DATE June 13, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Aimee Mann discusses her new CD and the movie that was
inspired by one of her songs
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This has been a period of both rejection and success for Aimee Mann, a
singer/songwriter who was recently described in Rolling Stone as pop's wryest
documentarian of love's emotional roller coaster. Let's start with one
example of her success, her Academy Award-nominated song "Save Me" from the
1999 film "Magnolia."
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. AIMEE MANN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) You look like the perfect fit,
the girl in me of the tourniquet. But can you save me? Come on and save me.
If you could save me from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they could never
GROSS: Aimee Mann not only wrote most of the songs for the film "Magnolia,"
the movie was inspired by one of her songs. Nevertheless, she had to bring
out her new CD, "Bachelor No. 2," on her own record label. The label she
had been recording for merged with another label. After the merger, her new
CD wasn't considered commercial enough to release. After buying back her
master tape from her record company, she planned to release it only on the
Internet. But with the success of her "Magnolia" soundtrack, she's also
gotten her new CD into stores. The opening track is a song about being misled
by a lover or maybe a record company.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MANN: (Singing) I can't do it. I can't conceive. You're everything
you're trying to make me believe. 'Cause this show is too well designed to
want to be here with only me in mind. And how, how am I different?
GROSS: Aimee Mann, welcome to FRESH AIR. Well, you decided to put your CD
"Bachelor No. 2" out yourself and you've been using--it's available in
stores now, but it was initially, I think, only supposed to be available on
the Internet. Am I right about that?
Ms. MANN: Well, it was initially offered on the Internet, and I sold it at my
shows mainly because--you know, I mean, that's very contrary, you know, to the
sort of traditional record company protocol where you have a release date and
it's released in all formats and, you know, you come out with a big splash.
But, you know, I sort of felt like it had been a long time since I had a
record out and, you know, that--I mean, this record has been done for--you
know, it was basically finished about a year and a half ago. So I just wanted
to get it out to my fans as soon as possible. And, you know, anybody who's
interested in searching for it on the Internet or anyone who came to a show, I
wanted to have that available to them. And, you know, I just thought, `Well,
you know, I'll deal with the rest of it as it comes along.'
GROSS: Now how did you use the Internet, and how much of your music were you
offering for free and how much of it was sales only?
Ms. MANN: Well, I try to be very circumspect about that. I mean, you know,
I don't think anybody's crazy about giving their music away. I think the idea
of sort of free downloads are, you know, that kind of thing is--for an artist
like me is especially difficult because it's harder to find my music in really
traditional outlets. You know, I mean, it's--you're not gonna go to Tower and
see the big giant display, you know, with a big pile of records, you know, and
be constantly reminded and hear it on the radio. You know, it's not sort
of--it's not as accessible because there's not the--you know, a large company
presence behind it. So, you know, it's--I think for music like mine, I mean,
the Internet is sort of where you go through first. And, you know, that sort
of free download thing kind of really cuts into somebody--you know, cuts into
the sales pretty significantly, you know, and since I have to finance my own
record and I have to finance everything having to do with the record is--that
can get pretty tricky, and we did some limited, you know, screening audio and
download stuff, but it's kind of hard to know what--you know, if you're
promoting yourself or cutting your own throat really.
GROSS: Right. When you're giving stuff away free on the Internet?
Ms. MANN: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So, you know, I'm sure you've seen this. It's part of Newsweek's June
5th cover story about Napster. There's an illustration headlined, How Napster
Nabs Tunes, and the tune being downloaded in this illustration is your song
"Save Me." The implication is that you've become something of like the queen
of the Internet.
Ms. MANN: Well, I don't know what to think about that. I mean, I don't--you
know, they wanted me to give a quote for that story and I still don't know
what to think about it because I think on the one hand, you know, something
like Napster is helpful so people can hear the music before they--you know,
before they buy it. But then again if they don't have to buy it, then they
can hear it before they just take it. And, you know, I think people have to
understand that it's not like the kids against the suits. It's the kids
against the artists, you know. I mean, look, as a couple--you know, are a
couple of free downloads gonna hurt Britney Spears' business? You know,
probably not. I mean, but that could be all the business that I would get,
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. So how successful have you been on the Internet in
actually selling your records or using it to promote them or, you know, make
people aware of your music?
