A Personal History of Music, Day 15: “Coming Up Close,” by Til Tuesday

John Scalzi

Specificity is a valuable thing when it comes to popular music, which is a thing that I’m not sure everyone who makes pop music always understands. Popular music, after all, is meant to appeal to a wide number of people, to hit charts and be turned into viral TikToks and so on. One way to do that is to make the song general enough in its themes and lyrics that anyone can see themselves in those elements, or can ignore them entirely to simply chase the beat and let the song be the background and mood. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I’ve bopped along happily to enough work like that, that I could never fault it for being what it is.

With that said, a song being specific in its theme, or lyrics or point of view, doesn’t mean it can’t be engaged with by people who have not experienced the specifics of that song. It just means the song (and the songwriter) has to get there by a path less traveled. The upside to a song like that is when it works, it can be breathtaking.

“Coming Up Close” is a specific song about reaching for grace, not quite achieving it, and being transformed by the attempt anyway. Aimee Mann, who wrote the song, puts in all the details, describing the event in its particulars: Night. Iowa. Borrowed car. Farmhouse. Carved hearts. Dylan tape. Hopefulness. Sadness. It’s all there, painting a picture that is about Aimee Mann herself, in that small slice of time.

So, if it’s about Aimee Mann, why was it, when I heard the song for the first time in high school, it felt like Aimee Mann was writing about a moment in my life? I had never been to Iowa, I didn’t particularly like Bob Dylan’s music, I had never charmingly vandalized an abandoned structure. I didn’t know Aimee Mann! How was she breaking my heart?

The answer was that in the specifics that belonged to her, she was painting a picture that I understood in my own life: A feeling of yearning, of hoping, of knowing this time is not quite your time — of, well, coming up close enough to a moment to see how much you wanted it to be yours, to hear it calling to you, to have it feel like home, and still having to turn back. My own specifics were different in the details. But I had been to the emotional place where Aimee Mann had been in that song. I took a different path. I got there all the same. She hadn’t broken my heart. She gave me a moment from her own experience (or at least, her own talent) that allowed me to understand my own broken heart.

Aimee Mann and her band Til Tuesday gave me two gifts in that song. The first was the song itself, because right up to this day it remains one of my favorite songs, and Aimee Mann one of my favorite songwriters, precisely because so many of her songs — from “J for Jules” to “Goose Snow Cone” — are blessed with a specificity that speaks to me. The second gift was for later, when I became a creative person in my own right, hoping that what I wrote could connect with others: it’s okay to be specific, either from your own experience or in the telling of the experience of your characters. If you do it right, and if you do it well, people will see themselves in what you write anyway. That’s been a very useful gift over the years.

As a coda to this discussion, these days, I do know Aimee Mann just a little bit. She and I have been performers on the JoCo Cruise over a number of years, and in that time we’ve hung about in the green room and on the lido deck, had conversations and become friendly to and familiar with each other. To my credit, when I first met her I did not say “Hey, Aimee, thank you for helping me understand creativity, and the nature of my own broken heart, when I was seventeen, you’re awesome” because, you know. That’s a lot to lay on someone the first time you meet them.

But she did, and she did, and she is. I’ve known her long enough now that maybe it’s a little less awkward to have it out there. Thanks, Aimee. You’re pretty great.

— JS

13 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 15: “Coming Up Close,” by Til Tuesday”

  1. I got divorced right about the time “Everything’s Different Now” came out. It was my soundtrack for years. It would take every ounce of my self control not to meet her and immediately offer to build her a temple or something equally as dramatic. Musically empathy is a real gift.

  2. Voices Carry will always be my favorite ‘Til Tuesday song. I was emotionally abused by my parents, mainly my (alleged) mother, for years, and the refrain of “Hush, hush/Keep it down, now/Voices carry!” really spoke to me about how my mother was always so insistent on presenting the facade of one big happy family–but behind closed doors she made it very plain, on multiple occasions, that I was always a burden and a disappointment to her, much like the sentiments expressed in Voices Carry. She’s been gone about two years now, and I can’t honestly say I miss her.

    Thanks, Aimee, for putting those feelings into words when I really needed to hear them. That song helped me to feel less alone.

  3. Wow. ‘Til Tuesday was right in the middle of my 80s New Wave wheelhouse, but I confess I didn’t keep track of Aimee Mann’s career after the group. The above led me to this PBS Newshour interview. I thought I would share it for others.

    In addition to being autistic, I’m also diagnosed with and working through PTSD/cPTSD. And I’ve discovered dissociation not only was but continues to be a very common experience for me. (And that still feels a little strange to me since I didn’t believe I dissociated much at all. Discovering how much it shows up in my daily life has been … eye-opening.)

    In the interview, in response to a question about the way her songs almost reveal joy in sadness and trauma (as in that was a very sad song, I can’t wait to hear it again), she mentions something about the specific creating that effect. (I didn’t go back and listen to that piece again, so I’m sure I garbled it, but it reminded of the point you made.)

    Thanks very much for this post. Now I have an artist for whom I have decades of work to catch up on.

  4. Translating this into SF movies, if I may: Nobody could engage with the emotional specificity of Star Trek – The Motion Picture because there wasn’t any, whereas The Wrath of Khan drew the audience in to an ultimately heartbreaking emotional place. The (G-rated) first movie tried to appeal to everyone and ended up appealing to relatively few; the second one wisely ignored the first and was aimed at fans of the series (and therefore more specific, featuring a villain known from the series) and wound up with broad appeal. An expensive lesson for Paramount.

    My favorite of Aimee Mann’s work is the Bachelor #2 album, not just the songs but the Beatlesque production.

  5. Scott – Love the video. Thanks! Agree that Bachelor #2 (and the associated Magnolia soundtrack) were my introduction to her… and she has been on my favorite list since then.

  6. I adore this song and always have. I did love listening to ‘Til Tuesday during the post-HS later 80s and this and Voices Carry were always wonderful.

    I think it’s the song seemingly simplicity that makes it work. It’s her but it could be anyone. She doesn’t try to make it “so deep” that it’s hard to connect too – like too many seem to do. It’s just a simplistic story… one almost anyone can envision and understand.

    And the music! Even without the lyrics, it’s just wonderful to listen to.

  7. fwiw, Aimee Mann worked for a while at Newbury Comics, when it had the one store on Newbury Street, in Boston.

    “J is for Jules” is apparently about here relationship with the lead of Jules and the Polar Bears (although I’ve not checked the accuracy of this).

  8. “The answer was that in the specifics that belonged to her, she was painting a picture that I understood in my own life”

    Poetry says hello.

  9. I lived in Boston when ’til tuesday first hit with “Voices Carry.” The searing despair and rage of that song – just listen to the fadeout of “I wish he would let me talk” – perfectly captured what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship, and the video is even better. She’s incapable of writing a bad song.

  10. I was today years old when I learned Amiee Mann was in Til Tuesday. My first intro to her knowing her as Amiee Mann was the Magnolia soundtrack.

  11. I saw the video for ‘What about love’ on MTV, bought the album, played it front to back for a whole year straight.

    ‘Welcome home’ will always be one of my Desert Island Discs. Thank you Aimee.

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