Amanda Palmer named an album Theatre Is Evil, and she’s got a point. She knows, probably better than most, the incredible power of just getting up on a box with your piano or your ukulele or whatever, and speaking your mind. Palmer started her career literally standing on a box, as a street busker, and she’s built her fanbase through the unconventional means of interfacing with fans directly via social media. She’s earned her share of controversy, mainly from critics (and peers) who cannot wrap their heads around how crowdsourcing and direct patronage even works, and insist that those things have got to be in some way wrong because they cannot understand such a novel model of artist/fan relations. The no-middleman business model isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked out pretty dang well for Amanda Fucking Palmer, and besides all that, it’s given her a unique platform for her activism. She has her very own grassroots network of dedicated supporters, people who may have come for the music but who’ve stayed for the political engagement and consciousness raising. Palmer has always been outspoken in her feminism and keenly aware of her power, as an artist, to be heard and the responsibility to share stories and amplify other voices. Right now, in suddenly turbulent times, she’s tapping and amplifying a deeper rage, as the stakes in activism become increasingly life or death. Amanda Palmer is very serious about being the a spokesvoice for women who are livid with rage and fear, and using her network to blur the lines between entertainment and political action. The personal is the political is the entertainment is the culture is the agent of change.
I wish singing was as natural and easy as Amanda Palmer makes it sound. According to her, anyone can just unlock their voice and sing out. (Cat Stevens says the same thing.) It’s not true, of course; some people don’t have the innate ability, while some don’t have the courage. But it is a beautiful idea, best taken as a broad metaphor for the magic of self-expression. Amanda Palmer, as she writes in her book, believes that self-expression is free to anyone, and vulnerability, and putting yourself out there, and asking for whatever you need to ask for. It’s a beautiful and inspiring idea, and I’m sure that it’s helped a great many people. She doesn’t ever really confront all of the ways that those things are insurmountable for some people. She doesn’t seem to understand that some people have no one to reach out to. But it’s not that kind of a book, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It is not Amanda Palmer’s calling in life to confront the structures of disenfranchisement. Her calling is to inspire the people who have something to reach for, to reach for it. That’s pretty damn noble, in its own way, and it’s needed.
Amanda Palmer just can’t stop being controversial, at least in the small corner of our culture where indie music is subject of serious discussion. Controversy is to be expected for a very emotionally and intellectually unfiltered person who lives her life on social media, as Amanda does. I’m not sure how and why we’re at a cultural moment where we’re having a heated discussion about a 12 year old song by a now defunct indie band, but here we are, so let’s have the damn conversation. Is Amanda Fucking Palmer transphobic? I mean, I think that we can agree that as a person, she is not. She is super pro-everyone being who they are and having the freedom and the right to do so. Is she an over-privileged white feminist and cis person who hasn’t quite grasped the nuances of intersectional identity politics? Oh yeah. So maybe she didn’t realize that it isn’t very nice, to say the least, to use language crudely referring to medical sex change – a physically, emotionally and politically fraught experience that many very vulnerable people struggle to go through – as a lyrical gimmick. I’ve always taken it as a broad metaphor, but listening closely, I can’t figure out what exactly the metaphor really is. It may be very broadly saying that personal growth can sometimes be traumatic. We change ourselves, and are changed by life, in extreme and violent ways. My best guess is she’s trying to say that society is cruel and dehumanizing in its expectations and often forces people to undergo painful and invasive changes, medical and otherwise, in order to become someone they’re not or someone they think they need to be. Which is a good point to make. We are all in a constant state of cutting and chopping away at ourselves in pursuit of, well, selfhood, it’s very often not even a very authentic self, and it’s usually female people who are hurting themselves to conform to externally enforced social expectations. But trans people who pursue identity-confirmation procedures in order to live their identities are not the same as women who are being oppressed by social standards, it’s a false equivalency, and one should not be used as a metaphor for the other. All of which, I know, is very complicated if you don’t spend time immersing yourself in these issues. And this is a song that was released 12 years ago, when these issues were not being discussed as much as they are today, so you can’t expect the same standard of cultural sensitivity. Something that was just fine 12 years ago may trouble you now, it may trouble you enough to thoroughly sour your enjoyment or it may not. It really depends of how much you were getting from the artist in the first place, and how much you still need from them.
At the risk of forfeiting all my street cred as a serious music critic, I’ll say this; Radiohead is the most ridiculously overrated band in living memory. They’re one of those bands that pretentious people shit themselves praising, and I, I just don’t get it. They’re just so boring to me. That’s it. I don’t hate them, I don’t disagree with them, I won’t run screaming from the room if one of their albums comes on. They bore me to death. Then there’s this creepy little lullaby, which I’ve always made an exception for. I’ve always liked it, but it takes the amazing Amanda Fucking Palmer to give it the ukulele treatment it deserves. Palmer’s EP of all ukulele, all Radiohead covers was certainly a novelty project, a happy side effect of the singer learning a new instrument, but this rises far above novelty or toss-off. She brings out an intimacy in the song that wasn’t apparent in the original, not least because she enunciates the lyrics. It’s one of those unexpected moments when homage overshadows predecessor.