Ms. MANN: Well, we've used--you know, we just sort of--it's kind of random,
really. You know, I mean, there's not like really a plan. I think things
come up and it sounds like a good idea, you know, you just sort of, you know,
chats and, you know, online chats and, you know, a couple of downloads here
and there and interviews and online magazines and that kind of thing. And
just, you know--and it does kind of accumulate into something. I mean,
certainly having the record for sale--available for sale on the Internet was
really a great thing. I mean, that really kind of jump-started stuff for us,
you know, especially because it's only been recently that I signed a
distribution deal to get the records into stores and, you know, it's in stores
now, but for a long time it wasn't. So I think it's just helpful to have a
place for, you know, sort of die-hard fans, you know, people who really care
about it to find out where you are.
GROSS: Nick Hornby, who wrote the novel "High Fidelity," that the movie was
adapted from, has an article about you in The New Yorker. And he wrote, `What
do things come to when the ability to purchase a CD over the counter by one of
America's sparkiest musical talents is a cause for celebration?' I mean, he
was like shocked, oh, like we have to celebrate? It should be a big deal that
your CD is in a store, that should be obvious.
Ms. MANN: I know. I know. I'm telling you. Well, you know, that's the way
things are now, you know. That's--I mean, I feel like I've been--that's a
real sign of success, you know, that I'm able to get my record into stores,
but, you know--I mean, it's--you know, the major labels have pretty much a
monopoly, and that's the way it's been I think. You know, there's gonna be a
lot of new--I think there's a lot of people who are in my position who are
either disgusted with the major label system or have been, you know, kind of
squeezed out of the major label system or, you know, ostracized from it or
disenfranchised or whatever and will kind of go the route that I'm going. I
mean, I was kind of forced into it. It was never my dream to start a record
label, but, you know, I had to get to the point where it was just--you know,
it was just unworkable. You know--I mean, it just didn't work for me. So you
know, for me, it was like, well, anything's better than that. And I mean,
it's actually been kind of fun, you know, you sort of learn as you go along
and figure stuff out. But, yeah, you know, I mean, I have my record in stores
and it's like--you know, like pop the champagne. It's like, you know, I've
hit the big time.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aimee Mann and she has a new CD
called "Bachelor No. 2."
Now some of the songs on the new CD were also included on the soundtrack from
the film "Magnolia"--you wrote all the songs from "Magnolia." Paul Thomas
Anderson and his introduction to the book of the screenplay said this.
He said, `I write to music, so I better own up to stealing quite a many lines
from Aimee Mann, who provides all the songs on the film. The first line of
Aimee Mann's song "Deathly" goes something like this, "Now that I've met you,
would you object to never seeing me again?" This may sound familiar. You can
find it somewhere in the final 30 pages of this script. I heard that line and
wrote backwards. This, quote, "original screenplay could for all intents and
purposes be called an adaptation of Aimee Mann's songs."'
So before we talk about this, let's hear the opening of that song "Deathly"
that has the line that sparked the film "Magnolia."
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MANN: (Singing) Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing
each other again, 'cause I can't afford to climb aboard you? No one's got
that much ego to spend. So don't work your stuff because I've got troubles
enough. No, don't pick on me with your act of kindness could be deathly,
GROSS: That's Aimee Mann from her CD "Bachelor No. 2." And that opening
line, `Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again,' is
used in the film when the young woman who's been playing her stereo too loud
starts dating the cop played by John C. Reilly. Later on, after they've had
a date, that's what she says to him.
Aimee Mann, how did you write that line in the song?
Ms. MANN: You know, that's kind of what was, you know, in my mind. I mean,
GROSS: It's a strange thing to think of to say to somebody.
Ms. MANN: Well, I don't think I ever said it, you know? I mean, one of the
things about writing songs is, you know, you're able to say things that you
can't say, you know? I mean, it is a strange thing to say to somebody, but, I
mean, I don't know if it's that strange to feel, you know, that's--I mean, you
know, when I wrote it, I think, you know, had sort of a big crush on somebody
and, you know, it's just sort of, like--you know, sometimes it's just like too
much to take. You know, it's like too much--you know, like, `Oh, don't be
nice to me 'cause then I'll really like you, and I just don't want to be--you
know, I can't take it right now.' So that's sort of the, you know, the place
I was in. I mean--and it's also at the one in the same time about somebody
that I was seeing from their, you know, viewpoint about me because, you know,
it was, like, he was sort of in the same kind of situation.
GROSS: So how did Paul Thomas Anderson, who made "Magnolia," first hear that
Ms. MANN: Well, he was good friends with my husband, who he had asked to do
the score for his first movie, "Hard Eight," and the score for "Boogie
Nights." So they were pretty close and...
