Aimee Mann
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Friday, February 2, 2018

I fell in love with Aimee Mann’s music the same spring that I dropped out of college. At first the decision to withdraw from classes felt exhilarating, like a real “damn the man” move. But sooner than I thought it would, that post-defiant-act-adrenaline-high dwindled and I found myself paralyzed by the ennui that surfaces when life becomes structureless.

On a day in the middle of that lost spring, I clicked on a friend’s MySpace profile and “Save Me” began auto-playing. I hadn’t been able to do in months: cry. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard Mann’s hit song before (I watched Magnolia in high school and thought it made me “arty”), but in my daze of deep melancholy and lack of direction, Mann’s song hit me in the gut and filled the void. In need of something more substantial than an endless loop of “Save Me,” I bought a copy of 2002’s Lost in Space and Aimee Mann-ed my way out of nothingness.

I eventually reenrolled in college, earned some master’s degrees and love my job as a public school teacher in Durham. Despite the emotional distance between the me then and the me now, I remain a dedicated Aimee Mann fan. My appreciation for Mann isn’t based in nostalgia; Mann’s music continues to resonate with me. It’s her excellent execution of blunt and emotionally raw writing finished with a glimmer of hope that I can’t quit. Her latest album, last year’s Mental Illness, doesn’t depart from previous records and for all the right reasons—it documents some of the bleaker sides of the human condition with a sense of humor.

Mann played to a packed Carolina Theatre Friday night on the East Coast leg of her Mental Illness tour. Jonathan Coulton, Mann’s bandmate and songwriting collaborator, opened the show with a series of quirky, anti-hero songs about internet dystopia and being a dad. Mann joined him on stage for a few songs and at one point quipped to the audience, “this is some deep nerd shit right here.” When I saw a white dude with an acoustic guitar sporting an ironic early-eighties haircut and vintage glasses, I was worried that the audience was soon to fall prey to listening to songs about fragile masculinity, but Coulton’s witty lyrics and self-deprecating performance were charming.

Mann did not disappoint. She played an array of songs from Mental Illness and plenty of earlier songs, including “Save Me” and “Humpty Dumpty.” Her competent backing band managed to sound rock ‘n’ roll without a single electric guitar on stage. I had to fight the urge to stand up and dance during the entire concert—but for some reason, the audience stayed seated throughout the show and I didn’t want to block the view of the people sitting behind me. It wasn’t that the crowd wasn’t engaged—plenty of people were nodding their heads or clapping enthusiastically—but that’s as wild as it got.

In the very last song, “Voices Carry,” a hit from Mann’s eighties new wave band ‘Til Tuesday and one that I played on repeat back in that college dropout spring, I couldn’t contain myself any longer, jumped to my feet and started to dance. Some seconds later a handful people followed suit. One stranger in the audience thanked me after the show for starting the trend. I guess I wasn’t the only one who wanted to boogie.