Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix The Fate Of Mann

Why Aimee can't get no respect

By Wayne Robins

JUNE 5, 2000:  These are tough times for smart rock-and-roll women. And Aimee Mann is still stuck with stupid.

Stupid, of course, is the record business, which Mann appears to believe, with good reason, has put her on the fringe. Once the great blonde hope of educated, romantic underachievers, Mann recently released her third solo album, Bachelor No. 2, or the last remains of the dodo, on her own SuperEgo label after putting it out as an Internet-only disc.

This is not what the former 'til Tuesday popster and Boston cult star had in mind when she began working on it more than two years ago. But in the interim, the music industry once and for all dropped any pretense of being about music when Seagram, which owns Universal's recordings division, bought PolyGram and its myriad assortment of labels so it could kick sand in the face of BMG, Sony, and Warners and become the planet's neighborhood bully. Mann's anticipated base, Geffen, was gutted along with artist-friendly A&M and forced into a shotgun wedding with high-riding, hip-hopping, hard-rocking Interscope. One fallout from the unhappy nuptials was that Mann's album suffered the indignity of being rejected by the new bosses for its deficient dowry -- the lack of readily remunerative hits.

No one should have had any illusions about Mann's marriage to the mainstream even before the shareholder replaced the consumer as the industry's target audience. Her first solo album, Whatever, was lost in the 1993 dissolution of Imago Records. And its well-reviewed follow-up, I'm with Stupid, which Geffen released in 1995, enhanced her prestige without doing much damage to the charts.

Mann and Geffen, or Interscope, or any major label, are less suited to each other in the year 2000 than Rudy Giuliani and Donna Hanover. In a music-business cycle obsessed with youth (and the youther the better), it's as regrettable as it is unavoidable to have to point out that Aimee Mann is old enough to be Britney Spears's mother. And so there's something disquietingly sour about Bachelor No. 2. A suffocatingly "poor me" aura oppresses this melodic yet vitriolic, Beatles-in-a-bad-mood album about the treacherous two-facedness of the music business. On the heels of her good fortune in being the musical driving force on the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, which resulted in an unexpected Oscar nomination for Best Song, Mann has become "the martyred poster child for axed artists," as Entertainment Weekly put it. Although the point has been made that many of her most spiteful songs could be about any romantic relationship, you'd have to be a dodo yourself to relate the bulk of Bachelor No. 2 to anything but the Biz's jackals in Armani jackets.

Jory Farr's 1994 music-industry exposé Madmen and Moguls features one amusing story in which the (somewhat unbalanced) female singer of one of Geffen's unsuccessful early-'90s signings (Nymphs) expresses her displeasure with her A&R man in a unique way: she recites the names of the members of the group while urinating atop the A&R guy's desk. Mann's anger is less demonstrative but just as palpable. In Bachelor No. 2's opening tune, "How Am I Different," which she wrote with guitarist and producer Jon Brion (a long-time collaborator), Mann defines her position as the round peg being forced into the label's square hole. "I can't do it, and as for you/Can you in good conscience even ask me to?" she inquires bitterly. The next tune is also sung from the perspective of an artist being asked to compromise; "Nothing is good enough for people like you," she sings, adding, "critics at their worst could never criticize the way that you do." It's worth mentioning that critics have generally cosseted Mann, especially during her solo career.

Hasn't Mann been working this "I oughta be a star" territory for a long time? Most listeners probably thought that "Put Me on Top," from Whatever, was tongue in cheek. "I should be riding in a float on the hit parade/Instead of standing on the curb behind the barricade," she sang then. In retrospect, the song makes Bachelor No. 2 seem more desperate than honorable.

In addition to collaborating with Brion, Mann also teams up with Elvis Costello for the first time since the late 1980s on one entertaining song. "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist" is notable both for its cheerfulness and for its gymnastic rhyme of "balustrade" and "passing trade." (The duo also wrote "The Other End of the Telescope," which was recorded by both 'til Tuesday and Costello back in the Reagan/Bush era.) But the song's cleverness only highlights a failing of her own material. Costello has always used his wit as a channel for his rage against the music machine or rancorous lovers, or both. Mann commits rhymes with the obsessiveness of a crackhead on the last draw of the pipe.