GROSS: Your husband being Michael Penn.
Ms. MANN: Michael Penn, yeah. And Paul and I had gotten to be friends also.
And, you know, Paul really is a big music fan. He's a big fan of Michael's.
And, you know, he was--when I started going into the studio, he was interested
in what I was working on and, you know, came by the studio several times, so,
you know, he was kind of in on the music I was recording pretty much right as
I was doing it. And, I think, you know, he got a tape of some songs as they
were being finished and was listening to them while he was writing. I think,
you know, it just obviously kind of got in his head in a certain way or sort
of put him in a particular place, you know, so he could write.
GROSS: My guest is singer/songwriter Aimee Mann. Her new CD is called
"Bachelor No. 2." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Aimee Mann is my guest. Her new CD is called "Bachelor No. 2." So
many of your songs are about relationship troubles. Now you're married to
Michael Penn, who's also a singer/songwriter. I assume you have a pretty
Ms. MANN: Yeah.
GROSS: How is it affecting your songwriting to be in a good relationship when
so many of your songs have been about bad relationships?
Ms. MANN: Well, I think that, you know, first of all, the idea of writing
about relationships--I mean, I don't really know what else there is. You
know, I mean, to me, everything is in terms of relationships, so that's just
how I look at it. You know, like even if, you know, you're sort of writing
about your car, I mean, it's like how you feel about the car and what the car
symbolizes to you and, you know, what meaning the car has for you and how you
enjoy your car. You know, so, to me, that's a relationship. So that's kind
of how I look at it, you know, and I like to write songs that have a couple of
levels where you can--you know, it's just like--I sort of write about like
specific dynamics and it can be applied to, you know, whatever.
You know, if I'm sort of in struggles with a record company, I mean, you know,
that's where I make my livelihood, and it's, you know, not surprising that,
you know, problems would come up. I mean, you know, everybody who has a boss
always has trouble. You know, there's always trouble at work or trouble with
the boss or some co-worker or something. I mean, to me, that just seems like
really--it's, like, really common themes, and, you know, so to me, I don't
know, that's what's interesting in life or, you know, how you feel, you know,
like people dealing with each other in various ways and, like, the sort of
different dynamics and, you know, where people, like, come head to head, like,
`What is that about and how does that happen and how can you get out of it
and, you know, can it be solved? You know, can people's differences be
mediated?' You know, I just think that's all really interesting.
GROSS: I was wondering, though, if it's easier to write from a craft point of
view about bad relationships than about good ones?
Ms. MANN: I don't really write so much about good relationships or positive
relationships or happy relationships that are working well, because I don't
spend a lot of time thinking about why they work well. I think I already--you
know, I know what makes a good relationship and what makes a relationship work
well and it's not sort of like something that I pondered. Do you know what I
mean? Like I--when I write a song, it's because I'm pondering some, you
know--there's some sort of question or, you know, something that really
absorbs me or, you know, maybe it's a problem or a difficulty that I'm trying
to figure out. But like a good relationship, you don't--you know, or a happy
circumstance, I mean, you don't figure it out. There's sort of nothing to
figure out. You just have it. You know, you just have it and enjoy it.
GROSS: You and Michael Penn recently toured together, and the articles about
the tour reported that you were both too something to actually talk between
songs, that you had comics doing the banter between songs instead of doing it
Ms. MANN: We do.
GROSS: What were you, too what, to do it yourself?
Ms. MANN: Well, I don't know what too--I mean, I think it's just an idea we
had. Michael and I had started playing shows together by playing at a place
called Cafe Largo that's owned by a friend of ours, and Largo is very small
and it has a lot of acoustic acts and the people that go there are sort of
very dedicated music lovers who are kind of up for anything, so it's--you
know, we could go there and play new songs, or, you know, if you played half a
song that you were working on, you know, people were just kind of interested
in that. And it was very sort of loose and you didn't have to be really
So we had played a handful of shows and then we were talking one night about
how, you know--I think we were dissecting a show and saying, you know, like,
`I thought that was a great show, but I just felt like such an idiot. I
didn't know what to say to people,' and, you know, both of us sort of that
problem where you don't often know--what do you say to an audience or, you
know, sometimes you do, but it's really--you know, I mean, you can't, like,
rehearse something and so we both felt sort of awkward and then we just got
the idea, like, well, let's get one of our comedian friends to do the, you
know, sort of banter for us between songs. And, you know, he could just come
on and speak for--you know, pretend he's us and speak for us. You know, I
mean, I'm sure he could do it much better than we could. So just, you know,
as a lark, we started doing that. It was just really, really funny. I mean,
it's such a goofy idea, but it turned out to be so funny that we really wanted
to keep it in, and then eventually, you know, we just thought, you know,
`Well, we should go on the road. We should take the show on the road.'
