Go ahead and call Aimee Mann the anti-Miley Cyrus, or even an anti-Madonna for hipster intellectuals: She’s one performer who’s actually improved and gotten greater respect with age. The singer-songwriter, who plays Friday at the Paramount Theatre, has become something of a model for musicians looking to grow and change with their dignity and artistic integrity intact, managing the trick of riding the waves of shifting cultural trends without being enslaved by them. Widely misunderstood in mid-’80s Boston (the Virginia-bred performer’s then-adopted home) as a shallow, spiky-haired new wave ice queen fronting the made-for-MTV band ’Til Tuesday — “Voices Carry,” a much-aired video on the music channel back when it actually played music, was a Top 10 hit in 1985 — Mann soon pulled a 180, kicking the ice queen to the curb and deglazing her persona.
And carry on she did, through minefields of record label woes and rocky personal liaisons. Into the bargain, she founded a boutique label, SuperEgo Records, to release her own work, way before every other indie rocker was doing it. If you’re too young to remember ’Til Tuesday, you might know Mann from her soundtrack to the 1999 movie “Magnolia” or even for portraying a fictional version of herself, as a maid for hire, in a 2011 episode of “Portlandia” (satirizing the decline and fall of the music business). “Charmer,” her current album, was inspired by her musings on narcissists. It also makes for fun listening, something not often said about some of her earlier, more subdued work. From the Cars-like early ’80s power-pop touches of the title track, to “Labrador” (the video for which is a shot-by-shot remake of “Voices Carry”), it’s equal parts ear candy and sophisticated wordplay, with a sweet melodic shell wrapped around a liquid sarcasm center.
“I think I’ll always have a soft spot for pop songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Mann says. “I think that stuff will always be my favorite, even if it’s sometimes kind of cheesy. A lot of stuff had horns on it (and) really forceful use of background vocals, the kind of things that people don’t do that much anymore.” On “Charmer,” she adds, “The idea of pop music was in my mind, and the subject matter of people who are charming and what charm means, and the different permutations of that. That sort of lends itself to a more pop aesthetic, because you’re dealing with a lot of surface sparkle and appearances, things that are shiny and bright.”
Even in ’Til Tuesday’s salad days, Mann chafed at the rock star image game and the recognition that came her way. But when she was starting out and trying to get some attention, one wonders what she did expect might happen. “When you’re young, it’s natural if you play music you want to play it for people and you want people to appreciate it, but you don’t really know what that’s going to look like,” she says. “And sometimes that looks like a guy following you home at 4 in the morning. So that’s kind of identical to a stalker that you want to call the police on, but because he says he’s a fan then you — especially for a woman, maybe men don’t have this thing — for me there was a lot of where fans felt a lot like people who could continually be putting you in danger. But there was this feeling that you couldn’t really protect yourself, because” — and she raises her voice in a mock stage-comic way — “they’re your fan, so you have to be nice! Or it could be somebody who wants to murder you! You’ll know later, after you’re dead! “And then, you realize people, because they recognize you, expect you to continue to entertain them in some way, even though they’re a perfect stranger and you’re not a person who knows how to talk to people in that way. I’d be at dinner with somebody, and a total stranger would come and sit down at the table. I can’t be entertaining enough for that person and also, by the way, I didn’t invite you to sit at my table!
“I don’t know who has the skill set to negotiate those kinds of situations, to both have boundaries and be able to eat dinner in peace, but not have people get upset. But sometimes people do get upset. People call you at home and you say, ‘Look, I can’t talk right now, and I don’t know who you are,’ and then they start calling you names, because they think that you should be available. God bless anybody who can handle that, but I was not cut out for it.”
Which raises the question: What accommodations did she make with herself to want to go out on a stage and perform her songs? “Well, it comes from a different place than a sort of Miley Cyrus type person who is all about performing and being out there and having a more show-offy quality,” she says. “The main thing that I feel I do is songwriting, and that’s completely private; the codes of your language and metaphor (are) that you’re not going to tell people what certain things mean to you; that’s your own business. It’s kind of a way to say things without saying things.”
When Mann isn’t performing solo, she plays bass in a side project, the Both, a power trio with indie punk-pop performer Ted Leo and a touring drummer. An album is forthcoming, probably on the Matador label, and although there may be more to come from that, she says, “I can’t really picture being in a full-time band. Once you get into a permanent band, that’s when people start fighting.”
KUTX Live at the Paramount presents Aimee Mann When: 8 p.m. Friday Where: The Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave. Cost: $30 to $50 (selling out fast; check website for availability) Information: 472-5470; http://www.austintheatre.org
Aimee Mann says her current record, “Charmer,” was inspired by her musings on narcissists.