Why does a band so gifted at crafting pleasing pop feel the need to lash out at losers and demand we chortle at half-baked stereotypes?
It hurts when you hate your favorite band. Mine is Fountains of Wayne, the East Coast quartet that’s been keeping smart, energetic power pop alive for almost 10 years, now. Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains’ songwriters, probably survived high school by studying half the rock albums ever released, and they've got great ideas and more than enough talent to make them work. According to Robbie Fulks, author of "Fountains of Wayne Hotline", Schlesinger and Collingwood are the Click and Clack of rock 'n' roll, dispensing easy advice to lesser bands who’ve power-chorded themselves into a musical ditch.
I like the band for other reasons, too. Schlesinger and I were almost neighbors, (we're both from North Jersey) and I’m almost certain our high school sports teams played each other. Schlesinger and Collingwood also teamed up at Williams, the small liberal-arts school not far from Bowdoin College, where I went and learned to write songs and play in bands. I always thought it would be cool to chuck my plans for grad school and head for Boston or New York and just, you know, hang out, form a band, and write really great songs. I didn’t have the nerve, but Schlesinger and Collingwood did, and they succeeded without catering to the intellectual vacuum of popular culture. These guys are unabashedly literate and smart. They write songs like “Yours and Mine” -- likely the first pop song to mention The New York Times Book Review.
The Fountains’ eye for detail puts them above the rest. Like good short stories, their songs take you places that are familiar enough to be believed, but strange or funny enough to make you think, laugh, or see something new. The town’s village idiot (in “Go Hippie”) doesn’t just throw things at Mr. Crabtree’s car. He throws brownies. The fat biker with his hairy arm “around every man’s dream” isn’t just a creep; he’s got “crumbs in his beard from the seafood special” (“Leave the Biker”). The Fountains even wrote a song about the little red light on some guy’s answering machine. He’s been dumped and his whole world depends on whether or not that light’s blinking when he gets home (“Little Red Light”).
If you’ve only heard “Stacy’s Mom”, their first big hit, you still can see this wit in action. Of the thousand ways to write a song about unrequited and utterly impossible teenage lust, the Fountains look at it through the eyes of a lawn boy who will never forget when Stacy’s sexy mother waved him over to sweetly whisper in his ear, “You missed a spot over there.”
But there’s a problem at the heart of all this talent and creativity, a fact about the Fountains that I’ve been resisting for years. The Fountains of Wayne are mean. Really, fucking mean. All their albums feature songs that skewer, parody, and just plain make fun of sad, frustrated and unhappy people. It’s almost as if, having so handily conquered the art of the three-minute song, Collingwood and Schlesinger need to spice things up by dissecting the innermost failings and delusions of the characters they bring to life.
Take “Red Dragon Tattoo”. The guy can’t get a girl to notice him, so he decides to get an over-the-top tattoo: “Will you stop pretending I’ve never been born, now I look a little more like that guy from Korn?” Yes, it’s sad and pathetic. But there’s an even deeper layer of loserhood to be explored, indicated by a detail in the chorus: "Red dragon tattoo is just about on me / I got it for you so now don’t you want me?”
Just about on me? Aha. He puts all his hopes in a tattoo that he’s not only nervous about getting, but actually never gets. Every chorus is just a rehearsal of what he would say to her if he weren’t too afraid to actually be the tattooed guy he mistakenly thinks he needs to be.
It’s worse in “Troubled Times”. This guy lives in his bedroom making plans to approach the girl of his dreams. He, too, is paralyzed:
Pining away every hour in your room
Rolling with the motion, waiting til it’s opportune
Sitting there watching time fly past you
Why do tomorrow
What you could never do?
He, too, takes refuge from the pain of loserdom by fantasizing some imaginary future -- after they’ve met, after they’ve married, and after everything has worked out just beautifully. In light of this future, the present doesn’t look so bad. These “troubled times” are merely a stepping stone on the path to future bliss. Who’s to say, after all, that the voluptuous captain of the cheerleading squad won’t come to her senses and settle down with the bony, pimply guy she currently ignores in chemistry class -- the guy who really loves her, even though he doesn’t have a black Camaro like that creep she’s going with now? Yes, there’s a real chance, he decides, that someday the two of them will put their beautiful kids to bed and settle down in front of the fire in the great room of their McMansion and reminisce about these troubled times.