GROSS: Your songs are pretty moody. Does it break the mood to have a comic
talk in between the songs?
Ms. MANN: I think it's great. I mean, it's certainly great for us. You
know, I think it serves a couple of functions. I mean, first of all, it's
very entertaining for us. So, you know, it keeps it interesting for us, and
it kind of serves like a--you know, I think that sometimes that there are
perceived seriousness that's sort of off-putting for people, and when they see
the comedians and how we sort of interact with the comedians--you know, plus,
it takes the pressure off us, so, I mean, we do talk quite a bit, you know,
and it makes it easier for us to talk, but, you know, when people see that
it's really kind of a lighthearted thing, that I think that they have a deeper
understanding of the songs. You know, my songs might be seen as serious and
kind of angry, but, I mean, a lot of times, I sort of mean them. You know,
lines that people think are really, like, bitter, I mean to be just kind of
sarcastic or funny even, and, you know, I think that having the comedian
around sort of helps to bring that out a little more. And it also, like--I
find that people really focus--you know, if you're focusing on a comic
who--you know, if you're focusing on his words, that you retain that sort of
focus when the music starts, so you really listen to the lyrics. And then it
just becomes a more involved and, thus, enjoyable experience.
GROSS: Aimee Mann will be back in the second half of the show. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MANN: (Singing) Is that what you thought when you first began it? You
got what you want. Now you can hardly stand it, though by now you know it's
not going to stop. It's not going to stop. It's not going to stop till you
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Aimee Mann. Also, you
used to be able to tell what a corporation did by the name that it had, but
not anymore. Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the latest corporate trend.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with singer/songwriter Aimee
Mann. She wrote and performed most of the songs for the 1999 film "Magnolia."
Her song "Save Me" was nominated for an Academy award. Her new CD is called
"Bachelor No. 2."
You write so much about relationships, I want to ask you about a relationship
in your life. I was reading that when you were young--I guess when you were,
like, three or four or something--your parents divorced, and then shortly
after that you were living with your father. And your mother and her new
boyfriend took you, unbeknownst to your father, and moved with you to Europe,
and your father searched for you with a private detective for a year. Were
you aware of what was going on behind the scenes at the time?
Ms. MANN: No, I don't think you're ever aware. You know, when you're that
young, you're just kind of like, you know--you know what? You just don't
question it. I mean, you know, you're not at home, you're in planes. You
know, things are happening. You don't--you know, you might not like it, but I
just don't think--you know, I mean, you're a kid. I mean, you just kind of go
along and, you know, whatever happens, I mean, you know, that's what's normal
'cause that's what's happening to you.
GROSS: How old were you when you moved to Europe with your mother?
Ms. MANN: I think I was three. I mean, I wouldn't even call it--you know, I
don't know if they sort of traveled around or, you know, what the deal is.
And I'm a little--you know, I'm not sure exactly what the details are. I
mean, I think the sort of basic thing was that, you know, I went away and my
father didn't know where I was. And, you know, it's sort of one of those
divorce situations, you know, that are pretty common, where, you know, just--I
don't know. It's just kind of a--it just becomes a kind of a mess. You know
what I mean? You know, I grew up with my father, but I'm on pretty good terms
with my mother now. So for that reason, I don't really like to talk about it
a lot 'cause, you know, I don't see any point in having her feel like, you
know, really weird about it. Plus, you know, I don't sort of know what the
details are exactly. So, you know, I don't want anybody to kind of like feel,
you know, bad about stuff.
GROSS: I understand. I was just wondering, though, if it affected your sense
of what marriage or relationships were like.
Ms. MANN: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think it affects it. You know, you don't
really realize it's affecting it, you know, for a long time. I mean, yeah,
it's--you know, I mean, I had like a real--I sort of call it like a bad
attitude, you know. I had a real bad attitude about marriage and what
marriage was. And, you know, I think that there's, like, a whole host of
assumptions, like kind of unconscious assumptions, you make about
relationships, you know, based on your own experiences. And, you know, I
think probably one of mine that, you know, I kind of realized later was that,
you know, I just had the assumption that relationships were all, like, you
know, impermanent, you know; that they would all come to an end. And, you
know, it's kind of what you're left with.
