Welcome to 1999 Music Week, a celebration of one of the most interesting, vivid, varied music years ever. Join us as we count down the best singles and albums of the year, remember the days of scrubs and the girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch, and argue about which albums stood above the rest.
If you know one thing about Rich Cronin, heartthrob frontman for Massachusetts pop trio LFO, you actually know at least five or six things. What and who he likes, and does not; what he likes to eat, and cannot. “Summer Girls,” the group’s gently rapped and shockingly resilient 1999 hit, tells you quite a bit about Cronin, and about teenagers, and about America, and especially about the anarchic and delightful wonderland of pop music in 1999. LFO stands for “Lyte Funkie Ones,” by the way. There’s another thing you know.
“Summer Girls,” the opening track and crown jewel of LFO’s self-titled ’99 debut album, glides in on a swoony, fingerpicked guitar riff reminiscent of Extreme’s 1990 hit “More Than Words,” a hard-rockers-gone-soft hyperballad that functioned, for flop-sweaty junior high gymnasium dance floors of that era, as the “Stairway to Heaven” of its time. (Hornball cinéastes may note that it also sounds quite a bit like Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s “Shallow.”) Shakers, dinky kitchen-table percussion, some tasteful and soulful electric guitar. Do you remember?, Cronin purrs, ad-libbing, sensually biting his lip in your mind’s eye (and in the video) even before the polite but bumptious beat kicks in. And then, and then, and then:
New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits
Chinese food makes me sick
And I think it’s fly when girls drop by for the summer
For the summer
Wikki-wikki turntable scratches flutter about like so many seagulls as a grateful, mesmerized nation wonders, in unison, What the hell did he just say? This is the chorus. This is the only chorus you will ever need. The second half of the chorus includes definitely the first thing you know about Rich Cronin, and his risqué, mall-dominating teenage clothier of choice.
I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch
I’d take her if I had one wish
But she’s been gone since that summer
Since that summer
“Summer Girls,” which premiered in June of that year and peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100—beating out “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child, and topped only by Enrique Iglesias’s “Bailamos” and, at no. 1, Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle”—is the most baffling pop hit of 1999, which was arguably the most baffling year for pop overall. The big singles that year just seemed a little bigger, and a whole lot weirder. Napster debuted in 1999 but was a year or two away from fully decimating the music industry, which had entered its Backstreet Boys–abetted Late Empire phase, flush with CD money, convinced of its own immortality, and thus theoretically willing (pop-wise) to take a chance on anyone, and to make a hit out of literally anything.
Cher’s highly improbable Auto-Tune comeback smash “Believe,” for example, topped Billboard’s year-end 1999 chart, turning back time more spectacularly than her earlier hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.” But we also got the ecstatic Santana and Rob Thomas duet “Smooth” and Smash Mouth’s indestructible “All Star,” which both endure as fodder for deep-dive histories and dank memes, their ubiquity inextricable from their sublimity.
And Sisqó’s lascivious and absurd “Thong Song.” And Lou Bega’s insidiously ingratiating “Mambo No. 5.” And Len’s lo-fi joybomb “Steal My Sunshine.” And the teen-pop monoliths, from Britney Spears’s “...Baby One More Time” to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” And the Latin pop explosion heralded by Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love” and especially Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which America initially treated as a novelty and the rest of the world treated as cautious proof that American pop might eventually get around to acknowledging the rest of the world. (Even “Smooth” is, at its core, a Latin rock song.)
There was a newfound sense that as fluky pop stardom went, anyone could do it, anything could happen, and anything did. Even these guys. Even this. “Like a lot of the megahits of 1999, there was a sense when you were listening to it that this was something weird and gigantic that we would still be remembering 20 years from now,” says Rolling Stone critic and author Rob Sheffield, who slotted “Summer Girls” no. 7 on his monster list of the 99 best singles of the year. (TLC’s “No Scrubs” is his favorite.) “It was a thing of hearing it and just going, ‘Oh, come on, you’ve got to be fucking kidding’ for, like, four minutes solid. Honestly, that has never once gone away listening to the song.”