Her aim is true as to the sound -- she's revealed that she was aiming for a something similar to Dionne Warwick's classic Bacharach recordings. Perhaps that accounts for the astral (not to mention aural) presence of Costello's recent collaborator Burt Bacharach, both in the twisting melodies and as a literal image. "I would like to keep this vision of you intact/When we'd hang around and listen to Bacharach," she sings in the brutally vengeful "It Takes All Kinds." But her lyrics lack Costello's grace or Hal David's peerless sophistication. She's too pissed off to be polite. Even "You Do," a song presuming to be supportive of a friend, has a meanness to it: "The sex you're trading up for what you hope is love is just another thing that he'll be careless of," she sings. That's right, Aimee: you just called your pal a slut.

Let's set aside the idea that Mann's artfully crafted attitude makes her perhaps the most judgmental and vindictive pop artist since Bob Dylan got over what was bugging him on "Positively Fourth Street" 35 short years ago. Although she's closer in talent and accomplishment to Patty Smyth than to Patti Smith, Mann is an intelligent, serious woman committed to the craft of musicmaking. And even paranoids have enemies. It's an understatement to say that the business these days is looking in a different direction, especially when it comes to women. Mann, Lucinda Williams, Joan Osborne, and others must feel the way Janet Reno says she did negotiating with Elián's Miami relatives: the biz keeps moving the goalposts until they're virtually beyond reach. The formats that used to demarcate pop music's various categories -- AOR (album-oriented rock), A/C (adult contemporary), AAA (adult alternative album), and others -- are all but defunct. For female artists, there's only one category that matters. I call it Diva Oriented Pop for the Exuberantly Young, or DOPEY.

The stars of DOPEY are easily identified by their brand names, which inevitably suffer from mono-nomenclature-osis: Mariah, Whitney, Diana, Cher, Brandy, Tina. Coke. Pepsi. Recordings and concerts are marketing events, as fake as canned laughter. Come back, Milli Vanilli, all is forgiven.

The Internet-traumatized biz has devolved farther beneath the measuring of talent or musical quality than at any time since the days when glossy pix in teen magazines could make hits of "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." It sometimes seems that for the DOPEY format no one's even writing songs anymore, not if you listen to the filler that pads out albums by Britney and Christina and the rest.

Labels have long since forced musical steroid supplements like song doctors Diane Warren and Desmond Child upon artists like Joan Jett, Aerosmith, and Bon Jovi in an effort to bulk up their airplay profile. (In Mann's current bio, she complains that during the 'til Tuesday years, Epic tried to foist Warren on her as well.) Lame as Warren's histrionics may be, today's pop makes her most formulaic sludge sound like Cole Porter. The DOPEY format is fed, appropriately enough, by Songs That Undermine Pop's Intelligent Dimension, or STUPID.

In this creative climate, Mann's craftsmanship makes her something of an alien, but she's not alone. Lucinda Williams (whose poetic twang Mann seems to be imitating, perhaps unconsciously, on much of Bachelor No. 2) and Joan Osborne are two other widely admired artists who've gotten used to being shafted by the system. In Williams's case, she's been damned from the start of her career by the standard too-arty-for-Nashville/too-country-for-pop conundrum. Her 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, was her first in five years, the first for a major label (Mercury). It took exactly one year but it went gold. Will what's left of venerable Mercury (mugged by Seagram into an unholy alliance with Def Jam and Island) get behind Lucinda once again?

If Joan Osborne's recent experiences are any indication, the current situation does not augur well for Williams. Acclaimed as a New York bar singer with soulful pipes and debatable commercial potential, Osborne made her major-label debut for Mercury, or rather the boutique Blue Gorilla label operated by producer/A&R executive Rick Chertoff. Released in 1995, Relish went on to sell more than three million copies. Osborne has developed a devoted following for her live concerts and has since recorded on projects with everyone from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Bob Dylan. However, Seagram's Def Jam/Island/Mercury saw the same paucity of hits on her still-unreleased follow-up that it did on Bachelor No. 2. So now Osborne is shopping for a label too, with new producer Mitchell Froom: perhaps Mann should sign her to SuperEgo.

Or maybe Joan, Aimee, and Lucinda should team up. Forming "Trio" rejuvenated the work of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, to name three luminous talents for whom the record business no longer has much use, at least as individuals.

Joan, Aimee, and Lucinda: they could call themselves JAL. Maybe they could get Japan Air Lines to be their corporate sponsor, with their own headset channel on the airlines' in-flight entertainment system. In the era of DOPEY radio and STUPID songs, that may be the only way they'll ever get any airplay.

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