“There’s no Hitler and no Holocaust, no winter and no Santa Claus”
I’ve seen Amanda Fucking Palmer play on three separate occasions; as one half of The Dresden Dolls, with her band The Grand Theft Orchestra, and alone on a stage with her ukulele. And each time she’s wrung an entirely different range of emotional nuance from the same set of songs. Obviously, she didn’t play the exact same setlist every time, but the same songs do come up, and she interprets them differently each time. It can get boring for an artist to play the same hits note for note for year after year, so it’s hardly radical to want to change things up. But I think in Palmer’s case, because her writing is so personal and her relationship with her audience so intimate, that the changes in the way she plays her older material very much reflect where she is in her head and in her heart at any given time. Thus, the intensely theatrical quality of her Dresden Dolls performances may have been a facade of youthful bravado, while the unvarnished intimacy of her most recent shows reflect the joy and insecurity of an artist entering an uncharted level of maturity. Palmer was, on her latest tour, celebrating the publication of her first book and the impending arrival of her first child. Not surprisingly, emotions ran high. Being a published author and a parent is a degree of respectability that even people who actively expect those things for themselves find overwhelming. Amanda Palmer, who’s made her career dodging around outside the conventions of respectable expectations, is wrestling out a lot of ambivalent feelings as she redefines her identity as an artist and as a woman. Taking such huge steps in life inevitably forces one to reexamine themselves, who they are, who they’ve been all their lives, who they’re about to become, and if they’re public figures, they have to examine who they are to their fans. Amanda Palmer plays all of those things out on stage, as her professional identity evolves along with her personal life. Which is part of what makes her one of the most compelling and original voices of her time.
This is the first Dresden Dolls song I ever heard. It blew my mind. I think it’s a clear illustration of why I fell in love with this band and why I had to have their names tattooed on my body. They no longer play together, though Amanda Palmer remains a fabulous beacon of inspiration. But although they didn’t produce a huge discography, what they did produce is enough to place them in the pantheon. It simply doesn’t happen that often, that moment when, after hearing just one song, you know you’ve discovered an artist who’s going be a part of your life forever. And it feels like they already have been a part of your life, you just didn’t know it. It was definitely a ‘where have you been all my life?’ moment with The Dresden Dolls, and I will definitely follow Amanda Palmer forever. Her aesthetic combines pretty much every single thing I’m drawn to; she’s theatrical, glamorous, subversive, intelligent, sexually liberated, witty, socially conscious and a nice person on top of all that! A true Classy Lady.
Who else can write such a perceptive song about statutory rape? From the viewpoint of a needy, vindictive Lolita who doesn’t know herself if she’s the victim or the perpetrator. It’s obviously a little creepy, but it’s also the best five minute look into the complexity of female sexuality you’ll ever hear. It’s a musical reflection of a very adolescent mentality; the desire to be desired at any cost, and the simultaneous disgust and resentment at being desired, and the childish urge to lash out in anger and yet still expect to be loved. Most of us grow out of feeling this way, I hope, but I think every girl has toyed with the idea of playing Lolita. Some find the fantasy exciting and even empowering, some find themselves in situations that leave them traumatized for life. I shouldn’t have to clarify that this is not a relationship dynamic I’m in favor of, nor should anyone be, but as a fantasy it’s potent and very, very dangerous. I consider myself extremely lucky to have lived through my Lolita years without getting harmed; not everyone gets the privilege to come of age unmolested. We all spend time dwelling on the power we wield as sexual beings, and how that power can potentially be abused, how it can be stripped away from us, and how we can use it to hurt others. It’s the topic of a lot of harmful rhetoric and sick fantasy, but it’s rarely discussed intelligently, rarely discussed with empathy, rarely discussed in any way that’s helpful to those most at risk of being steamrolled by the harmful forces of desire. Certainly never before in a pop song, and perhaps a pop song isn’t anywhere near to enough, but we’re under-served here; we’ll take whatever nugget of empowering sentiment we can get to help us live to adulthood.
If there’s one thing the world is badly in need of in these troubled times, it’s a liberating tribute to the beauty of pubic hair. Thank god Amanda Palmer is on hand to fill that need! She’s here to rap, sing, dance, and model all the latest merkin fashions. But seriously, I want the Van Gogh one! As a musician, performance artist, free digital tits advocate and author, Amanda Palmer couldn’t possibly be a better heroine. Her cheeky brand of body-positive, sex-positive, self-empowering feminism is enormously inspiring. Because the conversation about how to be a woman today – how to be liberated, how to help others towards their own liberation, etc – isn’t just happening in academia; it’s happening through art and music and on social media and down on the ground in mosh pits every day. Palmer’s latest contribution to the cultural conversation, her new book The Art of Asking, is sitting on my dining table right now, shiny and begging to be read. I have not begun reading it yet, as I am still wallowing in Morrissey’s rather difficult Autobiography. I will get back to you on both works as soon as I can.