“Power Pop For Slackers”—Full essay excerpt from Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop (Rare Bird Books).
Adam Schlesinger, a talented musician and accomplished songwriter, died yesterday after contracting COVID-19. He was 52. I was fortunate to connect with Adam by email and phone last year for my power pop essay about his former band, Fountains of Wayne. Adam was extremely humble, gracious and open during our conversations, which comes as no surprise to anybody who knew him. After witnessing the huge outpouring of love and admiration following his tragic death, I wanted to share that essay with any fans who might want to read it.
Power Pop For Slackers
1996. A drinking buddy and I lived in El Segundo, California. Our apartment was in the Bermuda Triangle between a sewage treatment plant, oil refinery, and LAX. Jets rumbled by overhead every eight minutes around the clock, causing the putrid air to vibrate. We kept the beer flowing and the stereo cranked up in response to our toxic environment. At least we lived at the beach.
The rock world was in a similar situation mid-decade, groping for “the new Seattle” as the pendulum swung out of control. Record company A&R teams were deployed from the coasts to scour the country for “the next big thing.” It was an exciting time in some ways, with alternative rock clearing the way for pop punk, ska, and Britpop, but the one hit wonders were piling up fast (think hooky alt rock radio favorites like “Cannonball,” “No Rain,” and “Loser”). This stylistic pinballing left some music fans with whiplash, but it was fertile ground for musicians who love high-energy pop rock with catchy melodies and plenty of hooks. The major label door was open a crack in the nineties and a few power pop acts snuck through, often under the guise of other genres.
It was around this time that a quirky sugar bomb called Fountains of Wayne exploded in our El Segundo apartment. To say the song “Radiation Vibe” helped to shake me and my roommate from our post-grunge stupor would be an understatement. We listened to the band’s self-titled debut album on repeat in an effort to dissect exactly what made the music seem so refreshing, eventually surrendering to the unknowable simplicity of pop rock gems like “Joe Rey,” “She’s Got a Problem,” “Leave the Biker,” and “Barbara H.” I was hooked like a lot of rock critics at the time, many of whom filed Fountains Of Wayne under “power pop.”
“Funny, because I sort of remember thinking the record we’d made was really ‘rock’ sounding compared to the stuff we did when we were younger, which didn’t have any distorted guitars or barre chords,” said Adam Schlesinger, bassist and half of Fountains of Wayne’s songwriting duo with lead vocalist/guitarist Chris Collingwood.
In addition to Fountains of Wayne, Schlesinger is an accomplished songwriter who has also played with Ivy, Tinted Windows, and Fever High. His song “That Thing You Do,” for the 1996 Tom Hanks movie of the same name, was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe. He has also been nominated for a Tony Award and an Emmy for his stage and screen work. Dude’s a songwriting machine.
“I think in the (music) industry, there’s a general sense that the power pop label means ‘bands that don’t sell.’ Although there was a brief period in the early-to-mid-nineties where some bands that might be fairly labeled power pop did sell,” he added.
It’s true that power pop persistently bubbled under throughout the nineties. Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Material Issue, Redd Kross, and the Posies waved the flag in the first half of the decade. By the mid-nineties, bands like the Lemonheads, Sloan, and Weezer had successfully blended elements of power pop with alternative rock and grunge. Meanwhile, Britpop delivered an endless rush of pop thrills via Oasis, Blur, Elastica, Supergrass, Silver Sun, and countless others — stealthily avoiding the power pop label and its associated curse of collectible obscurity.
Given the variety of voices, influences, and career trajectories of so many end-of-century bands, opinions vary about what qualified as power pop in the nineties. By this point, the genre’s golden age was pushing twenty and the small but dedicated legions dwindled. Fewer fans were able to speak knowledgeably about the Records, Bram Tchaikovsky, Pezband, or even the Knack, but much of the old guard was still reluctant to let new members into their walled garden. At least not without a few purity tests. But that’s the beautiful thing about power pop fandom — it’s the debate club of rock and roll. It’s not intended to be mean-spirited or malicious, but you better take it seriously or risk getting gutted in the record store aisles or on the killing floor of social media. And afterward we can all go have a drink and listen to some rare vinyl together.
