I’ve established a bit of a reputation for myself as a Professional Amanda Palmer basher, ever since I wrote an angry little parody poem in response to her “Poem for Dhzokhar” which ended up exploding onto BuzzFeed and The Guardian UK. I was never particularly fond of her, even before that — some of her music is fine, sure, but her Neutral Milk Hotel Jukebox Musical left a very sour taste in my mouth1, and her production of Cabaret at the American Repertory Theatre was the single worst (not to mention most masturbatory) professional theatre production I have ever experienced — but it wasn’t until recently that I really started seething at the mention of her continued existence on our shared plane of reality. That might sound a little extreme — she hasn’t, you know, killed anyone or anything — but the cognitive dissonance between the message that Amanda Palmer conveys and the things that she actually does fills me with such vehement anger, that I feel the need to articulate the ongoing problem that she continues to present.
I’m choosing to write about this now is because I’ve had a number of people bring my attention to her latest blog post about Justin Bieber’s arrest, all saying that they awaited my snarky response to it. And while sure, I could do that (hell, maybe I still will), I thought it would be better for me to take the Amanda Palmer approach and express my feelings in a rambling blogpost which I can then in turn proclaim to be “art” and thereby diminish any and all criticisms of my own shortcomings by blowing a raspberry at my detractors and say “IT’S JUST ART YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND I’M JUST TRYING TO EXPRESS MYSELF AND THAT IS BEAUTIFUL.”
…Okay so maybe that was a little harsh. But the biggest problem I have with Amanda Palmer is that I agree with her. Or at least, I want to. In theory, I value the same ideals as her — self-expression, feminism, the power of art, DIY ethics, etc. — and I think it’s truly wonderful that she has built an army of supporters by empowering her fans. When she talks about The Art of Asking, I say yes, that is Punk Rock Ethos 101, and something I’ve subscribed to my entire life. But when she espouses these ideals that I believe so strongly in, she does so in a way that is so self-serving, so narcissistic. It’s no longer about art and fan empowerment; it’s about marketing. It’s the same manipulations employed by shkeevy salesmen and cultists, now aimed at exploiting the disenfranchised kids who never quite fit in. Kids like me. And maybe that’s why I take it so personally — because she has appropriated the values and beliefs that I have always held dear for the sake of self-aggrandizement, and she deflects any and all criticisms with “You’re just saying that because I’m a woman” (which, to be fair, is occasionally true, and I don’t wish to diminish that), or the classic Art School College Freshman defense of “It’s art, you don’t understand.” Both of which might be valid, but they don’t justify everything (not to mention that she is twisting those defenses not for the reasons inherent in them, but to further her own agenda).
Let’s look at some specifics, starting from the present and moving backwards. In her recent Justin Bieber post, Amanda Palmer insists that, rather than reveling in schadenfreude or criticizing the concept of celebrity (in light of Biebs’s recent drunk driving arrest), we should focus our energy on love instead. We shouldn’t make fun of Bieber for being a 19 year old gazillionaire who is painfully out of touch with reality, because frankly, we shouldn’t be mean to anyone. And she’s right about that.
…until she uses that as a segue to remind us again of her horrible “Poem for Dhzokhar” (more on that later. Lots, lots more). So her entire appeal to be nice to each other in light of celebrities making fun of Justin Bieber, was an excuse to capitalize on current events in order to justify something stupid that she did nine months ago. Rather than stop and think and say, “Hey, maybe that ‘Poem for Dhzokhar’ thing I did was kinda stupid. Oh well. Live and learn!” she uses another nationally-focused event to make the conversation all about her. She then shares a poem from a man named Danny Hillis which defended her poem “for” Dhzokhar. Please note Amanda’s word choice when explaining her relationship with Hills:
“he gave a talk – that i watched live from the audience – called ‘the internet could crash, we need plan B.’ then, about two hours after MY talk, we bumped into each other in the lobby.”
That capitalized “MY” is sic, by the way. Because it’s all about her, isn’t it? Of course it is. And so Amanda Palmer shares this poem2 from Danny Hillis which is about her, essentially saying, “See? He gets it! Therefore all other criticisms are irrelevant because this guy with whom I have a personal relationship totally gets it!”
The “it” which was to be gotten, by the way, is “empathy.” The capacity to recognize another’s feelings or emotions. So again, I agree: empathy is important. As a writer, it’s one of my most important tools and abilities. We should be able to empathize with everyone, regardless of how vapid or evil or narcissistic they are. It’s important to try to understand each other (unless you’re a “disabled feminist,” because that’s a marginalized enough group that won’t get you the same kind of attention as a pop start or accused terrorist). However, Amanda Palmer’s “Poem for Dhzokhar” was not about empathy. It never was. After the immediate backlash, she tweeted “the poem is actually about more than you think it is. read it again.” But in her official follow-up blogpost, she explains,
“The last thing i wrote was the title, because that’s usually the last thing i write…i could have called it ‘the past 48 hours’. or ‘everything in my brain right now’.”
