The Arthur Miller of Divorce Rock
4 min read

The Arthur Miller of Divorce Rock

I discovered Aimee Mann in 2000, while trying to pirate the movie Ghost World. I had become strangely obsessed with seeing Ghost World, which wasn't playing in any suburban theater. It's difficult to explain this after the fact. I wasn't a great fan of the comic, and I wasn't aware enough of my sexuality to register a crush on Thora Birch, though I remained dedicated to copying her look in the film – thrift-store outfits in which the signifier had become detached from the signified; dyed bob; Docs – for some years. I remember considering and rejecting the idea that I might have an autobiographical interest in this film about two girls who'd just graduated high school and didn't know what to do about it. At eighteen, I simply didn't identify as a girl who had just graduated high school, for reasons both obvious (I was trans) and less obvious (I was, and remain, pompous).

I ultimately saw Ghost World twice, in an arthouse theater out of town. It almost certainly hasn't held up. Birch's performance is indelible, and the film also introduced me to Steve Buscemi (I remain Buscemi-haunted today), but the May-August romance between them is astonishingly creepy, and all the worse because it knows it. I remember the actors bringing nuance to the story – his social anxiety and lifelong avoidance of human connection; her desperation for meaning and control – but the fact is that this film's director was a middle-aged obsessive collector of prewar American music, and his adaptation of Clowes' comic invented a plotline about a middle-aged obsessive collector of prewar American music, who is himself pursued romantically by an eighteen-year-old girl who also becomes obsessed with prewar American music. As a middle-aged man looking back on my experiences as an eighteen-year-old girl, I find this alarming.

Anyway, in 2000, you couldn't pirate a film on KaZaA. What you could pirate was Aimee Mann's song "Ghost World," a lower-quartile Mann track also loosely based on the comic. It didn't speak to me, or present a particularly cohesive character in terms of achievement and class ("Finals blew/I barely knew my graduation speech/with college out of reach/if I don't find a job, it's down to Dad and Myrtle Beach"), but it was also of such obvious formal brilliance that I became the youngest person – the Baby Diego, if you will – to buy Mann's then-new album Bachelor No. 2, Or the Last Remains Of the Dodo.

Mann is never at her strongest when writing about young people. Even her own earliest work evades her own youth, to land in a hazy midcentury glamor in which a man your age might admonish you to "Hush! Keep it down, now! Voices carry!" Over the course of her long and superb career, Mann's great lyrical evolution has been away from midcentury glamor and towards midcentury decay. By the time of Bachelor No. 2 and its followup, Lost in Space (which I declared the best Mann album in a Wirecutter-themed essay last year), she had already hit her stride as the Arthur Miller of divorce rock. Her characters have strained relationships with their children. They try to reconstruct youthful glories right out of late Fitzgerald. They use VHS as a metaphor for depression. Everyone on a Mann album sounds like they're singing into the analog answering machine of someone they don't know has died. Even when the songs are built on modern and clearly autobiographical references, like the catsitter texting you a photo of your cat, they managed to feel like memoirs of a traveling encyclopedia salesman's last ride.

Given all this, you would expect her new album, Queens of the Summer Hotel, to fit naturally, obviously, into her catalog. It's the soundtrack of an unproduced musical based on the memoir Girl, Interrupted, which is set in a 1960s mental hospital, and on which the 1999 film was based. (Here's where I would draw some kind of parallel with my obsession with Ghost World, but I missed Girl, Interrupted as widely as I missed 1999's Boys Don't Cry, which is honestly a mercy to me.)

Instead, I'm finding Queens of the Summer Hotel thorny at best. Its portrayal of mental illness is oddly broad, from an artist who has made mental illness her enduring theme. The characters don't feel like people so much as the personifications of their illnesses -- the goddesses of depression, pyromania, and OCD. The musical form also tends to warp Mann's style out of true; its villain song, "Give Me Fifteen," a black comedy about a misogynistic doctor diagnosing an assembly line of women, manages to be neither funny nor disturbing, even though Mann has rarely produced a song that isn't both.

This doesn't make Queens of the Summer Hotel a bad collection of songs (again, formally speaking). Whenever I'm disappointed by one of my heroes, I play the game of imagining that I'm hearing a stranger singing, and I usually realize that the work is actually very good. I'm confident that I would be transfixed if I'd heard "Little Chameleon" or "Suicide is Murder" in isolation from a new artist – notwithstanding the fact that "Suicide is Murder" is a collection of things I would never say to a suicidal person, and in some cases was warned in hotline training not to say to a suicidal person. It's not that giving a "how can you do this to your family" speech is going to make someone decide to die, but it also doesn't help them live, and I was surprised to hear such a speech deployed as the song's (admittedly beautiful and affecting) bridge. I wonder which character is supposed to sing "Suicide is Murder," and whether hearing the song performed in character and context would it make more sense to me. Really, you can't write a meaningful song whose lyrical goal is reaching out to a suicidal person, because suicide prevention is a process of listening, but you can at least avoid presenting suicide as a crime one commits.

It all comes back to that blind spot Mann has about the young. I don't know anything about her as a person – she's the most elusive of musicians, with a body of rumor about her so robust that it could only exist in a vacuum – but I would venture that she, like me, didn't have an easy time being young, or ever identify as a young person. It seems terminally hard for her to get into the heads of a group of eighteen-year-old girls, even ones who suffer in the ways that she's spent her career writing about: mental illness, addiction, loneliness, loss. I wonder if it's possible to go through it so much that you can't write about it, because something about going through it makes it impossible to look at again. But why do I wonder? I've lived that, and I know it's true.