“Summer Girls” is, indeed, 20 years old. It is as silly and disposable and essential as the day it was born. It is easy nostalgia, and endless summer, and frivolous ecstasy personified. It is, somehow, forever.
Listen, I’m not going to sit here and quote the whole song. And yet, and yet, and yet ...
Hip-hop, marmalade, spick-and-span
Met you one summer and it all began
Cronin’s verses on “Summer Girls” are a mind-bending barrage of non sequiturs, his wistful reminisces on lost love spiked with goofball pop culture arcana and stupendously random facts about himself. It’s a b-boy bouillabaisse, futon talk of the highest and lowest order. It’s confounding. It’s ridiculous. It’s great.
You’re the best girl that I ever did see
The great Larry Bird, jersey 33
It is impossible to overstate how endearing this song is, but let’s give it a shot. “You knew that some previously forbidden transgressive zone in the human brain,” Sheffield raves, “had been very wisely barricaded up to that point, and was suddenly being removed from the hinges.”
When you take a sip, you buzz like a hornet
Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets
The best part of that line is the hint of a Boston accent on sonnets, such as it comes out SAWHN-ets. LFO, a trio by then composed of Cronin, Devin Lima, and Brad Fischetti, formed in the mid-’90s in New Bedford, Massachusetts. (Lima replaced original third member Brian “Brizz” Gillis.) They were not not a boy band: They had the hunky all-American look, and the crush-worthy PG-13 charm that animated the 1999 teen-pop boom. (They even toured with Britney Spears.) But LFO loved rap music, too, and in an alternate universe, rap music might’ve one day learned to love them.
“Cronin, most people don’t realize it, but he was literally one of the best rappers alive,” Fischetti tells me now. “Some people, they look at me, like, ‘What are you, crazy?’ I’m serious. You don’t really get a chance to see it in LFO. If you give him a beat and a microphone, I’d put him up against Eminem in a freestyle. That’s how good he was.”
The tragedy of “Summer Girls” is we’ll never get to see that battle. The triumph of “Summer Girls” is everything else.
Stayed all summer, then went back home
Macaulay Culkin was in Home Alone
What made 1999 music so transcendentally bonkers? Every year has fluke hits and outré sensations, but what makes this crop of massive singles seem … flukier? “There was just this certain level of ridiculousness,” says Rolling Stone critic and reporter Brittany Spanos, who sees the late ’90s as a cheerful interlude between the relentless grimness of early-’90s peak grunge and the cartoonish rage of the peak nü-metal that dominated Y2K and (briefly) beyond. “I think that a lot of bands saw this opportunity to break through at that time and saw a pretty open market, in a lot of ways. They can just have fun with it, which is nice.”
Spanos was 6 or 7 when “Summer Girls” came out, by the way, which I personally find more upsetting than anything Eminem, a fellow 1999 superstar rookie, ever did. “These songs are all, there’s a level of insanity to the lyrics, where it was just like, ‘Why did you write this?’” she says. “But it’s also kind of very earnest and fun. It’s very lovingly weird.”
Fell deep in love, but now we ain’t speakin’
Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton
Another major industry player in 1999: MTV’s Total Request Live, which had premiered the previous year and proved a huge boon to LFO until, ah, some personal issues arose. We’ll get to that. “There is a sense of the distribution system working, of the pipeline working,” Sheffield says. “There was this moment where people were really tuned in to top-40 radio and TRL, and an astounding amount of good music was going into it. Which wasn’t the case a year later.”
There is a sense, in short, of a chaotic new era dawning, and then immediately collapsing. “‘Summer Girls’ is a quintessential example of a song that no possible way would have been a hit in 2001, 2002,” Sheffield says. “Circumstances had completely changed by then, as far as the chaos of it—it just got organized and formalized very quickly. ‘Steal My Sunshine,’ another example. ‘All Star,’ another example. These are just goofy songs, but the elements exploded to make them perfectly resonate with people in a way that would not have been possible with the radio and MTV landscape of a couple of years later.”
What changed? “I don’t know,” Sheffield says. “I wish I knew.” But whatever the cause, “By 2001, pop is no longer messy,” he says. “It’s very clean and organized. It’s very predictable, what’s going to be a big hit, what’s going to be a medium-sized hit, what’s going to be a tiny hit, and what’s not going to be a hit at all.”