GROSS: How did you decide to get married given the cynical attitude you had
Ms. MANN: Well, I don't really--you know, it's not like a cynical attitude so
much as, you know...
Ms. MANN: No. It's like--I mean, it's dysfunction, you know. I mean, I put
it squarely in, you know--it's not like a posture. I mean, I think you sort
of realize that you have these beliefs that you don't really know that you
have. And, you know, I mean, you know, you go to therapy and you figure it
out. I mean, I'm a big believer in that. I think, you know, there's like a
whole--I don't know. I'm getting extremely inarticulate right now.
GROSS: Well, therapy, though--is that good for songwriting? You know, to
have somebody helping you introspect about your life, pointing things out, was
that useful in discovering things for, say, characters to say in a song or...
Ms. MANN: I don't know if I'd put it to use in that way. I just think it's
to become more self-aware, to figure stuff out. Personally I think it's
Ms. MANN: I think it's really fun, it's really interesting and it totally
goes along with my interest in, you know, relationships between people and how
they interact with each other and, you know, the crazy stuff they get up to.
I mean, I just think it's totally fascinating. So it's--you know, so I really
love going to therapy, and, you know, I think it's been, you know, invaluable,
absolutely invaluable, I mean, that there's sort of a tool out there to help
people figure out stuff that heretofore you have assumed that you couldn't
figure out, you know, I mean, or that you just assume that something's just
wrong with you. You know, that's just the way you are. So, you know, I think
it's a miracle, you know. I recommend it highly to everyone.
GROSS: In the '80s, you were in the group Til Tuesday, which had a couple of
gold records. How would you describe Til Tuesday?
Ms. MANN: You know, like a real typical '80s band. You know, we were like
the perfect '80s band, you know. It was really like a perfect grouping of
people, you know. It was like the perfect confection for that time.
GROSS: What was '80s about it?
Ms. MANN: Well, from my point of view--I had come out of--I'd been in this
band that was a three-piece band that was kind of like an art, noise, new
wave. And, you know, we sort of had this ethic of, you know, you could never
do anything that anybody had ever done before. You know, stuff it was--you
know, if it was like a chord change or, you know, if it was melodic in any
way--you know, like the chord changes all had to be like very disjointed and
dissonant, and, you know, you couldn't sort of just lay down, like, a groove
on the drums, you know, where it played two and four. I mean, you couldn't do
that, you know. So we had this rule one time where, you know, you couldn't
use any cymbals, you know. It was these sort of like arbitrary rules, you
know, we were so desperate to sort of be different, you know. And it was
fairly unlistenable, but, I mean, you know, really interesting and very
But after a certain time I sort of started to feel like, you know, `Well,
there's, like, a certain tyranny here,' you know. And also, like, the lyric
writing and the subject matter had to be, you know, arcane in the extreme.
And I remember one--you know, a band that we were friends with, they had a
song where the lyrics were a recipe for shrimp flambe, you know. Sso it's,
like--see, you know, you can't sort of have lyrics that mean anything or, you
know, love songs were right out. And, you know, I started to feel like, you
know, it was like the tyranny, you know, of the punk movement where, you know,
you were--where it was--you know, you'd be really rebellious to write, you
know, sort of a melodic love song.
And so Til Tuesday, for me, was like a real rebellion against that. And, you
know, that sort of--that's how that started for me.
GROSS: Why don't you choose a song from Til Tuesday to play?
Ms. MANN: Oh, God. Well, I sort of consider that Til Tuesday--you know, the
group Til Tuesday really only existed for one album; you know, for the first
record. And, you know, I would say that "Voices Carry" is probably the best
song on that record.
GROSS: That was your hit.
Ms. MANN: Yeah.
GROSS: Why don't we hear it?
Ms. MANN: OK.
(Soundbite of "Voices Carry" by Til Tuesday)
Ms. MANN: (Singing) In the dark, I like to leave you smiling, but I'm
frightened of the things I might find. Oh, there must be something listening,
uh-oh, to tear him away. I tell him that I'm falling in love; what does he
say? Hush, hush. Keep it down, down. Voices carry. Hush, hush. Keep it
down, down. Voices carry. Oh, oh.
GROSS: That's Aimee Mann recorded in the '80s with the group Til Tuesday.
What was your stage persona like when you were with Til Tuesday compared to
what it's like now when you're performing on your own?
