At the end of 1995, Rivers Cuomo enrolled at Harvard University to study classical composition.
There were two things that separated Cuomo from the rest of his classmates. First, he’d recently undergone the Ilizarov procedure. When he was born, his left leg was two inches shorter than his right leg, and the painful procedure involved breaking the bones, a steel brace and months of stretching and physiotherapy. Th second differentiator? As the frontman of the band Weezer, he was one of the most famous new rock stars on the planet. The Blue Album had just been certified platinum (selling more than 1,000,000 copies), including iconic tracks like The Sweater Song, My Name is Jonas and Say it Ain’t So.
In the end, classical composition didn’t stick. “”The only time I could write songs,” Cuomo later commented on his time at Harvard, “was when my frozen dinner was in the microwave. The rest of the time I was doing homework.” He dropped out two semesters before graduating, citing a hatred for modern classical composition and wistful longing for a Weezer reunion (He eventually finished his degree in 2006, earning a BA in English).
But one thing did stick from his time at Harvard, and not something you’d expect for someone who’d later write inane lyrics like for a song called “Beverly Hills”:
That’s where I want to be!
Gimme gimme gimme gimme
Living in Beverly Hills
Rolling like a celebrity!
Gimme gimme gimme gimme
Living in Beverly Hills
So what stuck at Harvard? He started to obsessively use the programming language Python to study music and then generate new musical ideas. Yes. You read that correctly.
As Gab Ginsberg wrote in her article for Billboard magazine, “The Weezer frontman has lengthy used algorithms to optimize his songwriting, funneling creativity by way of laptop applications just like the programming language Python. Cuomo is thought to carefully dismantle a success music, analyzing every component to seek out precisely what works, and apply that information to his personal writing.”
In other words, he wanted to take the mystery out of why some music works and other music doesn’t. Why does a song become a hit?
Over time, his acumen grew, and so did his legendary spreadsheets. In describing the writing of a recent Weezer album, Cuomo commented, “I wrote a program to get all the information from Spotify’s API, and we seemed on the songs that have been hottest that weren’t tagged “basic rock” or “various rock,” and that got here out earlier than 1994…I feel there have been about 200 songs within the report, so we picked the highest ones and began studying them.”
He doesn’t just study them. He uses them to generate tempos, chord progressions and hooks (the catchiest part of a song that gets stuck in your head). Talking about their 2017 release Pacific Daydream, Rolling Stone journalist Brendan Walter wrote, “Cuomo estimates he drew on thousands of riffs, chord progressions, and beats stored on his home computer for the album, and even wrote a custom formula in Google Sheets to pair up musical ideas – some dating back to 2000 — based on their key and tempo.”
Everyone thinks that what makes some songs successful is a mystery. Rivers Cuomo turned into an algorithm on Python.
Weezer has dropped 13 albums. According to Nielsen, they have 1.4 billion on demand streams. The ridiculous song Beverly Hills? As of the writing of this book, it’s been watched 52 million times on YouTube. Weezer songs are generally stupid, shallow and inane. But they are also wickedly catchy, and they’ve been writing hits (and cashing those royalty checks!) for more than 25 years.
Rivers Cuomo literally created an algorithm to crack the code of “Why do these songs work?”
So let’s make a hard right turn and talk a little bit about kingdom innovation. Now I’m not here to say that anyone can “crack the code” for how innovation works within the life of the church or the kingdom. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, he’s known as the wild goose for a reason! But I do think when God is on the move and he’s clearly up to something, we are wise to ask, “Why is this innovation working? What is God doing? What’s at work here?”
Because God is in the multiplication business.
That innovation that started with one person, or one group…God may very well want to multiply it. How do we know this? Well Jesus says that a kingdom return is a like a farmer who scatters seed and receives 10, 30, 60, 100 fold in return. That’s multiplication!
What Rivers Cuomo did was simply pay enough attention to what people like about hit songs to codify the process. I think the Lord wants to call a whole new generation to pay attention to what he’s up to in this brave new world and learn how to innovate within it.