…and then proceeds to explain how every line of the poem was actually something happening in her personal life over that week. Which, yes, her experiences that week were certainly filtered through the blanket of fear with which the Tsarnaev’s covered the entire Boston area. So literally what happened was, she wrote a poem (“a poem that took me – no exaggeration – about 9 minutes to write,” she says) about everything that happened in her life in the wake of Boston Marathon Bombing. And then titled it “Poem for Dhzokhar.” And then she had the audacity to claim that it was about empathy. Yes, there are a few lines where she chooses the provocative route of making connections with what happened to/with Dhzokhar. But it wasn’t about recognizing his feelings or emotions. It was, quite literally, about her.
And that’s fine. But here’s where Ms Palmer is in a bit of an unfair predicament. Because she expresses herself much in the same way that a 15 year old high school goth does, with the entire Internet as her black-and-white-composition notebook. But unfortunately, she also happens to be a public figure. As such, there’s a different level of accountability. And we can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether that’s right, or whether that should be the case, or anything else about the nature of celebrity, but in the end, that’s the way it is (perhaps this suggests an ulterior motive in her “Justin-Bieber-Celebrities-Are-People-Too” post?). As such, she is held to a different standard, for better or for worse. Her voice has power, amplified across the Internet and the twitter-bullhorns of her fanbase. When there are that many people listening to you, you don’t get to use the pass of “well whatever it’s just my personal blog and like some little thing I just knocked out in 9 minutes nbd.” Art takes time, and when you’re already a figure in the public eye, you need to realize that there will be more attention paid to every little half-assed thing you do. Just because you have an established fanbase that will eat up every little first-draft-notebook-scribble that you do, doesn’t mean it’s good, and doesn’t mean that you feed it to them.
Both as a celebrity, and as someone born and raised in well-off family in Massachusetts that could monetarily support her endeavors while she was still a struggling artist (to say nothing of the wealth to which she has access thanks to her successful and delightfully talented husband, because it’s not fair to criticize their relationship), Amanda Palmer benefits from certain privileges that she refuses to acknowledge. I don’t doubt that she worked hard as a Human Statue in Harvard Square, or when she first started touring with the Dresden Dolls. But she also had opportunities and advantages that not everyone has. So when she talks about her power of crowdsourcing, and says, “Just ask for money! People will give it to you!” it flies in the face of the struggle artists who need to work two jobs in order to pay for food and rent, and also have to find a way to make (and market!) their art.
As a public figure, Amanda Palmer was privileged enough to have a successful Kickstarter campaign for her album. Me, on the other hand? I’m not so confident that I’d have the time, resources, or amplification to raise $1.2M from generous donors all by myself. So again, while I agree with her belief in the power of crowdsourcing <i>in theory</i>, she doesn’t seem to realize or acknowledge that she is in an advantageous position. Or that she has the influence to inspire 25,000 people – which really isn’t that many people – to empty out their pockets, no matter how poor or struggling they themselves might be.
You could argue that this is their choice, and you’d be right. But I also think it speaks volumes about the cult of personality that she has created for and around herself, which she continues to exploit. She portrays an everyman image that appeases fans by making them feel like they’re on the same level as her, even when they’re not. Don’t get me wrong, as someone who’s incredibly uncomfortable with celebrity worship at any level, I’m all about leveling the playing field between the artist and the audience. But when she brags about an immigrant family putting her and her band up for a night and feeding them, offering up the beds in their already-too-crowded-home so that Amanda and her Grand Theft Orchestra might be comfortable for the evening? In my opinion, that’s crossing the line from socialism to communist corruption. Why doesn’t she, I don’t know, rent a hotel room for the night and give money back to the local economy that already paid $25 a person at a sold out show to see her perform that night? Sure, she may have slipped the family a Franklin on the way out the door, or paid for their groceries for the week. But if she did that, she’s not talking about it, and her silence is certainly not altruistic – it’s because it helps her DIY image. It’s marketing, and it’s disingenuous.
Growing up in the punk rock scene, I was intimately familiar with bands crashing on someone’s floors for days or weeks at a time. I know about the kindness of strangers and the love and support of a scene. But I never witnessed that kind of manipulative abuse. Never saw a band take advantage of hospitality in that way. In my experience, there’s usually a pay-it-forward hierarchy in place, a kind of intra-scene-Karma-point-system. But in the case of Amanda Palmer, all that karma currency flows right back to her. Sure, she gives a voice to her fans: she retweets them, she hugs them, she talks with them, but that’s all done so that when the time comes, they’ll empty out their pockets for her. That’s Emotional Abuse 101.