Ms. MANN: Well, I'd say in those days, you know, you try to do what you think
you're supposed to do. And, you know, I never felt very comfortable. I don't
think I talked between songs at all. I remember the managers we had
saying--you know, trying to get, you know--I mean, I'll just say right now
that, you know, they were really in no position to sort of offer, like, advice
on aesthetics in any way. But I remember them, you know, giving me sort of a
list of things that they thought I should do and, you know, saying that I
should talk more. And they had sort of a list of things I should say, you
know, which was sort of like, you know, `This is a good-looking crowd
tonight,' and, `You guys ready to rock?' You know, stuff like that.
And, I mean, you know, I couldn't bring myself to say that. I mean, I had
like a real distaste for, like, you know, real rock cliches, you know, like
performance rock cliches...
Ms. MANN: ...having sort of come out of the punk world, you know. You know,
I just thought that stuff was embarrassing. Plus, I just had--you know, I
just don't have an affinity for that. I mean, I'm not sort of a natural
leader who can kind of get people all, you know, clapping together or
GROSS: Sometimes that stuff really strikes me as, like, the rock version of
Ms. MANN: Absolutely. I know. It's funny. Yeah. It's kids' games. But,
you know--so I never really knew what to do. And, I mean, you know, I worried
about it. I mean, I think at one point, you know, it was suggested that we
sort of do dance steps and--you know, 'cause that kind of stuff was really
going on. And, you know, I think we probably flirted with some dance--trying
to dance on stage a little bit. And I just felt, like, really uncomfortable.
I mean, it was really uncomfortable, really, the whole way. And I don't think
I felt comfortable on stage, really, until--you know, truly comfortable on
stage, really, until I started playing largo and just played, you know, by
myself with acoustic guitar. That's sort of the only thing that really felt
like it made sense to me.
GROSS: And is that what you're doing now in your performances?
Ms. MANN: Yeah, pretty much. I'm...
GROSS: Playing on stage with acoustic guitar?
Ms. MANN: Yeah. We have a band that, you know, we sort of add people in for
various things, but we call it acoustic vaudeville. So, you know, at least
half of the set is, you know--I mean, we're always playing acoustic guitar,
but we sort of add, you know, various instruments in, and it gets bigger, it
gets smaller, but, you know, that's always the core of it. It's just us and
GROSS: My guest is singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. Her new CD is called
"Bachelor No. 2." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Aimee Mann. She wrote and performed most of the songs for
the 1999 film "Magnolia." Her new CD is called "Bachelor No. 2."
So without being too reductionist, there've been a couple of opposite phases
in your music life, one being in a hit pop band and feeling uncomfortable with
some of the things you were expected to do on stage, and the other feeling
quite comfortable doing your own songs, but also being deemed not commercially
viable at the same time...
Ms. MANN: Right.
GROSS: ...although I think you're kind of disproving that. So which is
better: having, like, the bigger success and the more discomfort or more
comfort and less financial success?
Ms. MANN: Well, I'm really one of those people who literally cannot handle
success, I mean, you know, success as it is defined in the music business.
You know, first of all, I mean, you're working all the time. You are working
all the time. I mean, if people think that that's an easy job, they're crazy.
It's impossible. I don't know how people like Britney Spears do it. I mean,
I really don't. It is like a Herculean task, because you're never home and
you are working 24 hours a day, and, you know, part of your work means to--you
know, every person you meet, you sort of have to present this like, you know,
larger-than-life, kind of charming, mythological exterior of, you know, the
star stuff. That's just crazy. I don't know how people do it. I really
don't. It's just a--you know, you have no life. I mean, that's your life.
And I think that if you have something in you that, like, is really, you know,
where the love of hundreds is not enough, you know, the love of
thousands--it's got to be the love of millions, you know, like--it's like
there's never enough love, then that kind of helps you keep going. Or, you
know, if you got stuff you're running away from, that helps you keep going or,
you know--I mean, it's like being dysfunctional in a lot of ways really can
help with that.
But, you know, there's another certain kind of dysfunction that is--just,
like, makes it impossible. I mean, you know, I like playing shows, but it's a
very controlled atmosphere, and there's always the assumption that people have
come to see you are there because they really like you and like what you're
doing. But, you know, I don't like people to look at me, and I don't like to
have my picture taken. I don't like to be looked at or, you know, stared at
on the street or followed or, you know--it's creepy. I mean, I just think
it's weird and creepy, and I don't know how people deal with it. So, you
know, there's that.
But also, like, financially, in the major label system, you have to sell so
many records to break even that you just don't make money, and...
GROSS: Why is that?