The Fountains don’t analyze this guy’s problems in so many words. But the few they use cut him up neatly at the joints: "It takes a lot of nerve to ask how she is doing / Start with a weak foundation, it will end in ruin". Thus we descend, once again (it’s usually around the third verse), into the lower depths of loser hell. Here, our abject, hopeless loser has convinced himself that his inertia and paralysis are a good thing. It’s actually better to keep on waiting for the perfect moment to talk to her than to risk everything by blurting out the wrong thing at the wrong time, isn’t it? Yes, that’s right, waiting and doing nothing is in fact the responsible thing.
It happens again and again. The Fountains put various kinds of losers in the spotlight and drag all their pathetic shit out into the light. And as we shake our heads, these sad characters collapse in a heap and the CD player clicks to the next track. It’s painful to hear.
And it’s not just loser guys. “Lost in Space” is about “that girl” who’s really cute but incomprehensible because “she’s lost in space”. And the date in “I’ll Do the Driving Next Time”?
We're out, the jukebox plays Jumping Jack Flash
She says ‘I love Johnny Cash, the man in red’
I turn my head and pretend not to hear what she said.
For a guy who reads the New York Times Book Review, the woman is an embarrassment: "The moment I saw her was something I found alarming / That certain nothing behind her eyes." Collingwood’s liner notes read, “I don’t know what I was thinking. This song pissed off my wife so much, I wish I’d never done it.” I’d have to agree: A song about a person's utter stupidity cannot but leave the impression that the singer is finding satisfaction and delight in feeling superior and taking control (and the wheel) from an inferior.
Nobody can deny that about half the band’s songs fall somewhere between a freak show and a public execution. Let’s get specific. Consider “Laser Show”, which puts the spotlight on suburban teenagers taking a road trip to “watch the stars -- Justin, James, and Kirk and Lars” at the Hayden Planetarium. They “cross the galaxy” and then “head back home on the L.I.E.” (the Long Island Expressway, for you non-New Yorkers). Or consider the Woodstock leftovers in “Peace and Love”, which, it turns out, are the only two things on their mind: “That's all I'm thinking of baby / Peace and love”. (But they do have some big cosmic plans: “Sometimes I think I might just move up to Vermont / Open a bookstore or a vegan restaurant”.)
The Fountains' songwriting style has two basic features: 1. The singer invariably talks down to his subjects by presuming to know more about them than they know themselves (in "Peace and Love" we know how hollow and mundane the hippies' cosmic aspirations are, but they don’t), and 2. these putdowns and verbal knife tosses require us to buy into the stereotypes that make the songs go. In the world according to the Fountains, every guy and girl with long hair “riding around in a Volkswagen van” is mindlessly chanting “peace and love” and “staring at the stars in a distant galaxy”. Every metalhead is just too stoned or unimaginative to connect the letters L, I, and E to the artifice of those awesome-dude laser shows. We see the Camaro shoot down the highway under the L.I.E. sign, but these kids are too spaced out to get the joke (which is, of course, on them).
But maybe the joke is on the Fountains of Wayne. There is, after all, another LIE in play here -- all these stereotypes that almost always turn out to be false. Go out and get to know any particular hippie or biker or blonde worth writing a song about and you'll find that, in fact, they are not so cosmic, so butch, or so dumb. Thus, all of the Fountains' shimmering harmonies and spot-on arrangements decorate incoherent, contradictory songs. They may begin with interesting, odd and unique details that pull us in, but then they switch lanes and head invariably (and, artistically speaking, inexplicably) for the stereotypes that don’t illuminate them so much as smother them.
Ironically, it may be the Fountains who are heading for a musical ditch. Despite all their talent and creativity, the band may become nothing more than a footnote in pop-music history. Name one great, memorable song from the history of pop music that introduces us to some odd or quirky character and goes on to put them down or make fun of them by saddling them with all the baggage of some contemporary stereotype. There are none because pop music is (hello) popular. It’s about people: The bikers, hippies, accountants and all the rest of us who like to turn on the radio and enjoy music. That’s why peace, and love and understanding are not funny. That’s why even the losers get lucky sometimes. That’s why nowhere man is actually more than a bit like you and me.
The Fountains of Wayne website says the band is working on a new album. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ve seen the end of the loser parade. If not, they need to make some adjustments. Maybe they should take in a few Flaming Lips shows and watch the dancing bunnies on stage. Frontman Wayne Coyne, a former fry cook at Long John Silver’s, has elevated non-elitist schtick to an art -- one that celebrates odd people who do strange things (“I know a girl...”) without a hint of superiority or knowing sophistication. Perhaps the Fountains could join forces with the Lips and become a supergroup. Schlesinger and Collingwood could learn to write songs about all the stereotype-defying people that exist in the world, and they wouldn’t even need to change their name all that much. The Fountains of Wayne Coyne could be huge, and nobody would have to get hurt.