Roethlisberger’s career largely overlapped with Manning’s and both finished their careers with two Super Bowl wins, including one each where they were no good and were essentially dragged to a title by their defense (Roethlisberger’s first and Manning’s second, respectively). But where Manning still has a reputation as a big-game loser, Roethlisberger has a rather lionized reputation as a winner, even though he has the same number of titles as Manning and even though he typically played on superior teams, largely because he won his titles in the first few years of his career before going ‘ship-less on the way out. He got branded with a winner label that he never shed, even as he didn’t win another title across the last two-thirds of his career. (Like too many people that have been mentioned in this newsletter over the years, Roethlisberger appears to have been the worst.)
Watch the video for “Undone” in all its goofy glory and you can see, in hindsight, this disconnect in action: Cuomo is trying to be casually cool and effortlessly invulnerable as he hammers on his guitar and half-jokingly dances around. But where he may have seen a lead guitarist ripping off a sick riff while making a classic guitar-solo-face, his viewers saw a nerdy shirt, a laughable bowl-cut, and a drummer who already looked 40 at 25.