One of the things I’m most grateful for about the Rabbit Room is the opportunity it affords me to have conversations about some of my more self-indulgent enthusiasms. Take, for instance, today’s specimen: the music of Aimee Mann.
The first pastor I ever worked for, who was also my mentor, shared an old, hackneyed proverb with me once, but with his own fresh twist: “Jason, it’s true that while you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make him drink,” he said, and then pausing to let the next statement gather some heat… “But you can make him thirsty,” he said with a sly grin, pleasurably anticipating the reveal: “you can make him thirsty by mixing salt into his oats.”
This folksy wisdom has stayed with me all these years and remains a guiding philosophy in my ministry. It’s only the thirsty who want drink, and helping awaken people to their thirst can accomplish more than throwing a cup of unwanted water in their face – even if it is living water.
And this brings me to the music of Aimee Mann. Besides being immensely gifted, I always experience her music as a profound kind of primer for the gospel, asking the kind of questions that the gospel is eager to answer.
To my knowledge, Mann doesn’t share my faith, and I wouldn’t recommend her as a “Christian artist” (whatever that means – I imagine this would be a good topic for a future post), and yet her music–to my mind–holds a certain kind of value because of its truth-telling, a kind of truth-telling that to me feels like salting the oats – even if this is not her intent. In fact, Mann says she “believes in a higher power” but feels “no pressure to figure it out” (a disappointing and, in my opinion, intellectually flawed sentiment from someone as intelligent as Mann–I would have hoped for more from the writer who penned this great lyric: they don’t give the answers at the end of the test / so you can’t simply stand there and hope for the best…). And yet I agree with her on the part of the equation she does have figured out and often writes about. So there is enough truth in her music for me to enjoy her formidable song-craft without my inner lie detector going off at every turn.
Rich Mullins is famously quoted as reminding us that God spoke to Balaam through an ass, and he still speaks through asses today, so we don’t necessarily have to think too highly of ourselves if God chooses to speak through us. This was, of course, Rich’s delightful way of saying that God can use anybody he wishes–with or without their permission. I feel humbled and grateful to have been told on occasion that I’m one of those asses.
(Aimee–if you happen to come upon this article, please know that I’m not calling you an ass. I just mean to say that though I could admire you for your giftedness alone, I’ve also been delighted to find so many places where your observations and my Christian convictions have converged unpredictably.)
Few artists have so consistently and truthfully written such an eloquent description of the human condition with such hipster elegance. Mann’s truths are more often than not sad ones–about alienation, fear, prodigals all running away from home–but they are truths that might make you thirsty. Consider this poignant lyric from the song she wrote for the soundtrack of P.T. Anderson’s film Magnolia:
You look like
The perfect fit (ah, a sweet song of romantic love–but wait, here comes the twist!…)
For a girl in need
Of a tourniquet
Can you save me?
Can you save me?
Oh won’t you save me?
From the ranks of the freaks who suspect
They could never love anyone…
(“Save Me” from Magnolia)
Mann’s genius is the way she is able to tap into the motivations of the heart and her songs are populated with characters whose loneliness and brokenness drive them into addictive and self-destructive behaviors, circling the impact site of what I understand as “The Fall”. These hopeless idolatries are not romanticized but revealed as the broken things that they are, affirming Paul’s famous tongue-twisting confession in Romans 7 that he doesn’t do what he wants to, but what he doesn’t want to do, he does. In an interview Mann says:
“I’m fascinated with the idea of addiction because it’s so counter-intuitive. Surely your behaviour should be one of those things that you really can control? But I started going to open AA meetings a few years ago, to listen to people talk, and just had this realisation of, ‘Oh–they really can’t stop.’ Even if you know alcoholism’s a disease, you sort of think, ‘Well, if they really tried to stop…’
“But they truly can’t. It’s a real paradox that in the 12-step program, the first step is that you’re supposed to admit that you’re powerless over it. Western society is based on the idea of will power, even in a Polly Anna-ish of way: the idea that if you set your mind to it, you can do anything! And it just isn’t true. You aren’t that powerful and it’s self-aggrandizing to think you are. As soon as you stop thinking that you are, you start to have a better chance.”
A song that to me always epitomized this sentiment is called “The King Of The Jailhouse” from her record The Forgotten Arm–a concept record that chronicles the journey of two broken characters, a man and a woman, who in their loneliness look for hope and healing in each other.
The king of the jailhouse
And the queen of the road
Think that sharing the burden
Will lighten the load…
So wake me up at the border
When we reach Mexico
I’ll tell you a secret
That I don’t even know
Baby there’s something wrong with me
Baby there’s something wrong with me
That I can’t see…
(“King Of The Jailhouse” from The Forgotten Arm)
To Mann’s credit, she doesn’t sell us the idea that these two deeply broken characters can somehow solve the problem of each other’s loneliness. Two wounded people rarely make a healthy relationship–they make a hospital.
