Last year, a friend who I hadn’t seen in some time sent me a barrage of texts throughout an afternoon asking me to have a drink with him that night. He had some pals playing some covers that evening at a local muscle-shirt/short-skirts bar, and he didn’t wanted to be the stranded bro pretending to listen to ’90s radio hits he didn’t really care to hear. I obliged, and I’ve always been glad I did: I didn’t really love the atmosphere or the band, but watching them run through a well-rehearsed decoupage of hits from my teenage years was revealing. In the eyes of that band and the gaggle of casual listeners who drunkenly shouted along to each chorus, Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” and Eve 6’s “Inside Out” sat alongside Weezer’s “Undone–Sweater Song” and Radiohead’s “Creep” just fine. For alternative rock, those songs could barely be more different thematically (one is pure self-loathing, while at least one is a completely inane break-up tune) or musically (Third Eye Blind’s includes, sort of, a rap verse). But for the cover band playing for tips, they were all uniform, unified symbols for the generation stuffing dollar bills into a water pitcher; they could care less what the songs meant.
Today, Weezer becomes that cover band in the corner playing for the greenbacks dropped in the plastic. Their cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” is inarguably tight, each part delivered with the precision and zeal of the original. Frontman Rivers Cuomo strains his voice outside of his comfort range, mining Thom Yorke’s anxiety with every snarl and fade. When he leans into the microphone, hand close to throat, near the 2:27 mark, you know that he means this entirely. This isn’t a joke or a prank; Weezer, a band with songs called “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun,” is tackling one of the best and darkest moments in pop culture with gusto and rehearsal but adding nothing to it except the affirmation that, given a decade or two, we come to think of songs as generic artifacts, not representations of real feelings of time and place. It’s the sort of moment that suggests, in 20 years, some once-lighthearted geezers in need of a new image might cover “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Just like Weezer, when it’s over, they’ll likely laugh and say, “That was so cool.” It won’t be.