Fountains of Wayne: A Case Study

Reposting in loving memory of FOW’s late great Adam Schlesinger, a casualty of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic:

If you know or remember alternative rockers Fountains of Wayne at all, it’s most likely for their massive 2003 hit, “Stacy’s Mom,” which was nominated for a Grammy, and still gets airplay, fifteen years later. But they were an active band for eight years and two albums before “Stacy’s Mom” (Welcome Interstate Managers) and for another eight years and three more albums after. And their output throughout that time was remarkably consistent. Furthermore, no serious fan of the band believes “Stacy’s Mom” is anywhere near to being the band’s best song. So why was it their only hit? It makes for a fascinating and revealing case study.

“Stacy’s Mom” is an obnoxious pop confection on the theme of a young teenager with a crush on a woman old enough to be his mother –the mom of his more age-appropriate admirer, Stacy. When it came out, it was met with the predicable cries of “sellout!” that greeted all alternative rock bands whenever their small and precious fan bases felt threatened by being absorbed into the masses. If you look carefully at the song, however, outside of all the hype and the hysteria, what stands out about it is how little about it actually stands out from the rest of Fountains of Wayne’s output. The typical Fountains of Wayne song is a small-scale, acutely observed, wryly humorous slice-of-life meditation about some aspect of white suburban adolescent or post-adolescent minutiae, as scored as aggressively catchy power-pop. Like much alternative rock, it’s deliberately unpopular pop music.

A typical Fountains of Wayne song is “Richie and Ruben,” from 2011’s “Sky Full of Holes,” a single that never charted. It’s the saga of two irrepressible dreamers, who, since 7th grade, have been sinking the unnamed narrator’s funds into one hair-brained scheme after another. The spiritual descendant of the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” it’s a perfectly formed pop song on a subject that isn’t pop at all.

That brings us back to “Stacy’s Mom,” whose amorous teenaged narrator could easily be Richie and Ruben’s 7th grade classmate. The song is structured as a big 80’s pop song, consciously in the mode of hits like The Cars’ “Best Friend’s Girl,” but the joke, like usual, was supposed to be the defiantly uncool subject matter. Except this time, it just happened to hit bullseye on a pop culture moment.

It may seem odd to remember now, but there was a brief time in pop culture history when there was a genuine nationwide craze for relationships between older women and younger men.  Sandwiched between older views of the amorous older woman as pathetic, and more recent views of her as abusive, were a year or two where she was every young man’s fantasy.  This trend was arguably sparked by the popular movie American Pie (1999), with its subplot about a horny mom, the barely legal friend of her son, and the unprintable acronym MILF.   By 2003, the celebration of “cougars,” desirable older women with sexually predatory habits, and a taste for men a generation younger, was in full swing.  And the anthem of this celebration was “Stacy’s Mom.”  What was intended as a funny little fable about a kid setting his sights way, way too high, instead became the inescapable theme song of cougars and their admirers everywhere.  Nothing about the song itself was different from the rest of Fountains of Wayne’s oeuvre, what was different was the context.  “Stacy’s Mom” was resonant.

So, if “Stacy’s Mom” was just an average Fountains of Wayne song that happened to hit at just the right time, what is their best song?  That’s a subjective answer of course, but from my point of view, there’s one unquestionable right answer, “Fire Island,” from the very same, 2003 album, Welcome Interstate Managers.  Once again, you have the very same elements –a pop melody and structure allied with an oddly specific, defiantly small scale story about suburban teenaged misbehavior.  This time, however, there’s a special alchemy, not between the song and the larger popular culture moment, but between the music, a gorgeous, melancholy pop ballad, and the lyrics, about an incongruously hedonistic teenage bacchanal taking place during a parental holiday.

So what is it about this song that works so well?  Like Brian Wilson’s transcendent “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” it’s a vivid portrait of a distinctively and authentically adolescent viewpoint, but as rendered by someone who will never be that young again.  The melancholy of the melody situates you perfectly –you are the older person remembering how it felt to be fifteen or sixteen, and just beginning to experience the joys of growing up without any sense of the coming pains and responsibilities.  It’s incredibly beautiful.

We’re old enough by now
to take care of each other
We don’t need a baby-sitter
We don’t need a father or mother…

So there you have it, one band, cranking out songs with a consistent aesthetic and sensibility.  But roll the dice three times, and you get three very different outcomes.  A good song that never made it big, a not-that-great song that was a monster hit, and an unknown deep album track that’s a true work of art.  Listen to it below:

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