Fountains of Wayne entered the fray in 1996 under the alternative rock banner, finding themselves in the skeptical gaze of this lost rock and roll tribe. Schlesinger was happy the band was embraced at all but never claimed to be a power pop expert.
“I just know what I liked growing up. Part of the thing with power pop is that there isn’t this rigid set of rules like with certain subgenres of metal or punk where you’re supposed to know what’s cool and not cool.”
What Schlesinger liked growing up — like countless musicians before him — was the Beatles. Gifted the band’s albums by a cool aunt when he was still a toddler, Schlesinger built his lifelong love of music starting with Meet The Beatles (drawing himself into the band photo on the back). It took some time, but he eventually branched out during his formative years, studying jazz piano and taking classical piano lessons along the way. “I was listening to Broadway music and pop music from all different eras, but I already had the Beatles in my blood.”
It’s this Fab Four foundation that fuels much of the band’s power pop tendencies. Fountains Of Wayne don’t sound like the Beatles, and they are in no way revivalists, but it’s hard to deny the influence. Although rarely worn on their sleeves, winks and nods to John, Paul, George, and Ringo — and other power pop gods like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys or Ray Davies of the Kinks — are threaded throughout their six releases including five studio albums and the 2005 compilation, Out-of-State Plates (which opens with the Ken Tucker quote at the beginning of this essay). It’s perhaps most pronounced on their more subdued tracks like “Sick Day” (Fountains Of Wayne), “Fire Island” (Welcome Interstate Managers), and “Places” (Out-of-State Plates).
“Hey Julie” (Welcome Interstate Managers) is notable in this context because it takes a formula firmly established by “A Hard Day’s Night” and updates it for a jaded twenty-first cen- tury audience. Where the Beatles are “working like a dog” to “bring you money to buy you things,” Fountains of Wayne have a more tongue-in-cheek take on coming home after a day in the cube farm:
Working all day for a mean little man
With a clip-on-tie and a rub-on tan
He’s got me running ’round the office like a dog around a track
But when I get home, You’re always there to rub my back
Those colorful turns of phrase, peppered with bleak comedic observations and use of oddly specific details, are hallmarks of the quartet’s lyrics. And it’s their distinctive lyrical style that probably fuels most arguments about whether or not they truly rate as power pop. This is because Fountains of Wayne eschews much of the earnestness and double-entendre innocence of their sixties forebears (and their seventies and eighties acolytes), instead bringing Generation X slacker-isms and a dash of irony (a power pop no-no according to many purists) to their hooky tunes. Thematically, many of their songs may tread familiar power pop ground (often about girls with names like “Maureen,” “Yolanda Hayes,” and “Denise”), but Schlesinger and Collingwood also tap their eighties suburban upbringings — New Jersey and Pennsylvania, respectively — to deliver off-beat tales about failed baseball careers, survival cars, laser shows, cordless phones, shopping malls, sex lawyers, and (of course) Hackensack.
“I don’t think we ever set out to be snarky or poke fun at anything. I think it was more about trying to put our own stamp on things,” Schlesinger said. “The hard thing when you’re starting out as a musician is to figure out what your own musical identity is, especially if you’re somebody who likes a lot of different kinds of music. You have to consciously pick a lane that feels like you and define yourself.”