(Heads up: This is the best part. The emotional whiplash of these next four lines is without peer in pop-music history. Holy shit.)
You love hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll
Dad took off when you were 4 years old
There was a good man named Paul Revere
I feel much better, baby, when you’re near
What the hell did he just say? “That is a very jarring transition,” Sheffield says. “And the one moment where there’s a sense that, ‘Oh, she’s probably also saying something in this conversation.’” One of the subtler pleasures of “Summer Girls” is that it exactly replicates the experience of trying to talk to a young human male, driven mad by lust but still driven to constant distraction. He’s listening to you, baby, honest. He’s doing the best he can.
I like the color purple, macaroni and cheese
Ruby-red slippers and a bunch of trees
LFO’s story ends in unthinkable tragedy. The trio put out one more record, 2001’s Life Is Good, then fizzled out: “We just decided to take a break, take a ‘hiatus,’” Fischetti says. “Which in boy-band terms is ‘break up.’” But just as they were tentatively reforming, Cronin died of cancer in 2010; Lima and Fischetti briefly carried on as a duo, but Lima, too, died of cancer in late 2018.
Fischetti is clearly still heartbroken, but he’s proud to say “Summer Girls” itself is somehow blissfully unaffected. “It was a time where we were sort of oblivious to the world,” he says. “As you know, as you grow older, you learn more about life. Sometimes, knowledge is power. But sometimes, it can be a bit constricting as well when you know too much.”
(Cronin was probably not rapping about the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple, by the way. But let’s not rule it out.)
Call you up, but what’s the use?
I like Kevin Bacon, but I hate Footloose
What a time 1999 was, though, to be a kid, and to feel like a kid forever. “I didn’t get the references—that was kind of cool,” Spanos says. “I was like, ‘I’ve never seen Footloose. What’s that?’”
But “Summer Girls” never intended to exclude anyone: You were invited to this party no matter how old you were, no matter how few references you got, no matter how you felt about boy bands or white rappers, and, crucially, no matter what you were wearing.
“When I think about summertime songs,” the sole surviving member of LFO says, “I’m thinking about, like, the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff, ‘Summertime.’ That song will always bring back a certain feeling in my soul, right?”
Fischetti helped pay that feeling forward. “I guess ‘Summer Girls’ does that for a lot of people,” he says, “and it really is a great honor to have our music thought of in that way. ‘Summer Girls.’ The Abercrombie & Fitch song. If they were alive and they listened to music, they know that song. It’s pretty cool.”
Central to the song’s humble origin story, however, is the humility. Nobody knew what it could be at first; the song became what it became very much by accident. It is evident, after listening to even five seconds of “Summer Girls,” that nobody involved was thinking too hard, or actively trying to do their best work, which might be the key to how everyone ended up doing just that. ‘’I just thought back to when I was young, happy, no worries,” Cronin told The Boston Globe in 2005. ‘’’Summer Girls’ was all about a summer on the Cape. Inside jokes. I never thought that anyone besides my close friends would ever hear it.”
Cronin wrote the song with two Boston-area producers named Dow Brain and Brad Young, who’d started an outfit called Underground Productions in the early ’90s. “It came together pretty fast,” Young tells me. “I just thought it was different and funny. I don’t think I had some moment where I thought, Oh my god, this is an epic thing.”
“We didn’t know ‘Summer Girls’ was going to be a hit,” Brain concurs. “So, once that happened, we were busy for the next, what? Five, seven years.”
By the late ’90s, LFO were signed to Arista Records and managed by Lou Pearlman, the domineering guru behind the Backstreet Boys and ’NSync who would eventually be accused, in 2006, of running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in American history, and who died in federal custody in 2016. (Long after LFO’s success, Cronin spoke to both Vanity Fair and, less formally, to Howard Stern about Pearlman’s wildly inappropriate if not outright criminal behavior toward his young male stars.)
The all-universe industry heavyweight LFO really had to impress, however, was Arista Records boss Clive Davis. “When you’re 20-something years old and sitting in Clive Davis’s office, you’re basically singing whatever song he wants you to,” Fischetti says. “You can sing ‘Happy Birthday’ if that’s what he tells you to sing. You know what I mean?”
