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21st Century Mann

music feature

Voices of the ’80s carry through Aimee Mann’s latest solo release

There’s a reason Aimee Mann came in at No. 1 on Cracked.com’s list of “5 One-Hit Wonders Who Deserve Your Respect.” In the almost three decades since she and her New Wave/pop band ’Til Tuesday made a permanent mark on pop culture with the hit song “Voices Carry,” the renowned rock singer/songwriter/guitarist/bassist has put out eight solo albums, played for President Barack Obama at the White House, earned Oscar and Grammy nominations for her song “Save Me,” and been named “one of the top 10 living songwriters along with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen” (NPR) as well as “one of the finest songwriters of her generation” (New York Times). But no amount of accolades can trump a potent cultural meme: To many, Mann will always be that lady with the cool hair who stood up and sang in a movie theater at the end of the “Voices Carry” video. 

Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Mann’s new video for the song “Labrador” is a shot-for-shot remake of the iconic “Voices Carry” clip, which chronicled the tribulations of a woman being stifled by a domineering lover. While the remake is more tongue-in-cheek than the original video, it’s a wholly appropriate choice, considering that both “Labrador” and “Voices Carry” are sung from the perspective of an individual in an unhealthy relationship.

Mann admits that her insights on unsupportive mates come from past experiences. “You see the warning signs, but it’s hard to know exactly what they’re pointing to,” she notes. “Is it that the person’s troubled, but they’re working through it, or is it that they’re a sociopath, and you’re just being completely jerked around? Those things don’t look that different.”

The “Labrador” clip is just one example of the ’80s seeping into Mann’s latest output: The bright synth sounds on her new album, Charmer, hearken back to the days when The Cars and Blondie ruled the charts. Mann says the record’s upbeat sound comes from her reminiscences of the pop music that made an impression on her as a kid. But she was in for a surprise when she revisited that music. “The stuff in the ’80s sounded so revolutionary, and you go back and realize that Blondie was just sort of a basic, semi-sloppy rock band—in a good way—with a synthesizer thrown in there sometimes,” she observes. “The drum sounds, the guitar sounds, even the approach to playing—there was nothing out of the ordinary at all. I just thought it was really interesting that you retain this impression that’s not really borne out by the reality.”

As with past Mann albums, Charmer’s lyrical content consists largely of character studies. “I’m not trying to write 100 percent fiction—you know, people I completely don’t understand or have never encountered,” she notes. “It’s usually based on observing people that I know or a situation that I’ve found myself involved in.”

Narcissists and phonies play starring roles in Charmer’s title track, as well as in “Living a Lie,” a duet with The Shins’ James Mercer. Mann explains that these songs were born of her fascination with the importance that people place on appearances, “to the extent where they get cut off from a sense of their real self, and they develop this false self that can be very interesting and very charming, but also very easily wounded and very easily deflated.”

The video for “Charmer” takes the concept of a false self to extremes: To avoid road burnout, Mann sends a robot double of herself (played by actress Laura Linney) to tour in her place. From one standpoint, the robot in the clip can be seen as a metaphor for a stage persona that eclipses the performer’s true self. While Mann acknowledges that this interpretation coincides with director Tom Scharpling’s original intent, she claims the video is not a self-portrait. In fact, if we’re to believe her, she has no stage persona whatsoever. “I wish I did,” she says. “I think it’s easier on people. For me, I just go out there and hope I’m able to talk a little bit and not feel really awkward.”


Aimee Mann plays at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 423-8209.
Photo Credit: Sheryl Nields

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