It’s hard to imagine Aimee Mann vegging out on the couch in yoga pants and flip-flops and watching cheesy reality TV. She’s far too bookish for that pursuit—too witty and droll, too reserved and intellectual, with an untold number of exquisitely written songs to her name and famously short one little toe with green nail polish (The Big Lebowski is a documentary, right?). But Mann admits to enjoying a handful of unscripted series. “I like Intervention types of shows that get more into the deeper psychology of disturbed people,” she says. “And Hoarders. I wouldn’t call it a favorite because it’s pretty hard to watch.”
While not necessarily opposed to the concept of the genre, Mann believes that reality TV has subtly reshaped our psyche, turning viewers into introverted extroverts—always looking out for No. 1, always in it for themselves—and that idea shaped the songs on her new album, Charmer. “Obviously a lot of people in the entertainment business are going to be reasonably narcissistic and enjoy talking about themselves. That goes without saying,” she explains. “But I think there’s an extra piece of narcissism that’s been encouraged by reality TV. On all of those shows, there’s always like, I’m here to win and I’m the best. Even on a show like Project Runway, people are expected to say they should win and they’re rewarded for it. ‘I did all the work. I’m better than this guy.’ You see them fight against it. They’re friends. But it’s almost like this is the American way. Throw the other guy under the bus.”
This new narcissism inspired the new album’s title track, which in turn set the tone for the songs that follow. Against a groove that sounds like Prius revving its engines for a drag race, “Charmer” buzzes and bristles with catchy keyboards. The synths and guitar high-five each other constantly and Mann sings about a guy (surely it’s a guy) who turns on the charm but is ultimately “a victim of social hypnosis like everyone else.” He seems like someone we all know, even if it takes a while for the cracks in his charming façade to show. “I know a lot of people like that and I’m always trying to figure out what’s the difference between charming and self-centered. When does it become selfish or manipulative?”
Remarkably, the song was written with a particular person in mind—a close friend she says is “charming in a very nice way.” However, “my impulse is always to make it a little darker. And then I felt bad that I told my friend that he had inspired the song, because it’s not very nice.” It’s a lyrically barbed song, peppered with dark lines like “When you’re a charmer, you hate yourself,” and Mann’s dry delivery only reinforces the impression of the title character as a master manipulator, a creature spawned by the era of reality TV. A listener might wish for his comeuppance in the last verse—a disfiguring accident perhaps, or simply his manipulation at the hands of an even more masterful manipulator—but Mann is more interested in see what makes this guy tick. It’s a pop song as pathology, one that opens a window into our postmillennial age.
To soundtrack these songs about me-first narcissists, Mann and her band—including bass player and producer Paul Bryan—looked to the Me Decade for inspiration. Charmer binges on ”‘70s pop” laserbeam keyboards riffs, starburst synth effects, even guitar solos. The tempos pulse at a quicker clip than on her past few albums; the electric guitar takes greater prominence. There are drums.
“The late ‘60s to mid ‘70s and beyond was really a great era for a certain kind of pop songwriting,” Mann explains. “It’s very structured and the sections are very specifically identified. When I think of classic pop songs, that’s what I think of.” In that regard, Mann has been drawing from this period throughout her career. She may have been fronting punk groups in the late ‘70s and she might have had a huge New Wave hit in the mid-‘80s (Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”), but her songwriting has always plumbed the classic mode, with solidly defined verses and choruses determined by the narrow range of that impeccable voice.
“I was also interested in that period where rock bands first discovered synthesizer sounds and were really curious about how to incorporate them into the music. There are certain bands that I think of as being New Wave bands with heavy synthesizer sounds, but when I went back to listen, I realized that they’re just basic rock bands that stuck a synth on top. It was such a new sound that it categorized the songs in a very different way.”
It’s not hard to hear the influence of early Blondie, Split Enz and The Cars—what Mann calls the “triumvirate”—on new songs like “Living a Lie” (which features a duet with The Shins’ James Mercer) and “Gumby” (which she says was partly inspired by Hoarders). And it won’t be hard to hear the difference when she tours behind the album. For her last few tours, Mann has taken a minimal line-up on the road and played largely acoustic sets. Charmer demands a very different approach.
“Most of my tours in the last few years have been without drums,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played with a full band with electric guitar. Between the five of us—bass and drums and two keyboard players, one who double on electric guitar—we’ve got to be able to cover a lot of ground on these songs. But those guys are like octopi. They’re pretty amazing.”
What may become even more apparent onstage—it’s certainly apparent on the album—is that Mann, so quick with an incisive comment or a self-deprecating joke, is actually pretty charming herself. Does she see some of herself in her characters? Of course: “You always write about things that you can relate to on some level.” But her charm comes across as much more benign than her title character’s, much more curious albeit slightly more introverted. “When does taking care of yourself turn into trampling all over people? When does giving turn into being a doormat? Those are always interesting themes to me, so it’s natural that they come up in songs. But it’s always more interesting to explore the darker aspects of charm.”