The songs Davis wanted LFO to sing were the sorts of songs the Backstreet Boys might sing. “Listen, at the time, pop groups typically didn’t write their own music, right?” Fischetti says. “They’re presenting you with songs from these really big songwriters, which was a great honor to be offered songs by Diane Warren and people like that, but they weren’t our style.”
For the group, there was not as much genre anxiety then as you might imagine, and far less genre anxiety now. “These days I embrace the term ‘boy band,’” Fischetti says. “For me, it’s cool, because it’s not looked at as a negative term anymore. You know what I mean? I’m cool with it. Back then, nobody wanted to be called a boy band. If we would have done the typical boy band pop stuff, we would have failed, because it just wasn’t enough.”
They played “Summer Girls” for Davis: a rough mix of a rough song. Cronin, Fischetti recalls, was nervous, but Davis, indomitable music-biz genius that he is, instantly thought it was … fine. “He wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is a smash hit,’” Fischetti says. “Basically, I think he was like, ‘All right, that’s cool. You guys can put it on the album.’ We were pretty excited about that. To have a song that you wrote on the album was kind of a big deal.”
And then, the real fluke. In Fischetti’s retelling, someone lower down at the label informally passed “Summer Girls” to a DJ at Washington, D.C., pop station Z104. It was not a label priority; it was not some unseemly payola spectacle. Somebody at Z104 simply pulled it off the pile and played it, and somebody at New York City pop station Z100, who just happened to be driving through D.C. at the time, happened to hear it. Soon Z100 was playing “Summer Girls,” too. And that’s all it took.
“I definitely knew it was a special song,” Fischetti says. “We had recorded lots of songs—that was the only one we ever played for Clive. Clearly we knew it was special. But can anybody really predict exactly what the reaction to a song will be?”
For Young’s part, he concedes now that if he’d known how big “Summer Girls” would get, he’d have spent more time on the mix, and in all likelihood made it worse. He also heard that Davis weighed in once the song was, indeed, a smash hit, praising LFO and the producers for making the final radio version sound as raw and unfinished as what he’d heard that day in his office. The song was exactly the same.
“I always tell that story when I’m talking to younger engineers about how people look at your thing,” Dow Brain says. “Everything is a failure until it’s a success. And then it’s the greatest thing ever.”
Fischetti is proud of the organic success of “Summer Girls,” driven up the charts by nothing more than its own random-ass momentum. (“Listen, if radio plays a song enough times, it sort of becomes a hit, because they play it all the time.”) But whatever the means, and however modest the intention, LFO suddenly found themselves hailed as pop stars, and worshiped as gods in what qualified, back then, as the most important church of them all.
“We did an autograph signing and performance at a mall in Long Island for Z100,” Fischetti says. In the absence of a green room, they hung out near the food court. “We’re like, ‘All right, time to come down.’ We walk past the food court, then get on an escalator. For the first half of the escalator, you can’t really see anything. We get to a certain point, then you can see the next level. I mean, the place was—I mean, like thousands of people. As soon as they saw us coming on the escalator, they started going crazy. You’re literally going in slow motion, because you know how slow escalators are, right? We’re just, like, going down this escalator.”
It was all up the mall escalator from there.
A brief discussion about Abercrombie & Fitch ...
Our story begins in, no bullshit, 1892. Abercrombie & Fitch started out in New York selling hunting and fishing equipment. “It went from an outdoor gear shop in the late 19th century,” Business Insider wrote in 2016, “to a retailer known for oversexed, borderline-softcore pornographic ads.” Those ads were in full force by the late ’90s, a barrage of noirishly shot and alluringly shredded abs. An A&F store was to your average suburban mall what the “adult” section was to your average suburban video store. But no one campaign Abercrombie & Fitch ever launched got the company half as much publicity as “Summer Girls.”
“I just remember never having heard of Abercrombie & Fitch, so that was the very first time I had ever heard of it,” says Aisha Harris, a culture reporter and editor for The New York Times who first heard the song on the radio in the sixth grade. “I had no idea what it was, and then all of a sudden, that song came out, and it turned into a big, giant thing. Everyone in school was wearing Abercrombie & Fitch.”