Instead, she speaks the simple truth about the secret that we don’t even know: “baby there’s something wrong with me that I can’t see.” As a follower of Christ I understand that “secret something” as sin, and this song has always seemed to me to be a prime example of how her songwriting brings us to the doorstep of the gospel, salting the oats and making us feel our thirst.
Some writers fall in love with their own depression, romanticizing their dysfunction, even glorying in it. But Mann’s work, while often melancholy, manages to mine such intimate themes of brokenness without becoming utterly depressing and nihilistic. It’s a wonder to me that she’s able to delve as deep into the darkness of the human problem while writing songs that rarely succumb to the darkness themselves. That she marries such potent themes to such delightful melodies is quite an accomplishment. Her songs sing like perfect little chilled-out pop gems.
Another potent lyric unmasking the Hollywood fallacy that the love of another person can fix what’s broken in us goes like this:
So baby kiss me like a drug, like a respirator
And let me fall into the dream of the astronaut
Where I get lost in space that goes on forever
And you make all the rest just an afterthought
And I believe it’s you who could make me better
Though it’s not
No, it’s not…
(“It’s Not” from Lost In Space)
We have been told by pop culture that romantic love can fix us, but if Mann tells us this isn’t so, it begs the question: “What can fix us? And if my loneliness can’t be fixed by the presence of someone else, then what is it that’s broken in me that needs fixing? And Who, in God’s name, can fix it?”
Salt in the oats.
But it’s not only what Mann is saying that captures my imagination, but the way she says it. This girl can write the heck out of a song! Let me throw a few lyrics at you that to me exemplify how literate and capable of a writer she is and the sure handle she has of her craft:
About the futility of telling the truth to people who don’t really want to hear it:
Cause I don’t have the bribery in place
No bright shiny surface to my face
So I won’t go near the marketplace
With what I’m selling lately…
(“This Is How It Goes” from Lost In Space)
People are tricky, you can’t afford to show
Anything risky, anything they don’t know
The moment you try, well kiss it goodbye…
(“It’s Not” from Lost In Space)
Or about co-dependency as a kind of addiction:
We have crossed the Rubicon
Our ship awash, our rudder gone
The rats have fled but I’m hanging on
Let me try, baby try
Baby please, let me begin
Let me be your heroine
Hate the sinner, but love the sin
Let me be your heroine…
(“High On Sunday 51” from Lost In Space)
About the determination to stay committed to a losing cause:
The moth don’t care if the flame is real
Cause moth and flame have got a sweetheart deal
And nothing fuels a good flirtation
Like need and anger and desperation
No the moth don’t care if the flame is real…
(“The Moth” from Lost In Space)
About the fear of love and letting your guard down:
So don’t work your stuff
because I’ve got troubles enough
no, don’t pick on me
when one act of kindness could be
(“Deathly” from Magnolia)
About the aftershocks of breakup:
Like a balloon with nothing for ballast
Labeled like a bottle for Alice
Drink me or I’ll drown in a sea of giants
And tell me, “baby, baby I love you”
It’s non-stop memories of you
It’s like a video of you playing
It’s all loops of seven-hour kisses,
Cut with a couple of near-misses
Back to the scene of the actor saying:
“Tell me baby, baby, why do I feel so bad?”
(“Video” from The Forgotten Arm)
Or check out further evidence of her command of language and imagery in this lyric about the false self we’re tempted to bring to people:
I won’t find it fantastic or think it absurd
When the gun in the first act goes off in the third
‘Cause it’s rare that you ever know what to expect
From a guy made of corpses with bolts in his neck
If the creature is limping the parts are in place
With a mind of its own and a fist for a face
Say hello to your new creation
Now it’s better than real
It’s a real imitation…
(“Frankenstein” from I’m With Stupid)
Here’s a great little lyrical gem from a song she wrote about a doctor friend of hers who would take his Maserati down the freeway to the part of LA where he’d buy the drugs to feed the addiction that was destroying his life:
“The road to Orange County leaves an awful lot of leeway…
You’ve got a lot of money but you can’t afford the freeway…”
(“Freeway” from @#%&*! Smilers)
(I might add that this lyric agrees with Paul’s assertion that what we think of as freedom to do what we want, to follow the god of our stomach, becomes a vicious kind of tyranny–the road to our destruction leaves an awful lot of leeway… a pseudo-freedom that can enslave us.)