And then, when criticisms are aimed at her? She spins it right back around. If she’s not using the aforementioned ” it’s art” response, she deflects with “Feminism” or “Community” or “Love” or some other carefully pre-conceived Buzzword rhetoric that makes her detractors look like jerks. Again, I believe in Feminism, and Community, and Love. But those things shouldn’t be used as excuses for narcissism. Sometimes in the face of criticism, you need to take a good look at yourself – you need to check your privilege, as it were – and say “Well hey, maybe that’s a valid point.” Instead, she is the emotional manipulator in the relationship who says, “Well you helped me last time…” “Well I did this for you…”
Consider the case of the crowdsourced musicians for her recent tour. For those unfamiliar, she put out an ask for professional musicians (strings & horns) in local venues to volunteer to perform with her band, in exchange for “free hugs and beer.” Considering the fact that she had just very publicly made $1.2 million on Kickstarter, this was immediately met with criticisms saying “Hey, no, how about you pay us.” Of course, there were people that jumped at the chance to perform with her, and in true Amanda Palmer fashion, as long as one emotionally manipulated fan is in wholehearted support of your endeavor, everything else is justified without question.
This is another prime example of taking a staple of punk rock/DIY ethos and twisting it for personal benefit. I used to love going to shows and being able to jump up on stage and yell along with a band. And hey, I’ve seen bands – major ones, like Weezer and Green Day – invite audience members up on stage in the middle of a show to play guitar on a song. That stuff’s great! It’s a fun opportunity that makes for a great story for the fan, and makes the band look cool. It worked both ways.
But in Amanda Palmer World, it was all about her, no matter what kind of rhetoric she used to twist it otherwise. When the criticisms first hit, she argued that the tour was already costing $34k just to pay her standard accompanists. Let’s do some quick math here: let’s say she was playing 2,000-person capacity venues, times $25 a ticket, times 35 tour dates. That’s a gross of $1.75 million. Assume the venues kept half – hell, two-thirds of that – and minus the expense for her existing band, and that’s still well over $500,000.
Remind me again why she couldn’t pay musicians? Ah, yes, right, because they were willing to play without pay. You would think that, after years spent working as a living statue, Amanda Palmer would be a bit more sympathetic to the frequent exploitation of working-class artists (*cough*communism*cough*), and I’m sure she is – except when it works in her favor. Of course, Palmer ultimately decided to pay her musicians, but only after the internet exploded with insipid hatred towards her.
“i’ve spent the past week thinking hard about this, listening to what everyone was saying and discussing. i hear you. i see your points. me and my band have discussed it at length. and we have decided we should pay all of our guest musicians. we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it.”
That’s the closest that she’s ever come to a genuine mea culpa. Right? But then let’s take a careful look at her word choice there: “we have decided” “we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it.” Now, I understand trying to save face in the light of a negative PR backlash. But she still claimed all agency for the decision. She thought long and hard about it and did not buckle at all from outside pressures and decided for herself that yes, this was the best decision to make.
It was the best decision to make for her.
Granted, not all of Amanda Palmer’s fans are manipulated drones. Hell, some of my best friends are Amanda Palmer fans (literally!). And while I’m certainly not the first to address any of her past decisions, I still felt the need to articulate my grievances with her continued emotional manipulation and narcissistic exploitation of things that I hold dear. In conclusion, this was a good 3,000 words that distracted me from writing the other, more important things that I should be working on, because the Internet. And if any of you Amanda Palmer fans out there are looking for artists to support that won’t take advantage of you and will still offer some level of personal fulfillment, I can name at least a couple dozen (in addition to myself) that could use your support. (<– See what I did there? Now it’s all about me!)
All that being said, I do think that her response to the misogynistic comments leveled at her by The Daily Mail was pretty great.
1. In defense of the students at Lexington High School involved in this production, the opportunity to devise a musical with a professional musician is pretty damn cool. I wish I could have done that in high school. And it’s important to teach young artists to take risks, to push boundaries. The play was an amazing opportunity for those students involved, and I suspect it had a positive influence on their lives. I don’t want wish to detract that. I just wish that it was good, that Amanda Palmer was a better guide for them. Because sometimes limitations can strengthen a work of art. Back to where you were
2. I’m trying not to let my Inner Literary Critic get too crazy here, but just because a written something has line breaks, does not make it a “poem.” Of course, the rote Amanda Palmer response to this would be that I don’t get to define what is or is not a “poem,” any more than I could proclaim something as “art” or “not art.” Once again, this is the kind of rhetoric used by stoned college freshmen. And hey man, I love sitting around and talking about intangible philosophical concepts as much as the next guy, but at some point you gotta shut up and go to work and realize that your semantic arguments don’t mean a god damn thing. Back to where you were