Harris, by the way, owned both the full LFO album and, eventually, a few A&F items. “I am not proud of it,” she says with a laugh. “But I was also a preteen trying to fit in, so … ”
Spanos, being a little younger when “Summer Girls” first dropped, dodged the A&F bullet. “It was very aspirational for me,” she recalls. “I really wanted to get it, but it was just, like, expensive, and my mom thought that the clothes were not super appropriate. So, when I really wanted to get it, I was too young to get it, and by the time I was a teenager and started going to the mall regularly without my mom, I was really into Hot Topic, so I kind of missed the Abercrombie & Fitch wave.”
i modeled my entire personality off of lfo's "summer girls" and bowling for soup's "girl all the bad guys want"— bill de blasio’s other biracial daughter (@ohheybrittany) July 3, 2019
“But it was something I always really wanted when I was a kid,” Spanos continues. “I was like, ‘This is what teenagers are gonna wear. This is what I am supposed to wear when I’m a teen.’ And then I just became more goth.”
“I feel like I probably saw the music video not long after hearing the song,” Harris says. “So to me, it kind of symbolized the beach. Pretty white people. A preppy look. Summer. Those are the things that I associated with it. And I do remember all of those bags, the Abercrombie & Fitch bags, just the topless, shirtless, white models with blonde hair looking like they just came off the beach, all that stuff. So, I think that was sort of, to me, what Abercrombie & Fitch was, that look. The very white, very white look.”
Abercrombie is in the midst of an epic rebranding, an attempt to broaden its appeal beyond cool kids (and/or white kids) that is in fact several decades too late. Good luck to them. “The A&F aesthetic was one of affordable aspiration and blinding whiteness, a physique magazine for the peak mall era,” says New York Times pop critic and fashion reporter Jon Caramanica, my personal guru on all music/fashion matters. “The clothes—unimaginative, generally bad—were secondary to the grossly cultivated tone of ocean-proximate radiance and severe skinny privilege. I don’t miss it.”
Listen, let’s just all watch the “Summer Girls” video again, and regard it as the kindest light in which A&F could ever possibly be shown.
There is, indeed, very little subtext to the “Summer Girls” video, a boardwalk frolic, a chill hang of gargantuan proportions. “When we first were shooting, I thought, ‘Well, this is a little too simple,’ you know?” Fischetti says. “When I look back on it, it was really perfect. It was classic. You can play the video today, and nobody would know it was 20 years ago.” (This is not 100 percent accurate, but it’s not, like, zero percent accurate.) “I think that’s sort of the definition of a classic. It was a lot of fun to shoot. Not only because of all the girls in bikinis—honestly it was just a really fun, fun vibe.”
(One qualm, in retrospect, involves the video’s location: Coney Island. As in New York City. “Which is just so funny,” Sheffield says, “because these are the Boston, Mass., douchebags of all time. If you’ll forgive the Boston reference, they should have done it at Castle Island, not Coney Island. They would’ve gotten much better lobster rolls that way.”)
“Summer Girls” got a great deal of play on MTV and TRL especially—at first. There were complications. As Cronin’s star rose, he found himself with a new girlfriend, Jennifer Love Hewitt, who inspired LFO’s second big hit, a sort of informal “Summer Girls” sequel called, appropriately enough, “Girl on TV.” Love Hewitt was kind enough to star in the video.
To be clear, what this means is that if you listen to the LFO album chronologically, Track 2 is a tender ode to the celebrity Cronin found himself dating after the monster success of Track 1. “He straight up said that, in the studio: ‘I met this girl, I can’t believe it,’” Taylor recalls. “You go from being this kid on the South Shore who no one really knows to all of a sudden, that’s your girlfriend. He was pretty over the top about that.”
One problem. You may recall another gentleman Love Hewitt once dated: TRL host Carson Daly. Fischetti recalls that LFO’s TRL appearance was mighty awkward, and the “Girl on TV” clip did not get the gala premiere attention the group seemed to warrant. “Listen, I firmly believe that that incident really cost us a lot of records,” he says. “I don’t blame anybody for it, because it’s one thing to write a song about a guy’s ex-girlfriend, but then to put her in the video and expect him to support it, it’s maybe a little cavalier.”
