- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

If anyone should be in an “I told you so” mood, it’s Aimee Mann. In 1999, the alternative-pop-inclined singer-songwriter wriggled out from a major label contract and went guerrilla: She formed her own imprint, SuperEgo Records, and began selling records through her Web site.

This was before anyone realized Napster was about to jostle the tectonic plates beneath the mainstream music industry. Before anyone had heard of audioblogs or MySpace or digital rights management.

Miss Mann saw the writing on the wall. More accurately, she saw that the wall was crumbling.

So is she chortling while Rome burns?

Hardly.

“We’re all going down,” says Miss Mann, who is to appear Saturday night at the 9:30 Club in support of her latest album, “@#%&*! Smilers.”

“It’s our little global warming. I feel like a polar bear standing on a last little sliver of ice,” she says. “Hopefully, when the ice completely melts, we’ll find a way to adapt.”

Miss Mann, who’s chatting over the phone, is given to a morose sort of humor, which won’t surprise longtime fans of her dark and intelligent songbook. She turns 48 in a week and has seen enough of the music industry from the inside to know that a songwriter of her singularity is far better off on the outside.

“I was delighted to get out of the major-label system,” she says.

For about five minutes, Miss Mann was a spiky-haired post-new-wave hit maker (‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” was a Top 10 single in 1985). Around the same time she quit the majors, she surfaced as the muse and soundtrack star of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed movie “Magnolia.”

Yet, for the bulk of her career, Miss Mann has remained unfailingly inner-directed and comfortably below the radar.

This is why she’s immune to the hype about today’s indie culture. Where the creative-destruction boosters see the demise of quasi-monopolistic conglomerates as the space in which a thousand indie flowers will bloom, Miss Mann sees a slow-motion avalanche that’s pulverizing everything on its way downhill.

“Everybody’s affected,” she says. “The musicians are affected. Studios are affected. Engineers are affected. … Someone like me, when my record sales are cut in half, I don’t know if we can make another record.”

Miss Mann foresees an increasingly vast chasm between disposable mass-marketed jingles and virtually everything else - including, quite possibly, her own eternally displaced music - which will be driven underground and cultivated by smaller and smaller niches.

Despite modest overhead - she sleeps on the bus - Miss Mann says she doesn’t make a profit even from touring.

She is unlike many of her fellow indies in one important respect: She’s fiercely anti-piracy. She sees illegal downloading as a threat to artistic control that’s equal to, if not greater than that of meddlesome corporate suits.

It’s unfashionable to say so - just ask the squares in Metallica - but Miss Mann doesn’t flinch.

She analogizes music piracy to littering: What’s one McDonald’s wrapper out the window going to hurt?

“It’s hard for one person to feel they have influence. But we know we do,” Miss Mann says. “That’s why we vote or try to recycle. Maybe music isn’t that important next to something like voting or global warming, but it’s the same kind of mindset.”

“We have to start caring about each other,” she implores. “My actions affect your actions.”

Along with her husband, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, and her manager, Michael Hausman, Miss Mann formed an outifit called United Musicians, a shingle on which like-minded artists could find distribution and copyright protection for their music.

“I think that’s sort of done,” she says of the collective. “The main thing we had to offer was distribution. That’s been rendered obsolete.”

Count it another casualty of the new age.

Where does all the carnage leave Aimee Mann?

Making one record at a time, with equal parts optimism and cynicism.

The new release, with the profane punctuational euphemism of its title, is a sort of cheeky aside aimed at the world’s come-on-get-happy encouragers. (Meet the downbeat narrator of “Thirty One Today” - “drinking Guinness in the afternoon/taking shelter in the black cocoon.”)

It’s a loose, low-key set that departs from the conceptual ambition of predecessors like 2005’s “The Forgotten Arm” and 2002’s “Lost in Space.”

“Having had the last record be a concept album, I decided, just as a palate cleanser, I was going to make these songs different,” she says. “Each song gets its own story.”

As for the future?

Miss Mann gamely tries to ignore her own grim prognostications. “Whatever happens, I’ll figure out a way to be creative and make a living,” she assures, “but it might not look the same.”

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