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Adam Schlesinger and the Soundtracks of Our Lives

I remember a moment in the fall of 2015, a conversation I was having with Rachel Bloom about the early episodes of her new TV series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The most recent episode featured a song called “What’ll It Be,” sung by Santino Fontana’s Greg. I remember commenting to Rachel at the time that it felt like a real watershed moment in the show. The songs until then had been good, very catchy, very funny. But “What’ll It Be” felt different. The lyrics still contained the self-awareness and cleverness that had already become staples of the series. But it ached, it was painful. It was one of the early indications of the layers this show had the potential for. An indication of what it would grow to be. I found out Adam Schlesinger was responsible for it.

Rachel told me the story behind the song. Series co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna lovingly shared it on Twitter in the wake of Adam Schlesinger’s passing. That the song had come almost fully formed directly from Adam himself. This was when I learned Adam was working on the music for the series. As soon as I heard that, it seemed so obvious. 

Of course this show, which so exquisitely embraced and twisted the tropes of every genre of music it played with, had Adam Schlesinger’s hands all over it. When it came to understanding the complicated ways that different pieces of music could hit you as a person, the intricate combinations of math and poetry in composition, there was perhaps no one more skilled or gifted than Adam. 

I should state I’m not a music writer. I’ve never claimed to be an expert on music or a music critic. I’m sure that there are thousands of writers more qualified than me to dig into the specifics of what makes Adam’s work tick. To me, music has always boiled down as living in the spaces where it reaches me emotionally in my own life, and the ways it is used in film and television. Those are mediums I am much more intimately familiar with. And perhaps that’s why Adam’s music meant so much to me. It existed in exactly that intersection. 

As a teen in the ‘90s who practically lived in her local Blockbuster, That Thing You Do! was an inescapable, but always welcome earworm. As a young college student still harboring her high school crush on Rachael Leigh Cook, the Josie and the Pussycats movie and its soundtrack became permanently embedded in my psyche. And as a young, struggling comedian driving hours at a time across the midwest to underpaid gigs in the middle of nowhere, in the days before the prescience of podcasts, Fountains of Wayne was a significant part of the soundtrack of my actual life. 

I recall a weekend driving around Clayton, North Carolina with Traffic and Weather on repeat in my CD player—largely due to the fact that “I-95” was on the album and my own proximity to that interstate. As someone in a long-distance relationship, that same song has been ever-present in my mind for the last year and change. It’s taken on an additional layer recently. Physical distancing makes it harder for me to see my girlfriend again. While our trips to visit each other have been more about airports and layovers than truck stops and billboards in Virginia, the song so perfectly captures the poignant recollections of the familiar sights and experience while traversing distances to see the one you love. That sense of longing for even the journey itself. 

There was a joy to Adam’s work that never sneered even when it was an intentional parody. Regardless of whether it was supposed to sound like one of the biggest hits of the sixties or the ballad sung by Hugh Grant trying to win back Drew Barrymore in Music and Lyrics, Schlesinger understood that these songs mattered to the people singing them.

Collective tragedy will mark this era. Many will lose someone very close to them, maybe friends and family and coworkers. Adam was all of those things to a lot of people. His loss is so gutting for so many of us. In a series of decades often marked by cynicism, Adam consistently put out music that was aggressively pleasant and insistently joyful. It was music that cared about you, that understood your emotions, music that wanted to wrap you up when you were sad and dance with you when you were happy. It was music that loved us. 

And perhaps that’s why this one hurts so much. Because we know that when we get to the other side of this ordeal, our collective trauma will be such that we’re going to need more of exactly the kind of art that Adam Schlesinger created. 

Featured Image: Fuzztopia