I discovered Fountains of Wayne when I was a freshman in high school. I loved their first, self-titled album with a fervent passion intensified by the fact that they felt like a secret club only me and my best friend, Mary, belonged to. No one had heard of Fountains of Wayne. And that had never happened to me before — I had always felt behind the curve, music-wise. I listened to the old rock music my parents liked.
But there was nothing about the band that was inaccessible — the songs on that album are guitar-heavy, middle-period-Beatles-esque pop with insanely catchy hooks and lyrics that tell small stories about weirdos (or beg a beautiful woman to leave her biker boyfriend). It seemed incredible to me that everyone in the world wasn’t humming these songs. What more could you want? How could you not listen to these funny, smart, hummable songs over and over?
It’s not that Fountains of Wayne languished in total obscurity. By the time their second album, “Utopia Parkway,” came out, a song or two regularly popped up on some TV show, causing me to squeal. They did a small tour, and while Mary drove all the way out to California to see them, I missed them playing the 400 bar in Minneapolis. It was partly the inherent logistical difficulties of being a car-less sophomore at Carleton, but I bowed to circumstances pretty easily. Here’s the thing: I’m a weird fan. Most fans obsessively collect all the information they can about the bands they love. They see them live; they learn all about their side projects and previous work. I’m not like that. When I develop an intense relationship with a band or album, it’s tricky and private. Seeing them live can spoil it: if the show sucks, if they have a bad attitude, it ruins the private world of music I’ve created in my head. This isn’t to say I avoid live music entirely, but I tend to go for: 1) Artists I like a great deal, but don’t obsessively love, so that I can enjoy the show without apprehension, and shrug it off it’s not good or 2) Artists I don’t know at all, whose show I happened to go to because I liked the venue or event they were playing.
Plus, with Fountains of Wayne, every song feels like a rich little experience, a story. In fact, their albums have been described as short story collections that happen to be written in pop format. Their music, though sometimes it feels sweet and intensely personal, isn’t a straightforward expression of the emotional state, political views, etc. of the band members. So obsessing about the people, the band members, seems oddly besides the point. If you love a short story collection, why do you care if the author is an alcoholic and can’t read his or her own work well?
It still puzzled Mary and I that Fountains of Wayne weren’t the most popular band on earth. The songs were pure pop bliss. They burrowed into your head and refused to go away. Why was one listen not enough to addict the nation? Not that we wanted everyone to share our love: we had serious, intense conversations about what would happen if Fountains of Wayne hit it big. It would be like your first crush on a boy being advertised on bulletin boards across the nation.
Then, their third album, “Welcome Interstate Managers,” came out, and “Stacy’s Mom” hit airwaves. Suddenly, Fountains of Wayne was everywhere. “Stacy’s Mom” got into everyone’s head. Instead of the band no one had heard of, suddenly they were “that band” — the one with the really annoying song. Instead of explaining them, I had to apologize for them.
This sucked, because “Welcome Interstate Managers” is a great album. It’s the most personal of all their albums, I think, though the story-telling aspect is still there. They dare to get quiet sometimes, like on “Valley Winter Song,” and they explore other genres, showing that they can work really well with country on “Hung Up on You.”
But none of this really mattered, under the blare that was “Stacy’s Mom.”
Now, I like the bands I love to eat. Really, I do. I’m happy they made some money. But it was traumatic for me. It was traumatic that they were nominated for “best new artist” (um, excuse me? Like the previous two albums counted for what?). It confirmed all my worst fears of seeing too much of something you love. “Stacy’s Mom” went from being a catchy, weird little song (with lyrics that actually undercut the supposedly straightforward idea behind it — Stacy’s Mom is actually, it is suggested, lonely and divorced, probably not the hottie in the bikini from the music video), to a lame pop-culture flash-in-the-pan. It’s not like everyone was acknowledging the brilliance of Fountains of Wayne. They were just trying to scrub the music video from “Stacy’s Mom” out of their heads. And I didn’t even have my secret club anymore.
Some time has passed, and Fountains of Wayne has a new album. They’re got a crappy first single called “Someone to Love,” with another crappy music video. And they were playing for free at the State Fair. A free show? The state fair? Despite my complicated feelings about seeing them live, the universe could not be sending me a clearer signal. With some grumbling, I checked out the new album “Traffic and Weather” and went the the show.
Most of the audience was teenagers. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that it was a free, all-ages show at the state fair, but it couldn’t have been just coincidence. My companion and I felt old, even though we had the company of a goodly contingent of older, dorky-looking concert-goers in glasses and t-shirts, who were clearly Fountains of Wayne hold-outs from the early days. We started discussing high-school, and what high-school had been like for us.
Then the show started. Teenagers around me screamed. A skinny, young couple in front of us went crazy. Awkwardly but enthuasiastically dancing, they sang all the songs together, mouthing “We go together, like Traffic and Weather,” to each other in an ironically sultry fashion.
The lead singer, Chris Collingwood, says very little, letting Adam Schleslinger (he of too-many-side-projects-I-have-written-for-every-movie-ever) do most of the audience schmoozing. But, as I suspected, they don’t seem to use the concert as an opportunity to express their personalities. They seem awkward, and just want to play.
It shocked me that I still knew all the words to every single song, even songs I haven’t listened to in years. The more they played, the more I forgot about feeling awkward or old. I screamed and yelled and jumped up and down.
Fountains of Wayne don’t seem to have changed much. Guitar-heavy power pop about lost souls, sitting alone in their apartments, or in line at the DMV. The new album also has a country-influenced song (again, probably one of the best songs on the album). I realized that I might be moving out of their target demographic — it’s a safe bet that songs like “Planet of Weed,” aren’t written with me in mind. I’m going to be a quarter-century tomorrow, after all.
That’s the thing. The whole show felt like a regression. Not only did it remind me of being a teenager, but there were teenagers all around me, eating up “Stacy’s Mom.”
But, is this ultimately a bad thing? Why, I thought, jumping up and down, am I such a grouch? Fountains of Wayne do what they do well. And what they do well is pop-rock, and it’s fun, and people should enjoy it as such. Maybe it doesn’t rock my world the way it used to, but who cares? The couple in front of me was having the time of their life — clearly intense fans, they called out for obscure songs like “Half a Woman.” Maybe I should have enjoyed my teenage fandom more, rather than refusing to indulge it too much, for fear of spoiling it. Maybe I should never have taken Fountains of Wayne so goddamn seriously.
If Fountains of Wayne has any sort of “position,” I think it’s the pop music doesn’t have to dumb or disposable. Pop songs can be rich and smart and funny and weird — but still catchy, still fun. Still something that makes you squeal like a teenager.