Mann’s difficulties with the music business are well documented and in some of her songs she alludes to the unfortunate experiences she’s suffered at the hands of various record labels:
Guys like me
We look good at the gate
But you’ll agree
With the odds on the slate
And put your money
On a bona fide heavy weight
And take it off guys like me…
And listen to this transparent confession of one of the inner conflicts about being an artist:
[We] pull you close
But never really
But feeling chilly
You’ll describe us as “impassioned”
When it’s just a front we’ve fashioned…
(“Guys Like Me” from Lost In Space)
Another song of alienation mined from her experience as an outsider artist who is no longer the darling of the pop charts:
“It must be hard ringing the bells of doors that don’t swing wide anymore
It must be hard hearing the sound of voices just inside of the door”
(“Ballantines” from @#%&*! Smilers)
That such sad songs would be written with such melodic sweetness is another part of what makes Mann’s music so satisfying for me. It is a pleasure to enjoy an artist so deft and adept, both lyrically and musically. I envy her craft.
In the era of digital music when iTunes reigns supreme (even I’ve succumbed and get almost all of my music digitally now), Aimee Mann makes records you want to hold. Few make artwork and packaging as engaging as Mann does and it’s a music geek’s dream. Lost In Space (my personal favorite Aimee Mann record) comes with a tiny comic strip booklet relating a kind of parallel story that complements the musical journey. With The Forgotten Arm she offered an oversized comic kind of book with gorgeous illustrations that evoked a 50’s pulp kind of vibe–a pictorial depiction of each song with the accompanying lyrics that tell the story of the illustrations. It’s so cool! It actually won the grammy that year for best artwork package (check out this music video made from the illustrations). And her most recent record, @#$*! Smilers, came in a specially bound book with vibey 30’s style illustrations and a package that is the coolest I’ve ever seen for a CD. Half the time I buy her records for the packaging and artwork alone.
These records have a very old-school sentiment – encouraging us to do more than just download the songs we think we’ll like. She asks us to buy into the whole experience , engaging the artwork, going on a journey. For the loving care with which she champions the traditional Long Play album, I am grateful and applaud her.
On a different note, Mann is as interesting as the music she writes. Some may recognize her as the voice behind “Voices Carry” – the hit by ‘Til Tuesday from the 80’s. She led the charge of championing indie artists in the 90’s, being one of the first artists to figure out how to bypass major labels, starting her own SuperEgo Records. She is married to Michael Penn, an accomplished musician himself and brother to Hollywood royal Sean Penn. She’s had several TV and film cameos like in The Big Lebowski where she plays the German Nihilist who sacrifices her toe in a ridiculous kidnapping plot. Also, P.T. Anderson’s acclaimed film Magnolia was actually inspired and then written around Aimee Mann’s demos that Anderson heard, later becoming the soundtrack to the film. Anderson is such a fan that he wrote her lyrics into the dialogue between the characters. Mann’s album The Forgotten Arm was born out of her latest hobby: boxing. The forgotten arm is a boxing term for when you’re getting pummeled by the one arm of your opponent, and it makes you forget about the other arm that comes and takes you by surprise with an even harsher blow. She’s shown up at gigs with black eyes she’s gotten from sparring partners like her producer Joe Henry. Most intriguing about all this is her dream of boxing Bob Dylan, who is also a hobby boxer.
(One more tid-bit of trivia for those of you who might be fans of my music–the bridge for my song “Blessed Be” was directly inspired by Mann’s descending progression that precedes the verses of her song “Choice In The Matter”)
So, there you have it: those are some of the reasons why I’m a fan of the music of Aimee Mann (though, admittedly if I’m in a dark mood I’ll tend to abstain from her work). For my money there are few songwriters as capable and interesting as Mann who pull it off in a way that makes it sound so easy and makes me go, “Whoa, how’d she just do that?” Though I feel reticent about making an unqualified recommendation–I suspect some Christians might be offended by some of her songs – her music insightfully tells the truth about fallen human nature and our slavish devotion to things that will break our hearts, a malady that I understand as sin. In this way, her music to me is a good example of “salt in the oats”–the kind of songs you might play a person before playing them a song by Jill Phillips, Sara Groves, or Andrew Peterson or (insert your favorite Christ-centered lyrical singer/songwriter here).
To dip your toe in pool and see if you want to dive in, here’s a playlist of some of my personal favorite Aimee Mann songs:
Save Me (from Magnolia)
Video (from The Forgotten Arm)
That’s Just What You Are (from I’m With Stupid)
It’s Not (from Lost In Space)
Guys Like Me (from Lost In Space)
Choice In The Matter (from I’m With Stupid)
Amateur (from I’m With Stupid)
Freeway (from @#$*! Smilers)
The Moth (from Lost In Space)
You’re With Stupid Now (from I’m With Stupid)
Jason recommends: Lost In Space was the album that solidified me as a fan. Some call it a downer record, but production is atmospheric and beautiful to me – rich, ambient guitar tones lead the way for this really chilled, vibey, and literate record.
Here’s the “Save Me” music video from the movie Magnolia (Pete Peterson and I had a conversation about what we loved about this movie and you can read that post here)
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".