Teenage Dreams & Barbie
Where whimsy meets lament
When I was a teenager there were a few bands that I really connected with: MxPx, Supertones, and Weezer. Coming from parents that burned their vintage vinyl records in the 70s, in my conservative Christian household Weezer was cautiously approved since they didn’t cuss … much. Their pop-punk sound masked the turmoil and conceptual complexity of their lyrics. I collected every album unhindered for years.
I lost track of them in my mid to late 20s as I was surviving a church fallout, job losses, economic crashes, and seminary. Raditude made a brief appearance in my discography in 2009 - but other than that I had moved on to newer music. What exactly did I move on to? I can’t quite tell you, because not much of what I was listening to in this period has stayed with me. It was helpful at the time (I think there was a good amount of Gregory Alan Isakov and The Decemberists); but I moved on from the music of this time in my life, too.
While working on my MFA in 2017-2020 music from my teenage days re-emerged in my life. I dabbled back in Green Day, Fiona Apple, Radiohead, and Weezer. I was even planning to attend the Hella Mega tour planned for summer of 2020 featuring Weezer and Green Day together(!) as a graduation present to myself. I was right back in sync musically — and thankfully some of these bands kept making new music over the years so there was a lot to catch up. I found Weezer’s Black album, Make Believe, and had their covers album (the teal one) on repeat. So when, in the height of the pandemic and after the cancellation of Hella Mega, they released OK Human — their first acoustic album — I was in heaven. I found their new music maintained their quintessential-Weezerness, yet it was, like me, growing up in a weird hard world. New themes emerged; new complexities. In OK Human (which winks at Radiohead’s 1997 OK Computer) Rivers Cuomo addresses the emotional separateness the pandemic cultivated even though for many of us we were in closer proximity than ever. It’s real. He’s not hiding behind exaggerated teenage angst or rose colored glasses.
And then I saw the Barbie movie.*
(BARBIE MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD)
The Barbie movie addresses how in the real world (aka. Western patriarchy) women are required to grow up. This is highlighted by the fact that Gloria, performed marvelously by America Ferrera, is a) still emotionally connected with her childhood Barbie doll, b) is struggling to teach her daughter how to stay connected with play in the modern world, and c) gives a phenomenal monolog describing the impossible and contradicting societal pressures and expectations women are held up to today.
There is very little room left for adult women to play. This has been true for a very long time. In contrast, a band like Weezer gets to make Van Weezer, a playful look at metal music, and an album full of fabulously kitschy covers (teal album) alongside philosophical treaties dressed up as pop punk, while in approximately the same time span veteran musicians Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020), and Alanis Morissette, Such Pretty Forks in the Road (2020), are processing the effects of trauma, addiction, and staking claims against the patriarchy’s and music industry’s negative effects on them.
The closest female artists I can think of who have a veneer of fun in their music akin to Weezer are Lizzo and Taylor Swift — both decades junior to Apple, Morisette, or Weezer’s bandmates. A considered look at either Lizzo or Swift’s lyrics leads listeners to understand the gravity of their lyrical content.
Gloria’s speech in Barbie captures this feeling:
“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong … And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault. I'm just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don't even know.”
Barbie helped me understand part of my draw to Weezer: they were societally allowed to have fun and say true hard things without negative impact to how society sees them in their humanity.
I’ve been pursuing re-learning how to play in my personal life for the better part of a decade. Making art has helped me in that learning. But now I’m wondering what it looks like to express whimsy through my making. Before seeing Barbie I assumed it was disrespectful to the truth of our often harsh reality to have too much fun (or let people in on my fun having). Is there a way to honor whimsy and lament, in a way that truth and beauty reflect and mirror one another in their complexity?
Maybe Weezer can fan the flames of my curiosity in this invitation, as I claim their implicit freedom to play as my own, when I see them live for the first time (ever!) next month.
CHRISTINE LEE SMITH • ARTIST & SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
*Warp speed time jump here. In between OK Human Weezer released 5 additional albums (in about 3-years time) — one a playful and reminiscent look at metal rock in Van Weezer, and a quartet of albums connected to the seasons and philosophical looks at life, death, and the seasons of our lives. These also have been on repeat in my listening and are worth consideration on their own.