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