This is something I've been writing called “Buddy Holly,” but it’s not really about the late preppy-nerdy rockabilly musician with the thick-framed glasses. It’s about a music video for a fuzzy-yet-sleek new wavy power-pop song called "Buddy Holly," which isn’t really about the musician Buddy Holly either, it’s about how the song’s singer, Rivers Cuomo, resembles Buddy Holly.
This is something I’m writing in the year 2018, looking back affectionately and obsessively upon a music video I fell in love with when it first aired in 1994. Directed by eventual Oscar-winner Spike Jonze, the video features Weezer, a pop-rock band formed in the 1990s, playing their song “Buddy Holly” as if they were characters on Happy Days, a fondly-remembered sitcom from the 1970s that looked back warmly on American life in the 1950s.
This is about 2010s nostalgia for 1990s nostalgia for 1970s nostalgia for the 1950s. Nostalgia kinda like those Russian Nesting Dolls, or matryoshka.
This should probably be titled “Matryoshka Nostalgia,” but “Buddy Holly” is way less of a mouthful.
“Buddy Holly” is a music video that starts as if it’s a sitcom episode, with echoes of the doo-woppy Happy Days theme song fading out. The names of Gary Marshall (creator of Happy Days, though not “Buddy Holly”) and Spike Jonze (director of “Buddy Holly,” but never an episode of Happy Days) fill the screen. The fatherly, gruff-yet-warm voice of Tom “Mr. Cunningham” Bosley tells us that this was filmed before a live studio audience, which it wasn’t.
We’re at Arnold’s Drive-In, a 1950s Middle-American diner, where dozens of young Wisconsonites are gathered excitedly for a highly-anticipated rock n’ roll show. Actor Al Molinaro, reprising his role as Arnold’s cook/owner Al Delvecchio, introduces Weezer, the band everyone’s here to see, and the kids cheer enthusiastically. Al claims Weezer is “Kenosha, Wisconsin’s own,” though in reality—our reality, at least—Weezer formed in Los Angeles, California.
Just before the band starts to play, Al asks everyone to “try the fish,” a request that elicits the obviously-artificial response of a canned TV laugh-track. “Buddy Holly” knows that this joke in itself is not funny enough to deserve that much laughter; however, the fact that “Buddy Holly” knows that the joke isn’t that funny, yet uses a laugh track to pretend that it is funny, is what’s supposed to be funny.
If you’re too young (or too old) to remember, back in the 1990s most popular sitcoms still featured audible audience laughter, both earnest and staged, but the practice was becoming so unfashionable that by the middle of the next decade, most popular sitcoms shunned such laughter altogether. Of course now in the 2010s many popular sitcoms that love 1970s sitcoms are embracing audible laughter again. It’s just like Schopenhauer said: “As long as humans are terrified of solitude, religions and sitcom laugh tracks will survive.”
ahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, haHAHAHA, HAHAha, ha ha ha ha ha…
Once Weezer drummer Patrick Wilson counts off a-one and a-two and a-three and a-four, and the band begins to play, “Buddy Holly” fully transitions from sitcom to music video. For the next three minutes, the members of Weezer perform their song with an exuberant level of what I call “sinceirony:” a balance of sincerity and irony. The way they mug and wink and dance and flirt with the poodle-skirt girls in the crowd is excessively corny, and Weezer knows it, and there’s no mistaking the hammy sarcasm beneath it all. Yet they also genuinely seem to be having the time of their lives. As if Happy Days truly was Weezer’s all-time favorite TV show, and they actually got transported to a parallel universe where Happy Days exists as reality, and the band really became people who lived in that corny, white-washed 1950s middle American universe, instead of just being a 1990s pop-rock band playing meta-make believe.
Actually, after dozens of viewings over the past 24 years, including multiple recent viewings while writing this thing, I’ve decided that my parallel-universe interpretation of the “Buddy Holly” video is not just a valid one, but the most logical one.
Stay tuned for more on this theory, right after these messages…
Happy Days ran for 255 episodes from 1974 to 1984, but as of this writing I've never watched any of those episodes. I wanted to watch some Happy Days episodes after I started writing this thing, but neither my cable TV provider nor any of the TV-streaming platforms I subscribe to in 2018 currently offer this long-running, fondly-remembered, once-massively-popular sitcom. Apparently at this point in the 2010s, Happy Days nostalgia is worthy only of clip-sized morsels on YouTube.
So for now I will remember Happy Days primarily through reflections of how it has been remembered by Weezer, Spike Jonze, and others. For now I can only wonder if, say, there were any Happy Days characters in their mid-thirties who ever reminisced about the Charlie Chaplin movies they loved as a teenager, and if such a character somehow appeared in the herky-jerky black-and-white world of a Chaplin movie, the way Weezer appeared in the scratchy, faded TV Land of Happy Days.
