“You can take all the novels in the world,” argued Alex Fletcher, the washed-up singer-songwriter played by Hugh Grant in the 2007 romantic comedy “Music and Lyrics,” “and not one of them will make you feel as good as fast as: ‘I’ve got sunshine / On a cloudy day.’”
Alex was stating a general principle about the value of pop music. But he could have been talking about musician and songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who wrote many of the best original tracks for “Music and Lyrics,” along with other movies and television shows, and who co-founded the bands Fountains of Wayne and Ivy. Schlesinger, who died of complications from a covid-19 infection on Wednesday at age 52, had a gift for making his listeners feel that good, that fast.
Schlesinger is probably most famous for “Stacy’s Mom,” a horny, goofy and totally infectious hit from Fountains of Wayne’s 2003 album “Welcome Interstate Managers.” Reviewing the record for Pitchfork, Mark Martelli pondered whether Schlesinger and his bandmates were making music that was too much fun for listeners’ good. Fun wasn’t the only thing Schlesinger had on that album: “Bright Future in Sales” is a brutal takedown of corporate life, while “Hackensack” is a dreamy lament from a boy left behind by his famous sweetheart. And his sharply tuned ear for both catchiness and emotion meant that Schlesinger could do something rare: He wrote songs that were not only wonderful but also could help you understand what it was that you loved about an entire genre of music.
Schlesinger first employed that talent in “That Thing You Do!” the titular song for Tom Hanks’s directorial debut about a one-hit wonder band from Erie, Pa. The track is pure nostalgia for the pop music of 1964, and it shows just how powerful the combination of repetition, innuendo and innocence that powered early Beatles songs can be. The song never clarifies what “that thing you do” is, leaving space for the listener to fill in the blank. But the sense of yearning it evokes is immediately, universally familiar.
No one needs to make the case for the musical value of 1960s pop anymore. But Schlesinger didn’t stop there: He had the musical intelligence to see what was compelling in genres of music that other people derided, and a respect for the power of pop that made him strive for greatness where others might have slacked off.
“Josie and the Pussycats,” the 2001 movie about the girl band from Archie Comics, is entirely disposable. The songs Schlesinger wrote and produced for it are not. “Pretend to Be Nice,” a lament by a girl whose boyfriend takes her for granted and constantly tears her down, balances perky arrangement with a real sense of exhaustion and desperation.
For “Music and Lyrics,” Schlesinger saw through the bad hair of ’80s groups like Wham! and the sexed-up merchandising of ’90s starlets like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and he wrote songs that acknowledged the emotional acuity that makes those genres so appealing. The lyrics “I need inspiration / Not just another negotiation” may be sung by the movie’s flaky teen pop goddess, but they’re a succinct and mature statement of what a good relationship looks like.
And Schlesinger’s musical voraciousness was most obvious in his work on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a show for which he wrote or co-wrote songs that channeled everything from Cole Porter to New Jack Swing and from Filipino karaoke to Motown. Rachel Bloom, who co-created and starred in the series, described him as “irreplaceable.”
Schlesinger made us happier and smarter. Now that he’s gone, all I can hear is the silence left behind.