Ms. MANN: And I'm making more money now than I ever have.
Ms. MANN: Yeah.
GROSS: Because you don't have to pay back all the stuff to the record
Ms. MANN: Yeah.
GROSS: What is paid for out of the money--I mean, why do you have to earn so
much before you turn a profit?
Ms. MANN: Well, it's really, really complicated. You know, you get a
percentage. I mean, say, you know, you get 15 percent, but there's sort of
lists of things in your contract that sort of, you know, exempt money from
going into that pool of 15 percent. You know, they deduct for breakage and,
you know, packaging, and there's all these things. So it really comes down
to, like, I don't know, 7 percent. But out of that 7 percent, you have to pay
back all the costs of the record.
The record costs, you know--I mean, records today, there's records that cost
$500,000, you know. I don't make records like that, but, you know, people do.
So, you know, you pay back the cost of the record, but out of that 7 percent.
Ms. MANN: And you pay back the cost of the video and tour support and all
that. I mean, it just--you know, you can spend a million dollars on a record,
you know, or promoting a record or tour support. I mean, you can spend
anything. You can spend giant amounts of money. But even if it's sort of a
modest amount of money, you got to sell a lot of records to make that 7
percent add up to, you know, whatever the cost of the record is.
GROSS: Has it been a problem or a welcome thing to have to handle some of the
business end of your music now?
Ms. MANN: I just--it's--my attitude is I just could not keep doing that, and,
you know, I would just do whatever it took to get out of it. And, you know,
so whatever I have to deal with now, at least it's, you know--I mean, there
might be headaches now, but at least they're different headaches, you know.
It's a new headache. So it's interesting. I mean, it's interesting and fun.
You know, it's not sort of impossible, you know. I mean, I might have small
gains, you know, and celebrate the fact that I can get my record in the store,
you know, but that's very satisfying, you know. Or I might make mistakes, but
at least I'm making the mistakes, you know. It's me who made the mistakes,
and, you know, I'll suffer the consequences of my mistakes, but I don't have
to suffer the consequences of other people's mistakes.
GROSS: Did you enjoy your night at the Academy Awards, even though you didn't
win? Phil Collins won.
Ms. MANN: Well, it was surreal. I mean, it was bizarre. I don't know if I
could say it was enjoyable because, you know, you're working. I mean, I
played. So, for me, it's a working night. And just being at those kind of
things, you know, I feel like it's business-oriented and it's working and
there's--you know, you can't sort of really sit back and enjoy it in that way.
So, for me, an enjoyable experience is when everything goes smoothly, and, you
know, the monitors work and the guitar's in tune and you remember all the
words. You know, like, that's a fun time for me.
GROSS: So that was good.
Ms. MANN: Yeah. I thought it was, great. I mean, it was interesting, and
it was fascinating. I had no--you know, I knew that there was no way I was
going to win, so I wasn't plagued with that kind of thing.
GROSS: Did you have a little speech planned, just in case?
Ms. MANN: No.
GROSS: You were that confident.
Ms. MANN: No. No--yeah. I mean, you know, I sort of knew there was, like, a
category of people, you know, I mean, that I would have thanked. You know,
Paul Thomas Anderson, you know, obviously, and sort of people, you know, that
you rely on, my manager and that kind of thing. But, I mean, I didn't sort of
have a speech around that.
GROSS: Well, Aimee Mann, it's been a pleasure. I want to thank you very much
for talking with us.
Ms. MANN: Thank you.
GROSS: Aimee Mann's new CD, "Bachelor No. 2," is on her own label, Superego
Records. Here's a song from it called "Susan."
(Soundbite of "Susan," performed by AIMEE MANN)
Ms. MANN: `Oh, Susan, you were clued in, you knew just how this thing would
go. Prognosis that it was hopeless from the very first domino. I guess I see
it all in hindsight. I tried to keep perspective despite the flash of the
fuse, the smile of cordite. Now I'm in that place again, and I know he can't
come here to get me, and someday he will live to regret me. Susan, I can't
see it now.'
GROSS: Coming up, our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, considers how corporations are
trying to change their image by changing their names. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Changing corporate names to project a modern image
is not necessarily a good thing
TERRY GROSS, host:
The business pages are full of unfamiliar corporate names these days, and not
all of them are start-ups. More and more corporations are getting themselves
linguistic makeovers. Is all of this name-changing good for business? Our
linguist, Geoff Nunberg, isn't sure.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG (Linguist, Stanford University): When General Electric's
legendary CEO, Jack Welch, retires in a few months, the business press will be
full of tributes to the man who took a sleepy electrical products company and
turned into the corporation with the world's largest market value. One thing
he probably won't get credit for, though, is for having had the sense not to
change the company's name in the process.
