Adam Schlesinger
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Culture

Adam Schlesinger's Music Was an Endless Source of Joy

The acclaimed singer-songwriter passed away on Wednesday due to complications related to coronavirus. VICE staffers remember some of his most timeless hits.
02 April 2020, 1:47pm

No one could write a belter like Adam Schlesinger. The acclaimed singer-songwriter, best known for co-founding Fountains of Wayne, is responsible for some of the most uplifting music of the 21st century. On Wednesday morning, he sadly passed away due to complications related to coronavirus. He was just 52.

From heartfelt power pop to incisive parody to Broadway pastiche, Schlesinger's contributions to rock, film and TV are nothing short of timeless magic. Sharp-witted but always generous in spirit, he wrote tongue-in-cheek hits for real bands ("Stacey's Mom"), real hits for fictional bands (The Wonders, Josie and the Pussycats, Alex Fletcher) and imaginary musical numbers for characters coping with BPD (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Many Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe nominations and wins can confirm his unique talent as a shrewd observer with an incredible sense of melody, but the only thing you really need to appreciate that is a set of ears.

News of Schlesinger's death has come as a shock. Tributes have poured in from every corner of the entertainment industry – from Ted Leo and Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba, to Tom Hanks and Stephen King. Fellow pop maestro Jack Antonoff said: "Adam Schlesinger took pop music writing to its classiest and most untouchable place. An honour to live at the same time he made his work."

Schlesinger could turn his hand to pretty much anything, do it the best and make the world a better place while doing it. It speaks volumes that the first thing many people wanted to do when they heard the news was listen to his music, which has been an endless source of joy for the last three decades. Here, we've compiled just a few of our favourite selections from his Greatest Hits catalogue (AKA his entire discography).

'Bright Future in Sales' – Fountains Of Wayne

The surfy guitars and snarky lyrics about realising you're going to have to grow up and sell out (while still being a shit-muncher at heart) have made this one of my favourite Fountains of Wayne songs for years. These days, neoliberal corporate jargon is a frequent target of mockery – who among us hasn’t sent a friend a simply hilarious Train Guy text about "checking in" and "looping back" – but Schlesinger was doing it back in 2003, better and funnier than anyone else. – Lauren O'Neill

'Ping-Pong Girl' – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Among his myriad other accomplishments, Schlesinger was the executive music producer for the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical-comedy that ran from 2015 to 2019 and completely reinvented the genre of "musical-comedy", by making it Actually Good and severing its sole association with Glee in most people's minds. Every episode, Schlesinger's songs sent up a new genre – from 80s power ballads ("You Go First") to old Hollywood musicals (the truly heart-bursting "Settle For Me") – their quality often overtaking the real-life songs from that genre.

His finest achievement in this vein on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was "Ping-Pong Girl", an unfathomably good piss-take of 90s and 2000s pizza-and-keg stands pop punk ("Woah, bros, beer, SPORTS!"), perfectly skewering the "Girl All the Bad Guys Want" wet dream, and laying the stupidity of it firmly at the feet of the male gaze ("She's so independent / This fantasy beats out flight attendant.")

The thing about "Ping-Pong Girl", however, is that it has this cutting sense of humour while simultaneously managing to be probably the best pop-punk song anyone at the time had heard in over a decade – and even now, I can’t think of anything recent that beats it out in terms of melody and sheer catchiness. – Lauren O'Neill

'Sink to the Bottom with You' – Fountains of Wayne

As far as mid-90s songs about embracing the ambient drain of depression go, this is up against almost an entire genre's worth of competition. The band's second single, it's often featured on TV shows (see: How I Met Your Mother and, more recently, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) – but considering the down-and-out discordance of their early material, Fountains of Wayne rarely get their props in the alt rock halls of fame. Lauded at the time but lost in the mammoth cultural legacy of "Stacy's Mom", this song – and their entire debut album – should be remembered alongside anything Weezer, Jellyfish or The Lemonheads were doing at the time. – Emma Garland

'That Thing You Do!' – The Wonders

This song was written for fictional band, The Wonders, who appeared in the 1996 movie That Thing You Do!, directed by Tom Hanks. It was a huge hit outside of the film, and when you hear it it's easy to see why. A little of The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", a little of Schlesinger’s own pop melancholy, the song makes me nostalgic for a past I never had, the minor fall in the chorus resonating in my chest as if it were played on a heartstring rather than a guitar. "That Thing You Do" could be on every coming-of-age movie’s soundtrack and I’d never get bored. – Lauren O'Neill

'Pretend to Be Nice' – Josie and the Pussycats

If we're talking about fictional bands, however, Josie and the Pussycats are the best in film history. While "Pretend to Be Nice" is Schlesinger’s only contribution to the 2001 comedy of the same name, it's one of the soundtrack’s highlights. Between the satisfying cymbal hits, “ooh-ee-oohs” and ripping Thin Lizzy-style solo, it’s simple but irresistible – a masterclass in pop songwriting. I also have a soft spot for it because I, after precisely one drum lesson, joined a band that covered it for a school talent contest in Year 8 and have no doubt that it was a flawless rendition. – Emma Garland

'Greg's Drinking Song' – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Balancing someone's realisation that they have a drinking problem with the phrase "I had sex with a bush" is probably tonally difficult, but leave it to Schlesinger to show how it could be done with what I will call "total aplomb". – Lauren O'Neill

'Let's Generalise About Men' – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

An 80s training montage song about mainstream feminist platitudes that inspires me to drink an entire bottle of white wine to myself while doing spin-kicks around the living room? Go on then. Co-written with the show's creator Rachel Bloom, it’s a solid example of how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was able to take contemporary discussions around gender and mental health and make them super accessible through satirical songwriting. In this case, functioning as a Reductress article you can do burpees to. – Emma Garland

'Stacy's Mom' – Fountains of Wayne

Moments into its palm-muted intro riff, Fountain of Wayne's ode to a smoking hot mom made itself known as a classic 2000s track. With its slicing keyboard chords and ah-ah harmonies, "Stacey’s Mom" captures the euphoric horniess of being an almost-teenager. The plight of taking to masturbation like a mallard to water but being unable to do anything more than that is both qualified as a concern and hilariously sent-up. Who can't relate to getting googly-eyed over a boyfriend or girlfriend’s attractive parent? And who before Fountains of Wayne would've thought of writing an entire hit single about that?

"Stacey’s Mom" was apparently inspired by a childhood friend of Schlesinger’s who had a crush on a family member: not even his mum, but his grandmother. As he recalled in a 2003 interview with MTV, "One of my best friends, when we were maybe 11 or 12, came to me and announced that he thought my grandmother was hot. And I said, 'Hey, you're stepping over the line,' but at that point in life I wouldn't put it past anyone."

Far from being their first brilliant song, "Stacy's Mom" was the lead single of the band's third album, Welcome Interstate Managers, and propelled them into the mainstream. It’s synonymous with its video, starring model Rachel Hunter as the mother who steps slow-mo and dripping wet out of the backyard pool and gets up on the kitchen to pole-dance in a boy's _FHM_-certified fantasy.

Today and forever, "Stacey’s Mom" is a mainstay of power pop playlists at bowling alleys, school discos, karaoke lists and pop-punk nights. And we can thank Schlesinger and his grandma for that. – Hannah Ewens

@emmaggarland / @hiyalauren / @hannahrosewens