Weezer's Self-Referential 'Africa' Video Sees the Band Age Appropriately, If Not Maturel
Weird Al Yankovic in the video for "Africa" by Weezer.
If there’s ever a band that has made serious business out of acting juvenile, it would be Weezer. From the opening, upside-down shot of “Undone - The Sweater Song,” their 1993 debut single and video, to the Weird Al parody treatment in their video for “Africa,” released on Monday (Sept. 24), Weezer have eschewed the tormented anguish of their alt-rock predecessors for a more adolescent, self-deprecating pain.
When the “Undone” video first premiered on MTV, it was neither dark and gritty like its rock contemporaries, nor flashy and arty like the new wave video stars of the channel's early years. Directed by Spike Jonze, “Undone" was presented entirely in slow-motion, depicting the band on a blue soundstage. Mop-haired frontman Rivers Cuomo wails “I’ve come undone” while playing guitar and wearing a soccer jersey. Midway through, a pack of Golden Retrievers inexplicably runs across the screen, and towards the end of the clip, drummer Patrick Wilson gets up and sprints around his drum set, banging on the cymbals as he goes. Instead of directly confronting inner demons through provocative videos, like Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” or Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” Weezer dealt with themes of rejection, loneliness, and loserdom in their songs by pairing them with visual humor.
Some of this was accidental. According to Rivers’ Edge, John D. Luerssen’s biography of the band, the seemingly jovial tone of “The Sweater Song” ironically came from a place of frustration. The one-take video had to be shot over 25 times to get it right; at one point, one of the dogs allegedly defecated on Wilson’s bass drum pedal. Fed up with how the shoot was going, the band gave up on trying to treat it with any sort of seriousness.
It ended up working in their favor: The band’s winking sense of humor and improvisation stood out in MTV rotation without eclipsing their whole identity. In subsequent videos with Jonze, Weezer accurately parodied the '70s sitcom Happy Days in “Buddy Holly” and played with wild animals on a sunny hilltop in “Island in the Sun.” They were never as goofy as other Jonze collaborators like MC 900ft Jesus, but heir appeal rested in how they could laugh at themselves while pining after girls or wallowing in their own ennui.
That comedic approach to rock has somewhat miraculously endured even as the genre has faded in popularity, in part because the Weezer/Jonze collaborations predicted the sorts of comedic YouTube videos and memes that would come to dominate culture in the 21st century. Everything from OK Go’s mid-’00s attempts at virality to Migos and Drake’’s Soul Train-revising “Walk It Talk It,” released in March, could be considered descendants.
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But Weezer hasn’t stopped engaging with the internet fan culture that they helped to create. Late last year, a 14-year-old fan from Cleveland named Mary Klym started a Twitter account called @WeezerAfrica and began campaigning for Weezer to cover the Toto classic. Even though it was originally released in 1982, the euphoric soft-rock song had gradually gained popularity with online millennials and Gen Z’ers as a respite from the post-election news cycle. Klym’s campaign gained traction, and five months after she began tweeting, Weezer released “Africa” onto streaming services along with, bafflingly, a limited-edition vinyl pressing sold at Urban Outfitters.
Weezer’s “Africa” is a very straightforward cover, and its video, weirdly enough, could be considered the same. It’s a near-exact replica of the “Sweater Song” video, complete with the single take, the blue soundstage (mimicking the cover of the band’s debut album), and the opening upside-down camera flip. All that’s missing, really, are the dogs. And there’s another added detail: Weird Al Yankovic plays Cuomo in the “Africa” video, lip syncing along to the words, playing accordion, and generally acting like his trademark goofy self. (The rest of the band are also doppelgangers, although they all resemble how the band looks now more than how they looked in the original video.)
One glance at the “Africa” video makes this obvious, but as Weezer has aged into rock music’s old guard, they haven’t exactly matured. And while that consistency has helped their fanbase stay devoted for over two decades, it’s unsurprisingly brought its fair share of skepticism. The same variety of misogyny-laced, poor-me-I-can’t-get-laid lyrics present on 1996’s Pinkerton can be found on songs as recent as 2015’s “Thank God for Girls.” It’s a trait that has made Cuomo’s awkward-nerd character, unfortunately, even more relatable to some listeners and completely alienating to others – while some older fans have taken issue with Cuomo’s forays into bizarre, surrealist lyrics that belie the self-seriousness of the band’s usual self-pity. Above all, there has always been the type of music nerd who can’t stand Weezer’s appropriation of churning, heavy-metal guitar work into endless, pop-friendly hooks.
What has allowed Weezer to stick around for so long, aside from a large cult-like following, is that the band has enough self-awareness to recognize their age and to grow, if not mature, into this current moment of Internet virality that they helped build the foundation for a quarter-century ago. Besides the obvious silliness of covering “Africa,” the meme song du jour, at the request of a fan, they’ve doubled down on this approach in their videos. It’s fitting that Cuomo casted Weird Al to play him in “Africa,” as Yankovic occupies a similar cultural strata, in which he is appreciated and beloved for playing the role of the jester in the music world. Even if he is no longer at the high point of his career, he has consistently held this role for over three decades, with no major lulls. Like Weezer, a lot of the continuous love for Weird Al is born from nostalgia, but unlike Weezer, Weird Al’s musical repertoire doesn’t have quite as much baggage due to the reasons mentioned above. Cuomo casting Yankovic is, to a degree, aspirational.
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“Africa” was directed by Brendan Walter and Jade Ehlers, who have worked with Weezer on past videos both separately and as a duo. You’ll notice there’s a common thread to much of their work. Here's the band impersonating Guns N' Roses. Here's Patton Oswalt lip-syncing in the Oval Office, while Cuomo acts as a Secret Service agent. There are other videos they've done, both with Weezer and bands like Fall Out Boy and Green Day, that parody classic Americana/suburbia tropes; there's one where Cuomo is a cult leader; there's another where Cuomo (unsuccessfully) tries to make an appealing Tinder profile.
None of this is groundbreaking stuff, but it demonstrates a certain type of cheesy, self-deprecating comedy that is excusable, and even encouraged, for a band in Weezer’s position. Again, there’s an interesting alignment going on with the band casting themselves as classic rock mainstays like Guns N' Roses, or having an established comedian like Oswalt lip sync their song from a performative position of power. There’s an understanding, too, that self-promotion is no longer an essential ingredient to their videos. Cuomo’s bespectacled face no longer has to be the center of every clip; he can don a wig and a costume, or he can hardly appear in the video at all.
More generally, Weezer is now embracing dumb fun in a way that feels like the logical evolution of the dumb fun they engaged in during the earlier parts of their career. They’re aware that they probably won’t be the next viral sensation -- their time has passed for that -- but the band is assuredly comfortable in blending within the greater Internet landscape as elder statesmen of its kind. Hurry, boys, they’re waiting there for you.
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