What Adam Schlesinger Knew About America

The Fountains of Wayne front man, who died of complications from the coronavirus, made big songs about small triumphs.

This September 14, 2019, file photo shows Adam Schlesinger, winner of the awards for outstanding original music and lyrics for "Crazy Ex Girlfriend," in the press room at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. Schlesinger, an Emmy and Grammy winning musician and songwriter known for his band Fountains of Wayne and his songwriting on the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” has died from the coronavirus at age 51.
America has lost a chronicler of American fantasy, burnout, and desperation. (Kimberly Butler)

In this reality we all live in, the one in which America fumbles to remember a notion of “common good” so as to fight a disease tearing through individually vibrant lives, Adam Schlesinger had one big enduring hit: 2003’s “Stacy’s Mom,” by his group Fountains of Wayne. But in other worlds, imagined ones, Schlesinger had other smashes, and many were just as good as the real thing. The 1996 Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do! portrayed a band rocketing to fame on the strength of one irresistible tune, which Schlesinger wrote for the movie. He created the songs for the 2007 Hugh Grant rom-com, Music and Lyrics, about a middle-aged pop star trying to revive his career. On the 2010s TV comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, characters regularly belted Schlesinger’s madcap words to audiences that often existed only in those characters’ heads.

With the 52-year-old Schlesinger’s death from COVID-19 complications, America has lost a chronicler of American fantasy, burnout, and desperation. Early in Schlesinger’s career, Fountains of Wayne drew buzz with a song about sinking into a blissful sea of slackerdom, away from a land of “cars on the highway, planes in the air” where “everyone else is going somewhere.” Much later, when Schlesinger brought his chipper sonic sensibility to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the joke was in how the music’s fabulousness defied the strip malls and chain restaurants of the show’s setting. Whether in his bands or in his Hollywood collaborations, Schlesinger’s music imagined escape. It also, with a subtle Springsteen-ian sadness, noted what the listener might be escaping from.

Raised in Montclair, New Jersey, Schlesinger grew up worshipping masters of hook writing such as the Beatles and Elvis Costello. Echoes of those greats can be heard loudly across his catalog, as can echoes of his rock contemporaries. The keyboard whine of ’80s new wave and the ka-chunking guitars of ’90s alternative flavored the sound of Fountains of Wayne, the group he started with the songwriter Chris Collingwood in 1995. The vibe of his other band, Ivy—formed in the early ’90s with the musicians Dominique Durand and Andy Chase—trended dreamier and more indie. Its oblique lyrical approach was unusual compared with the rest of Schlesinger’s catalog, but the referential refrain of Ivy’s debut album’s opening song feels very him: “I just can’t get enough.”

Most of Schlesinger’s writing prized people, places, and things. “For better or worse, my songs aren’t usually that abstract,” he wrote in 2013. “Maybe it’s because I never did enough drugs.” You can accordingly flip through Fountains of Wayne albums and find vignettes in which the image conjured is as vivid as the wordplay it’s conjured with. Often he told road stories, peppered with interstates and outlets (the band’s name and album titles made the motif explicit). Here’s how the title character of 1999’s “Denise” was introduced: “She drives a lavender Lexus / She lives in Queens, but her dad lives in Texas.” The song’s synths and handclaps are so manically gung ho that they merit comparison to a sweet, sticky something more potent than bubblegum. Jell-O shots, maybe. Or a congealed energy drink.

Again and again, Schlesinger tinkered with that same juxtaposition of ecstatic feelings and common life. The breezy “Hey Julie” in 2003 opened with a Dilbert-like confession: “Working all day for a mean little man / with a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan.” As the chorus neared, the clock struck five and the narrator could head home for a back rub. “Bright Future in Sales” told of some poor lout nursing a hangover at the Port Authority Bus Terminal while imagining a happier tomorrow enabled by a brand-new computer. Was the song’s jaunty sound jeering at this guy, or sympathizing with him? Was the point the fervor of his aspirations, or the smallness of them? All of the above. Schlesinger celebrated the momentary pleasures that make the bleak rat race bearable, but he also flipped a middle finger at the rat race itself.

Schlesinger’s show-biz collaborations retained that sense of humanity. Awards ceremonies, commercials, movies, and TV programs all made use of his talents—and the personality-packed results ennobled the term work for hire. There’s nothing hackneyed or rote about his delirious odes to mental illness for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Nor is there about the satirical show tune “TV Is a Vast Wonderland,” which Jane Lynch opened the Emmys with in 2011. Even the fact that Schlesinger co-wrote the theme song for SNL’s “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” seems to fit with his long-running motifs. In almost every case, he used the magic of pop—whether filtered through the tropes of vaudeville, British invasion, or anything else he deftly channeled—to show how the quotidian can feel superheroic for a minute or three.

One of the clearest distillations of this approach is also one of the most famous. On “Stacy’s Mom,” guitar whams and screaming synths cheer on a teenage boy lusting after an adult woman. The lyrics and the video are chockablock with suburban Americana signifiers: lawns, pools, divorce. Stacy’s mom does not seem to return the singer’s affections, and that’s just fine. It’s in the wanting, not the getting, that the American dream lives.