Mann in the Middle
At first glance, Aimee Mann's return to the airwaves seems like the final scene in some topsy-turvy Hollywood movie. In the mid-'80s, she became an MTV darling as the platinum-blond frontwoman for 'Til Tuesday. After falling from fave-face status, she beat a just-another-pretty-bass-player rap by releasing a pair of critically adored solo discs in the '90s. But as fate (or Joe Eszterhas and his Tinseltown script-writing peers) would have it, Mann's career then suffered a string of setbacks that involved collapsed record labels and mega-mergers. These woes culminated when her latest then-current label, Interscope, refused to release her third solo outing because it lacked, in their words, "hits." Rather than conform to the company's definition of what was acceptable artistic output, Mann refused to dilute her material. Instead, she bought back her record -- and her independence -- in an artistically liberating, though hardly lucrative, move.
Then, just as the lights seemed to fade for the now-freed but unsung Mann, Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson happened upon the recording as it languished unreleased; he later credited it with inspiring the sense of melancholy and confusion, as well as some of the characters, in his film Magnolia. Anderson also made Mann's music the soundtrack to the film, which went on to garner critical acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture. Mann was also nominated for her efforts: Her song, "Save Me" was nominated as "Best Original Song in a Motion Picture." At the awards ceremony in March, Mann sang the tune as the world watched. The lyrics, "You look like a perfect fit for a girl in need of a tourniquet," seemed to characterize Mann herself just two years prior.
It was a Rocky-style comeback, enough to make you reach for a Kleenex to dab the tears from your eyes. But a look at what's happened since reveals a slightly less Hollywood reality. Today Mann is without a label and hustling her finally released CD, Bachelor No. 2, like so many independent artists across America. Don't you love happy endings?
"It cost me a big chunk of money," Mann says from her home in Southern California, "but it was much more costly to stay in that situation. I left the old system because it wasn't working, and the new setup is working. So I'll ride this train until it stops."
It's hard to figure that Mann would find herself in such a station -- having once attained a level of musical and commercial success enjoyed by relatively few working artists. "Voices Carry," the single from 'Til Tuesday's debut, pushed the release to gold-selling status in 1985. Though the band went on to lose commercial steam on its two subsequent releases, Mann gained respect for her songwriting skills, which occasionally paired her with Elvis Costello, Jules Shear and other heavies. After three years of wrangling with Epic ('Til Tuesday's label), Mann marked her freedom with her first solo effort, 1991's Whatever, a solid collection of insightful pop songs that illuminated her melodic and lyrical gifts. In 1995 she released I'm With Stupid (arguably one of the finest pop-rock recordings of the '90s), which got a major boost when one of its songs, "That's Just What You Are," appeared on a soundtrack from the television show Beverly Hills, 90210. That cut and a couple more from Stupid received radio attention. Music scribes were again raving about Mann's brainy mix of gooey, guitar-driven rockers and tender ballads -- songs that were enhanced by Sgt. Peppery/ Beatlesesque touches and up-to-date studio mastery from Mann and producer Jon Brion.
But when Geffen (which released Stupid) was sold to Interscope, the deal meant trouble for Mann and other artists. "New people come in," Mann says, "and they think the way to make money is to make every artist on the label sound as commercial as possible. Then you're stuck with it, even though when you signed to the label there were a whole different set of numbers expected. The Magnolia soundtrack sold 300,000 units domestically," she adds, "but they don't care about that. If it's not selling at least a million records, they're not interested in it. But that many units is a significant amount of records to me, and if I sell that many, I can actually make a living. And I'm happy to take it."
Mann's first attempts at racking up her own sales totals came in February, when she released Bachelor No. 2 as an Internet-only offering, a well-timed move considering the buzz then circulating around Magnolia. Since May, the disc has been in stores thanks to a distribution deal with RED ("Just like a real record," Mann notes), and it shows that Mann's craft hasn't suffered for her travails. While it trades some of the guitar-crunch and power-pop hooks of Stupid for a softer, Burt Bacharach-ish sound, it features plenty of Mann-style trademarks. She wraps her soft-shelled voice around often-visceral verbal stabs; her lyrics are delivered in a cool fashion that elevates the smart-bomb effect of her couplets. In "How Am I Different," the singer makes it clear she's not falling for any one-man show designed with the bed as the final act. "When you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?" the singer asks. "Red Vines" (Bachelor's single) is a bittersweet pop treasure: a Carpenters-style melody beefed-up by muted crunch and percolating drum loops. "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist" continues Mann's successful collaborations with Elvis Costello, and "Ghost World" is a teen-angst masterpiece hung on irresistible hooks.