I doubt it, though. I know nostalgia must have existed in the 1970s, and even the 1950s, but I’m pretty sure the kind of post-modern, sinceironic, matryoshka nostalgia that’s bountiful in today’s popular culture wasn’t really a thing until “Buddy Holly.” (A few months before “Buddy Holly,” Spike Jonze did direct the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video, in which the rappers pretended to be characters in the title sequence of a gritty 1970s cop show, but unlike “Buddy Holly,” the nostalgia in “Sabotage” was more for a genre than a specific property that could make its viewers go “Hey cool, I remember when that thing happened!”)
It doesn’t seem impossible, though, that a Happy Days character might have been magically transported into a Charlie Chaplin movie, because one thing I know about Happy Days is that it’s a show where Robin Williams once appeared in his wacky space-alien incarnation, Mork. I also know Mork appeared on Happy Days around the time in its run when everyone says the show started “jumping the shark,” becoming irredeemably uncool. And I know that Happy Days is the show that actually inspired the phrase “jumping the shark,” based on an episode where cool-dude Fonzie literally jumps over a shark as part of some Evel Knievel-inspired stunt, if I’m not mistaken.
Of course, Happy Days did not invent the idea of a pop culture entity eventually becoming irredeemably uncool, but the show did it memorably and quintessentially enough to have inadvertently named it. Is that why no one wants to watch or air or stream Happy Days anymore?
If anyone on Happy Days ever was somehow transported into a Charlie Chaplin film, I bet it happened during that shark-jumping period, which seems to be just as memorable today, if not more, than the show’s pre-shark-jumping period.
We remember what we remember.
In 2018, if you asked 10 people who were Weezer fans in the 1990s, “When did Weezer jump the shark?”, you might get a dozen different answers. I’d say the first two Weezer albums are historically invaluable, the next two are pretty good, and everything since has been more miss than hit. But I still root for them and generally give their new stuff a chance. I owe them that much for those first two albums. I won’t ever deny them the benefit of the doubt that they could release another album I could still be listening to in 2039. Maybe they already did, and I’ll just recognize it much later.
With time, my desire to talk about when things “jumped the shark” gets closer to jumping its own shark.
A lot of people were talking about Weezer again this year after the band covered Toto’s 1982 song “Africa.” Someone out there really wanted Weezer to cover Toto’s “Africa,” and that person kept tweeting about it, and soon many more people tweeted about it, and then Weezer made a record of Toto’s “Africa.”
This story could not have happened this way in decades past, but now it’s bound to be a template for countless imitations: Due to various popular demands, Green Day will cover Devo’s “Whip It;” Tori Amos will cover Laura Branigan’s “Gloria;” Radiohead will cover The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.”
If Buddy Holly were still alive, now’s around the time when he’d join Weezer for a performance of “Buddy Holly,” live in concert or on a late-night talk show or for a funny-video website. They’d all be dressed in those 50s-style button-down sweaters, and maybe Henry “The Fonz” Winkler would make a cameo. The video would go viral for a day or two before fading out of the conversation, and 20 years later, people who were teenagers at the time of the video's initial popularity would find ways to make it relevant again.
I really hope that a young person now, someone currently around the age I was in 1994, might read this thing I’m writing, and it’ll leave such a deep impression on them that when this now-young person is eventually around the age I am now (perhaps as early as the late 2030s), they’ll use some kind of CGI animation software to make a video of Buddy Holly playing “Buddy Holly” with Weezer on Happy Days, while incorporating idiosyncratic elements of their own 2030s nostalgia for their 2010s adolescence when they read this piece of 1990s nostalgia for 1970s nostalgia for the 1950s.
If Happy Days did have an episode where someone got transported into a Charlie Chaplin film, and if the Chaplinesque elements of that episode featured prominently into Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video, then the thing I’m writing now could’ve potentially inspired 2030s nostalgia for 2010s nostalgia for 1990s nostalgia for 1970s nostalgia for 1950s nostalgia for the 1930s.
After googling “charlie chaplin” + “happy days,” I learned that the "Buddy Holly" video was filmed in Charlie Chaplin Studios. Pretty much all Chaplin’s films were shot there, including his 1930s classics City Lights and Modern Times. Chaplin built the studios in 1917, and their architecture was inspired by cottages in England where he came of age in the late 19th century.
I have to imagine at least some of the creative forces behind the "Buddy Holly" video were aware of their shooting location’s history, and therefore, to some degree, consciously or unconsciously, these people were likely influenced by, or at least occasionally mindful of, whatever they knew of Charlie Chaplin's artistic legacy, as well as by whatever feelings they may have experienced due to the location’s architecture, i.e., Chaplin’s 1917-self's memories of 1890s England.
Watching it now, I’d argue there's a somewhat Chaplinesque quality to the exaggerated gestures and physical comedy that Weezer exhibits in the "Buddy Holly" video. I'm not sure if I ever would've used the word "Chaplinesque" to describe the "Buddy Holly" video if I hadn't just learned where it was filmed. But now I can't unlearn the Chaplin association, and I can't unsee it.