Also cavalier, not to mention ungrateful: Abercrombie & Fitch’s indifference to LFO. “A&F wanted nothing to do with us,” Fischetti says. “They said their consumers were college-aged women. We told them that there were 5,000 girls from 8 to 28 rocking A&F gear at our shows because of the song. So no, there was no partnership. I think A&F sent us one or two boxes of clothes. But that was the extent.”
That would be roughly 10,000 boxes short of what LFO deserved.
If you continue listening to 1999’s LFO past the one-two punch of “Summer Girls” and “Girl on TV,” you will find a talented and charismatic group caught between boilerplate teen-pop anthemia and something shrewder and ever-so-slightly lewder. “LFO plays things a little risky, teasing fans at the boundaries of sex and race,” wrote then–New York Times pop critic Ann Powers, reviewing a local show in 2000. “At Irving Plaza on Friday, its arrogance added something to the boy-band lexicon.” (Also: “When LFO did succumb to a big ballad, however, the sound became generic and dull. Cockiness is the group’s best quality; it has no talent for being soft.”)
The trio’s second album, 2001’s Life Is Good, is a broader, louder, and far wackier affair, released into a marketplace ravaged by Napster, which had quickly mutated from yet another industry boon to an existential threat especially harmful to young artists with one or two big hits ripe for the (illegal) downloading. Somehow, nobody saw this coming. “Pretty much everybody thought what Napster was going to do,” Sheffield recalls, “was sell a lot more CDs.”
Life Is Good did not flop, exactly, but neither did it achieve “Summer Girls”–type commercial glory. There is the modest pop-rock hit “Every Other Time,” a peppy song that I had totally forgotten about and yet somehow also remember quite fondly; there are collaborations with both De La Soul and the far more aggressive Brooklyn rap group M.O.P.
“We were so desperate to be respected by people who respected, like, Sugar Ray or ‘All Star,’” Fischetti recalls. He has few fond memories from this period, full of personal dysfunction and stylistic overreach. “We went a little too far on trying to be more rock-y, you know what I mean?”
A history of turn-of-the-century pop music filtered through LFO’s “Summer Girls” does, indeed, involve entering a universe where the most important album of 1999 is not The Slim Shady LP or Enema of the State or Californication but, instead, Sugar Ray’s 14:59, whose very title winks at Andy Warhol’s possibly apocryphal quote about everyone in the future getting 15 minutes of fame. Sugar Ray started off in the mid-’90s as proto-nü-metal mooks, but then, in 1997, came a breezy, beachy, supremely fluky hit called “Fly,” which changed the band’s trajectory for good. The 14:59 album had likewise breezy hits like “Every Morning” and “Someday.” The group, led by enduring heartthrob frontman Mark McGrath, his graying hair impeccably dyed, returned in July with a new album called, no bullshit, Little Yachty. It’s not always a terrible thing for your fans to decide what kind of music you make.
“I’m realizing that Rich brought up Sugar Ray quite a bit,” Dow Brain says. “Like, ‘Yeah, I want to do stuff like that, ’cause they have a band.’ He was into kinda going into that direction more than being like the Backstreet Boys or ’NSync.”
Instead, LFO went on hiatus, and Cronin was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005. ‘’That was the psychological slap,” he told The Boston Globe that year, describing an early hospital visit. ‘’It is the antithesis of being a star. People used to say, ‘Oh, that’s the “Summer Girls” guy’ or ‘That’s the guy who went out with [Jennifer] Love Hewitt.’ Now there’s people looking down at me with a mask on my face because I’m too sick to breathe the air.”
Cronin released his long-gestating solo album, Billion Dollar Sound, in 2008; given the precarious state of his health by that point, the videos are tough watches now. LFO briefly reunited in 2009: “We actually did a little reunion tour the year before he passed,” Fischetti says. “That was good for us. We got a chance to really realize that we loved each other.” But Lima and Fischetti announced the trio’s final, definitive breakup, via YouTube, in September ’09. Cronin died less than a year later.
