So what exactly is the Great American Band? Is it just the best rock band that happens to be American? If the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were American, would this conversation essentially be over? I’m not convinced. There’s a lot of talk in literary circles about the mythical Great American Novel, with the understanding that said novel is supposed to Say Something about The American Experience (a la The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn). If that’s the case, then the great American band should be not just a great band who happens to be American. It should be a band that says something quintessentially American.
With that in mind, I’m going out on a limb to nominate Fountains of Wayne. As in “Stacy’s Mom?” Yes. Hear me out. Not to be one of those “but I knew them when” types, but I remember hearing their infectious first single “Radiation Vibe” on college radio, and instantly loving it. A few years later, I heard the song “Troubled Times,” bought their first two albums, and was hooked. All this is just to say that when I heard “Stacy’s Mom” on the radio, I had more context for it than most people.
Music first: Most of their music is a mix of pop/rock styles. It’s slightly off-kilter guitar driven power pop, sometimes with a little low-fi sheen. There are rock, country, punk, and folk influences here, along with great harmonies and a little indie whine-rock thrown in for good measure. More importantly, these guys write a hook like nobody’s business. You’ve likely heard Adam Schlesinger’s songcraft in the movies. He wrote the Wonders’ big hit, so you can blame him if you can’t get “That Thing You Do” out of your head. If you’ve seen the film “Music and Lyrics” (which I don’t really recommend), you know that Schlesinger also has the chops to write a credible Wham! knockoff such as “Meaningless Kiss.” (Look it up on YouTube right now. I’ll wait.)
But dig a little deeper, beyond the killer pop hooks, and you’ll hear Fountains of Wayne creating masterful songs about the suburban experience for Generation X America. All the little details underscore the theme: the power pop/punk melodies, the finely observed lyrical humor, and finally Chris Collingwood’s vocal performance, with its straightforward “everyman” delivery. Part of the hip hop tradition is to talk about Gulfstream, the Palms, and Prada to seem glamorous and out of reach. On the flip side, Fountains of Wayne name checks more prosaic and accessible brands like Subaru, La Quinta, and the Gap. Even the seemingly fluffy “Stacy’s Mom” captures a sense of ennui, where the most exciting woman you know is your friend’s hot mom. That whole album, the aptly titled Welcome Interstate Managers, is largely about the banal underpinnings of suburban life. There’s a cheery song about a traveling salesman with an alcohol problem; another about waiting for a red notification light; and another about a Sunday morning with a significant other, drinking coffee while watching “Face the Nation.”
This theme runs through Fountains of Wayne’s entire catalog. They’ve even done one of my favorite Christmas songs, “The Man in the Santa Suit,” which peers into the life of the poor schmuck who dons that red suit for the extra cash. The image of a mall Santa who is “sweaty and smells like beer” is funny, but he’s been led there by his blue-collar cash strapped existence.
Like most of us, as the band aged, the theme went from the youthful detachment of the mid-90’s to a little more fatalism in the post-9/11, post-Great Recession era. Their latest album contains the elegiac song “Cemetery Guns,” about a military funeral on the Illinois plains. The song focuses its attention on the grieving young widow, but it suggests that her life has been upended by a centuries-long cycle of military-industrial conquest. While they aren’t raging, exactly, there is no mistaking the resignation of the lyric “Godspeed their reckless sons, who evermore play their forefathers’ hands on the foreign sands.” Plus ça change, et cetera...
“Okay Tina, fine,” you say. “They’re more than Stacy’s Mom. But great American band?” Fountains of Wayne’s music is a sardonic and melancholy reflection of middle class life disguised as upbeat power pop. It’s the Reagan era’s sunny facade imperfectly plastered over that famous Gen X apathy. What’s more American than that?
Tina is an infrequent contributor, somewhat scientist, and tennis fan. She could not sit on the sidelines while we ignored great bands. Follow her lead and nominate your Greatest American Band.