The disc also includes choice cuts from the Magnolia soundtrack, including "Driving Sideways," "You Do" and "Deathly," a don't-work-on-me warning that brims with killer lines. "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?" Mann sings, a line that director Anderson used verbatim in his script. As the guitars rise up behind her, the singer ponders the sunny possibilities of giving in: "You're on your honor, 'cause I'm a goner, and you haven't even begun," Mann seethes, "So do me a favor if I should waver, be my savior, get out the gun." Ouch. Bachelor also includes a number of lines that could as easily be aimed at pea-brained record execs as purloining lovers. But branding these songs business diatribes is something Mann warns against.
"I write about relationship dynamics that can be applied to a lot of different relationships," Mann says, "and I don't want people to think, 'This is about the record company,' because that limits your enjoyment of a song. My goal is to try to know how I feel about something, and it's really for my own benefit. I see an interesting situation that I find a friend in, a situation I was in once, and I want to know why it is and what motivated me when I was in the same situation. Why is it a problem to see the reality of it? Why can't it change?" Besides, she notes of any possible record-company connection in her songs, "there were a handful of people that I found to be really reprehensible. But there were many more who were creative, courageous and real believers. It's a pity, because we all get chewed up by the same things."
Now that she is out of the maw of the majors, Mann is securing her indie niche. (She has turned down a few offers from labels.) Mann and her new husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, have joined forces with Mann's manager, Michael Housman, to create United Musicians, a collective of support staff designed to allow fellow artist-owned labels to share marketing and management services. (Penn is now in the process of buying his own freedom back from his current label.) To make things work now, Mann says, "we have to have extra help and depend on the kindness of strangers in a lot of ways. And we have to come up with new ideas."
The couple's latest idea is Acoustic Vaudeville, which Mann and Penn bring to town this week. The concept arose from shows they performed at a small club in Los Angeles, during which they would trade songs and back each other up. The two now employ a comedian to handle the required stage banter and between-songs repartee fans expect at a show. The professional gabber, Mann says, offers wry comments and observations while allowing Mann, Penn and their supporting musicians to do what they do best.
"Once we started doing this it was so entertaining for us that we just couldn't go back," Mann says. "It makes for a really fun show and it also helps introduce the idea to people that even though we write songs that seem very serious, we do have a sense of humor. And it makes a nice counterpart. One of the benefits of being without the protection of a major label," she adds, "is that you can do whatever you want. We're trying to come up with different ideas that make it fun. There's an element of creativity that you can have when you're not on a label, to think of alternative ways to market yourself. You don't have to follow the same practices and rules of major labels." Mann says she is now considering creating a commercial for public-access television to push her product. She continues to market Bachelor over the Web with some success; the recording was just voted "Best Internet-Only" CD by a trade organization, beating out the Who and a few other acts for the honor.
But she's hardly through jousting with the powers that be. Mann has just added her name to a list of songwriters and performers alligned with Artists Against Piracy, which is fighting the royalty-free downloading of unauthorized material. "I was kind of on the fence and almost in favor of Napster," Mann says. "But when I start hearing people say that music ought to be free, that's a call for war. You're trying to take my living away from me. To you, it's just a record, it's some songs. To me, it's my living. The point where I started to get really angry was when I realized that not just singles here and there were showing up, but whole albums and live concerts of mine would appear. And that stuff is not for publication. I play a show, that's between me and the audience, that night. Do not take it out of context. In one way," she adds, "Napster is very good in helping people get exposure to new music. I just think that it should be at the artist's discretion."
Part of the dilemma with Napster, she figures, is that downloaders think their Web time hurts only the same record companies that have given Mann so much hell. But unauthorized downloads, she says, "hurt people like me. Name any giant artist -- Britney Spears, for example. She gets money up front from whatever label she's with. I don't get that. I have to dip into my savings account to make my record, to promote my record, to go on tour. And there is no other source of income for me. And I think it's obnoxious, the idea that, 'Well, you can just go do something else.' Or that somehow some people have too much money: 'We've decided to just end your income now, because you've earned enough.' Why do you get to decide that?"
What's more, Mann notes, in the unlikely event that music sharing elevates to the point that the royalty system is overhauled, the end user will be the real loser. The only recording acts left, she says, will be the kind she has worked to set herself apart from. "Think about the kind of music you're going to get if the only people who are producing music are willing to do it for free," she asks. "You're going to get people who will do anything just to get attention. And people who think that giving it away is merely one step toward getting a major-label deal. And major labels will take advantage of that, and they'll be the only ones left, because they're the only ones big enough to fight these kinds of things or overcome them by sheer volume."
That's a nightmarish picture, all right, as disturbing as the dreck the big boys keep putting out. And while it's doubtful such a dilemma might become reality, it's at least cause for concern. "I'll still write music and I'll play it for myself," she says, "but I can't afford to do it for free; you have to dedicate your life to making music. And I don't know what else I can do; it's not like I have my real-estate license or something. But believe me, I'll come up with something."
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