The final LFO song is called “Perfect 10,” released by Lima and Fischetti in 2017, a trial balloon for a comeback bid meant to honor Cronin’s legacy. “I know Rich loved LFO, and when you love something, you don’t want to see it end,” Fischetti says. “We just wanted to keep the name alive, and go out there and bring some joy to the fans who at this point were moms and dads. They weren’t kids anymore. We had a great time. It was an awesome tour. Successful. We were making plans for the next two rounds.”
And then Lima was diagnosed with Stage 4 adrenal cancer, and died the following year, in November 2018. Fischetti announced that on YouTube, also. It’s an even tougher watch.
It is a testament to the greatness, and above all the lightness, of “Summer Girls” that it hasn’t collapsed beneath all this weight. “Both times I had the same reaction when I got the news,” Sheffield says of Cronin’s and Lima’s deaths. “Which is that I felt sad, and I listened to ‘Summer Girls,’ and then it took about 30 seconds to go back into that zone of like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about, ruby-red slippers and macaroni.’”
For Fischetti, the song likewise endures as a pathos-free time capsule, the sorrow forever subservient to the joy. He has taken solace in his Christian faith, a major component of his recent solo work, even if through that prism, he looks back now on his moderately prurient LFO days with some measure of chagrin. “Some of the lyrics, I’m like, ‘Why on earth would the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon invite us to perform when our album has songs talking about’—certainly, obviously, not cursing, but you know, enough for me as a parent where I wouldn’t let my kids do it,” he says. “Back then we didn’t really think about that. It was just, like, so normal. Everything was very sexualized, you know what I mean? You had to be a boy band, you had to take off your shirt onstage. You had to make the girls scream. It was just very normal, some of the songs on the radio.”
He remembers all those other huge songs too, y’know. “Think about, what was that song?” he says. “‘The Thong Song,’ it was a big song back in those days. What was that guy’s name? I can’t remember his name. Sisqó, yeah. You know, when you listen to R&B, back in those days, holy cow. Even the Backstreet Boys, you know? What’s that song, you know, when he’s like, yeah, ‘Am I sexual?’ ... it’s just, wow. Maybe to the world that’s normal, but I guess to me as a person who’s evolved and has five kids, you know, that’s just, I’m not OK with that.”
It’s chagrin, but not quite remorse: the platonic ideal of how to look back at your youth. “In hindsight, I wish I could change a few things lyrically or in the videos, but it is what it is,” Fischetti says. “If I hadn’t experienced what I experienced, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. I can’t say I regret it.”
Nobody regrets it, is the thing. Spanos has found perhaps the ideal venue for “Summer Girls” in 2019: karaoke. (The best lines, in terms of ebullient karaoke-room reaction, are either “Dad took off when you were 4 years old” or the Kevin Bacon thing.) She says it works whether her audience has never heard the song before, or just hasn’t heard it in 19 or so years.
“Summer Girls” is on one hand hyperspecific to the late ’90s: in its mild boy-band lasciviousness, in its sly white-rapper transgressiveness, in its homemade and less algorithm-driven approach to mass-market pop, and in its commitment to the soft-core suburban-mall aesthetic. Pop radio in 1999 had a disoriented, throw-shit-at-the-wall quality, as though you were cycling rapidly through 15 different stations even if the dial never moved. Nobody knew exactly what worked, which meant, again, that anything might.
LFO’s big hit is cheesy and dated, sure, but its guileless, freewheeling delight fixes it in time to a pop era less strictly fixed in time. And that sense of goofball anarchy has lately come back in style: “Summer Girls” might not have been a hit in 2002, but you can certainly imagine it as a hit in 2019, just like, oh, say, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which Sheffield describes as “arguably the most 1999-sounding song this millennium.”
He means this, of course, as a compliment. “Guy has a great idea—you’ve got a few great ideas,” he continues. “He puts all these great ideas that do not necessarily have anything to do with each other into two minutes or less of total brilliance ... I very much enjoy ‘Old Town Road,’ and among the millions of reasons why is just how much it sounds like that TRL summer.”
It was the best of times. That’s it. It was the best of times.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that “Summer Girls” sampled Extreme’s “More Than Words.”