Schlesinger thinks that Fountains of Wayne was often successful in this regard but felt their songs about “our friends and things that we thought were funny or cool” sometimes led to misunderstandings about the band’s intentions. Occasionally accused of looking down on the people they wrote about, Schlesinger says that he and Collingwood saw themselves as the sad sack characters they constructed mundane worlds around (“even if we weren’t being sincere, it was never with any kind of malice toward anyone”). Their unique style and idiosyncratic lyrics continued to evolve over the course of the songwriting partnership. Inspired by Lennon and McCartney, Schlesinger and Collingwood shared credit for all Fountains of Wayne songs even though they rarely wrote together after the band’s earliest days. Part of the partnership was purely pragmatic (“a way of avoiding fighting about money”), but mostly born of mutual respect, shared ambition, and a spirit of healthy competition.
“When Chris and I first started out in our teens and early twenties, we were writing stuff that was very imitative. Then we kind of disbanded for a few years, and when we got back together, Chris had written a couple of songs that felt qualitatively different,” Schlesinger said. “I got really inspired by — and jealous of — his new songs, but it opened up this path where we could write about things that felt like our real selves.”
Where Collingwood had a more fully developed storytelling style and innate sense of humor from the start, Schlesinger says he had to work at developing his voice for Fountains of Wayne. An epiphany came when he dove into songwriters like Randy Newman and Paul Simon who wrote from the perspective of unreliable narrators instead of making everything about the singer’s literal worldview.
Add Newman and Simon to the eclectic list of influences that started with the Beatles, and you’d only be scratching the surface. Schlesinger says a lot of eighties music figured into their musical alchemy, including bands Collingwood turned him on to (Aztec Camera, Everything But The Girl, the Smiths, and the Cure) and bands he already liked (the Pretenders, the Police, and Elvis Costello & the Attractions). It’s some of these eighties influences — along with nods to the Cars and Rick Springfield — that informed their biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom”; a song that inverts the lecherous theme of the Knack’s “My Sharona” to focus on the forbidden feelings a horny teenage boy has for his friend’s mom. You know, power pop!
“The band was an amalgamation of a lot of things we were into,” Schlesinger said. “It was just our way of filtering a lot of the music we liked through our own personalities. We were really just trying to entertain each other.”
When asked which of his songs he thinks are the most power pop, Schlesinger points to “It Must Be Summer” (Utopia Parkway) and “This Better Be Good” (Traffic and Weather). Both songs highlight Schlesinger’s power pop prowess (“There have been certain songs where I just tried all the power pop tricks I knew”), with the previously mentioned catchy hooks and lyrical quirks on full display.
“This Better Be Good” starts off with a line about “holding hands” (with “yeah” and “baby” thrown into the Beach Boys-y chorus for good measure) before devolving into an accusatory diatribe about the object of his affection’s Dockers-wearing beau who was spotted at the Gap. Meanwhile, “It Must Be Summer” opens with a brief Byrds-y guitar lick before giving way to a bouncy groove that underscores heartbreaking lyrics delivered with characteristic nonchalance:
It must be summer
’Cause the days are long
And I dial your number
But you’re gone, gone, gone
I’d set out searching
But the car won’t start
And it must be summer
’Cause I’m falling apart
“It Must Be Summer” and “This Better Be Good” are both great Fountains of Wayne songs, and are in many ways indicative of the band’s overarching style — but neither were hits, so you’d be hard pressed to find many casual fans who could easily rattle them off if pressed for a list of favorites. Unfortunately, most people simply know them as “the ‘Stacy’s Mom’ band.”
In the end, that might be the most power pop thing about Fountains of Wayne. Unlike the sixties hit makers that inspired the genre, the majority of power pop’s most revered acts live and die in relative obscurity. The lucky ones — like the Raspberries, the Knack, Dwight Twilley, the Romantics, and a handful of others — momentarily enjoy the mainstream spotlight before fading back into the shadows. It is in this later category that Fountains of Wayne seems to reside, at least by commercial standards. And Schlesinger is totally cool with that.
“For some reason ‘Stacy’s Mom’ connected,” he concludes. “We get put on a lot of ‘One Hit Wonder’ lists because of it, which is fine. I’m happy we were known for one song than for no songs.”