You can see where this would have been a temptation. After all, light bulbs
and appliances are only a small part of the GE business now, which includes
everything from financial services to truck leasing to NBC. And it isn't as
if Welch has shown exquisite linguistic instincts up and down the line. After
all, this is a corporation that labeled its famous quality control program
with the name Six Sigma, which sounds like something L. Ron Hubbard would have
come up with. But something told Welch to lay off the name General Electric.
But for every old-economy company that hangs on to its name, like GE or
Caterpillar or Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, there seem to be five that
are pitching it over the side. Sometimes the changes make sense, when there's
a merger or when the old name acquires some unfortunate associations. A year
after the ValuJet crash that killed 100 people, the company bought a small
carrier called AirTrans and painted that name on all their planes. And after
Johns Manville paid out a couple billion dollars to settle asbestos claims in
the '80s, they decided to lay low for a while under the name the Schuller
Corporation, before going back to Johns Manville about three years ago when
the dust had cleared.
But most of the new corporate names are just an attempt to liven up a tired
brand with a little linguistic nip and tuck, and, in fact, you see a lot of
perfectly healthy companies doing this in the same spirit with which they roll
out a new advertising campaign every couple of years.
The one thing you can be sure of is that whatever the reason for picking the
new corporate name, it will be more fanciful and less descriptive than the old
one. This might be simply a consequence of the outsourcing process. When you
pay a couple of hundred thousand dollars to a corporate identity consultant
with a gaggle of linguists and marketing specialists on his staff, you don't
expect them to come back with a suggestion that you call yourself US Tanks and
Boilers. You want syllables that buzz with the promise of marketing magic.
You go from International Harvester to Navistar; Advanced Medical to Alaris;
Interregional Financial Group to Interra.
The trouble is that these new names can tend to blur, particularly since they
give you no sense at all of what a company actually does. Take Agilent, the
name that Hewlett-Packard created when it spun off its original core business
of making measurement devices and instrumentation. Evidently, the idea was to
suggest agility, but that's not a feature you tend to look for in an
oscilloscope, more like what you'd want in a roofer.
Mainly, the object seems to have been to come up with one of those trendy
adjectival names that end in `ent' and `ant,' names like Teligent, Sapient,
Viant, Naviant. There are fashions in these things the way there are fashions
in the names of retail stores. One year, everything's `Trouser Shack' and
`Umbrella Shack,' the next year they've all turned into huts, the year after
that they're back as marts.
The fact is that for all they talk about brand differentiation, corporate
identity consultants are basically herd animals. It seems as if 80 percent of
high-tech start-ups get their names from the same formula. They take a prefix
like `digi,' `inter' or `info,' tack on a suffix like `vision,' `cast' or
`web' and throw in a non-conventional spelling or capitalization to show
they're not trammeled by the orthographic orthodoxies of the old economy.
Not surprisingly, the nondescript conformism of new corporate names has
sparked a reaction. The latest fashion among technology start-ups is for
names that have a homespun, funky feel: Red Hat, Redback, Blue Pumpkin,
Tumbleweed, Razorfish. It can be hard to tell the software companies from the
microbreweries. You think of a bunch of gen-Xers sitting around in a loft in
T-shirts and Converse sneakers, kids who are so ahead of the curve that they
can call themselves whatever they damn well please.
But like any bandwagon, this one is easy enough for old-economy firms to jump
onto. BlueLight.com, for example, turns out to be the name the Kmart people
picked for their new e-commerce site. `Attention, blue light shoppers'--it
doesn't ring right at the moment, but it will in time.
It's getting to the point where corporations change their names as readily as
they introduce new product brands, and inevitably the process tends to feed on
itself. It's a curious phenomenon of the modern marketplace that the more
corporations spend on branding their products or themselves, the more brand
loyalty diminishes. Stockholders, employees, consumers--they're all more
fickle than they used to be. Only a sap holds on to a position for the long
haul. And if the new names don't work out, they're a lot easier to replace
than something that's been monogrammed on your table linen for 50 or 100
I started to have some hope about a year or two ago when WMX Technologies went
back to its old name of Waste Management Incorporated. Now that's a fine,
descriptive old-economy name: `Garbage Is Us.' The only trouble is that the
stock is still in the dumps.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford and the Xerox Palo Alto
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