While writing this thing, I learned that "Chaplinesque" is the title of a poem by Hart Crane. The poem describes a “famished kitten” in need of protection from “the fury of the street,” which is not a direct reference to any particular Chaplin film, but is nevertheless a very Chaplinesque image. It’s also an apt metaphor for Rivers Cuomo’s persona while singing “Buddy Holly:” a sensitive nerdy-looking guy, addressing a girl who resembles 1970s icon Mary Tyler Moore, both of whom are bullied by others for their old-fashioned style.
We now return to the theory of how “Buddy Holly” isn’t merely a gimmicky, post-modern nostalgia trip that inspired decades’ worth of imitators, but is in fact a perpetually recursive story about transdimensional versions of Weezer who got transported into a parallel universe where they have literally become characters in Happy Days and will relive this episode of their alternate-reality lives over and over for eternity, or at least as long as video exists…
It’s a little over three minutes into the “Buddy Holly” video, about ten seconds before the song itself ends. The energy at Arnold’s Drive-In is giddy and electric. All the 1950s teenagers in attendance are moving and digging the sounds of those semi-futuristic rockstar/pop-nerds on stage. Fonzie’s captivating the crowd with spry and spirited Cossack-style dancing. Rivers Cuomo’s repeating a very-90s refrain of “I don’t care about that!” and seeming every bit as joyful as he and everyone else has appeared up to this moment…
…and then for no apparent reason, Rivers’ expression suddenly changes to one of confusion, anxiety, even dread. Like a kitten in the wilderness, you might say.
Two seconds later, we see Pat “Arnold” Morita in his own moment of shimmying, fist-pumping, child-like glee, no doubt thrilled about how Weezer’s appearance will be good for his business. Then when we cut right back to Rivers, and now he’s grooving happily again, as if his previous moment of dismay never happened. And for the rest of the video, it’s back to pure, relentless, sinceironic celebration, with no bad vibes to be found.
I’ve come to believe that in this incongruous and unsettling moment, the version of Rivers Cuomo in the “Buddy Holly” video becomes self-aware and temporarily remembers that Weezer’s not really from 1950s Kenosha, Wisconsin. Before his epiphany, he has temporarily forgotten this, maybe because he was having such a blast, and/or because the inter-dimensional travel gave him some form of amnesia. So when he remembers that he doesn’t belong here, he has an existential crisis: What if I don’t want to live in Happy Days anymore? Can I ever return home? And if I can’t go home again, will I continue to live a full, independent life in Happy Days-land? Or will I only exist within the confines of this silly music video, doomed to re-experience this moment millions of times, each time the video is played on MTV, or on a Windows 95 CD-ROM, or on whatever multimedia platforms may arise in the future?
Because, you see, he also has a hunch that this gimmicky nostalgic music video is destined to launch him and his band into rockstardom, and eventually, inevitably, he’ll fall in and out of favor, face varying degrees of cultural backlash, forever a kitten in the wilderness, having to shield himself from the fury of the street.
Then of course, Rivers eventually forgets, or maybe resigns himself to, his fate, and resumes rockin’ out blissfully until the end of the video. As if he recognizes that this video might serve as an escape hatch out of mortality and into eternity, so who cares if it’s all just goofy fluff?
And that, as Fonzie might say, is pretty motherfucking cool, ayyyyyyyy!
ahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, haHAHAHA, HAHAha, ha ha ha ha ha…
The most-repeated lyrical phrase in “Buddy Holly” is that refrain of “I don’t care about that!” The second-most repeated phrase? “That’s for all time…”
Let us also consider the films Spike Jonze has made since “Buddy Holly”: Being John Malkovich is not just about celebrity worship; Adaptation is not just about two Nicolas Cages writing screenplays; Her is not just about a guy falling in love with artificial intelligence. Each film is also a story about people stuck in loops, trying to break free.
Then again, most stories, at their core, are probably about people stuck in loops, trying to break free.
Hart Crane and Charlie Chaplin were acquainted, but only after Crane wrote “Chaplinesque,” and before Chaplin read the poem in a book that Crane mailed to him just a few years before he met his end jumping into the Gulf of Mexico.
In his autobiography, My Autobiography, Chaplin remembers discussing the purpose of poetry with Crane, and saying that poetry was “a love letter to the world.” Crane replied ruefully, “A very small world.”
The world might be much bigger than it was back then, even if it often feels smaller, largely because the world keeps filling up on older versions of itself. We latch on to illusions we loved as children, illusions which are in love with other illusions from earlier childhoods, in love with other illusions from earlier childhoods, in love with earlier illusions from other childhoods…
Do we retreat into nostalgia so much because the future looks more disturbing every day? Or are we way more disturbed by the future than we should be because we do things like retreat into nostalgia so much?
This has been a love letter to “Buddy Holly,” the world that created it, and the worlds it creates.