Art Endures, Capitalism Degenerates: The Evolving Career of Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer
Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
Roadrunner

“Don’t try to explain it. Just sell it.”

— Colonel Tom Parker

“But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see…”

— from John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’, which Palmer sang for Occupy Wall Street,

On 12 October, Amanda Palmer materialised at Zuccotti Park, New York, and played a few songs for the benefit of an idea called Occupy Wall Street (OWS). “We vow,” reads its declaration of principles, “to end the monied corruption of our democracy.” It’s an idea around which other ideas gather, and then multiply. The idea is honest, necessary, beautiful, and to a certain extent, open to interpretation.

Then again, so is Palmer.

Later, I curiously sit down to watch the performance at the speed of internet, across an ocean, from my dark, faraway lair in Scotland. I see Palmer — elfin, tousled, feline, eyebrows drawn in delicate arabesques, clutching a battered, scotch-taped ukulele, looking down on her smiling, placard-wielding audience like a benevolent giantess; I hear ‘Working Class Hero’ — John Lennon at his most rewardingly bitter — and ‘World Turned Upside Down’ — a song about 17th century agrarian communists, given unexpected life by a full-throated American accent. And I think, not for the first time: “Amanda Palmer will never stop surprising me.”

Elsewhere, celebrity endorsements for the protests have been steadily forthcoming — Tim Robbins, Tom Morello, the usual suspects for whom it would probably be a poor career move not to comment — but much of it has been observational and restrained. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Occupy Wall Street — like the nascent anti-globalisation movements of a decade ago, from which it appears to draw much organisational influence and patchwork ideology — seems to have left the gliteratti behind; their influence seems marginal, their involvement awkward, however well-meaning. In these circles, Slajov Zizek holds more weight than Susan Sarandon.

Palmer’s appearance at OWS will probably not shatter that trend (though the idea of the former Dresden Doll leading a political movement is an intriguing fantasy), but as ever, she does not fit the status quo; her impromptu ‘ninja gig’ — Palmer’s preferred term for the beloved, intimate short-notice performances that have become something of a trademark for her — was as appropriate as it was unexpected. The spectacle of Palmer, of all people, emerging spontaneously amidst the ranks of the disparate and the disenfranchised and voicing her support with some well-placed agitprop makes more sense (and, if you’ll allow a lapse of cynicism, it rings truer) than the sight of some other celebrities doing the same. (Kanye, I’m looking at you.)

It’s not just that Palmer’s whole career has, in a very entertaining way, been practiced as a kind of direct action. It’s because there are few other artists working at her level that have actively rejected the contemporary corporate consensus of how a music career is built, sustained and paid for… and lived to tell the tale. Not for nothing did David Geffen once say that when the music business turns against you, “they don’t want you to fail — they want you to die.”

The various critiques of capitalism asserted by Occupy Wall Street are brave and vital and arguably self-evident, but nothing new. I have well-thumbed copies of Marx — and Chuck Palahniuk, for that matter — that confirm as much. What is very much new, primal and steaming is the anger at a system which has demonstrably failed, but to which no alternative seems permitted; at hideous realities which are enforced upon us all, at our own expense, without mandate; at the idea that there is a certain way in which the world does, or does not, ‘work’, that the only choice is between playing the game and becoming economic carrion, and that those who fail to recognise that are no less than doomed.

At a glance, Amanda Palmer is a talented singer with a respectable cult following and a degree of fame; unconventional, but unremarkable. Yet in the context of a post-recession music industry as dangerous and unpredictable as any dying animal, which was already bleeding money to online piracy and subscribes to the same circus logic as the one percent that has driven people to the streets, Palmer has toppled titans, made water run uphill and proven to her own satisfaction that 1 + 1 = 3.

Now, the question of the hour is: Can others do the same?

“There was a time when i wanted to be a Pop Star. or a Rock Star. I didn’t know the difference back then.”

— Amanda Palmer

Rewind to the end of August. Palmer’s return to Edinburgh, at the height of festival season, is a Roman triumph. Her regular visits to Scotland’s capital have bred a particularly hardcore version of the loyalty that permeates much of her fandom; every performance — from ninja gigs in crowded, hastily arranged cellars to the expansive, opulent surroundings of the HMV Picturehouse, where I go to see her for the second time — is guaranteed to bring them crawling out of the woodwork.

Any sizable performance by Palmer typically takes on a circus atmosphere; colourful, theatrical, exuberant, exhilarating and sometimes, a little sinister and threatening. There’s a sense of anything and everything being present and permitted, in spirit halfway between the Kit Kat Club and the Rolling Thunder Revue; a travelling carnival with an ever-changing cast of eclectic singers, local musicians, dancers, performance artists and sundry other strays drawn into Palmer’s circle.

When I last saw her at the Picturehouse, two years prior, she was clad in her then-familiar costume of punkish, thrift store Victoriana and art school corsetry. Now, as she bestrides the stage to a sustained roar from the crowd, she wears a look that can only be described as Eighties Space Amazon, dressed and painted in skintight silver and black, more fearsome and imposing than ever, stomping and jumping and gesticulating like a pantomime pirate without a shred of vanity, but vast oceans of self-belief. Unlike other performers who excessively enjoy the dressing-up box, it never seems as though Palmer is trying on disposable identities for size; the woman is even more unpredictable than the wardrobe.

Her piano playing, one moment gorgeously delicate and lilting, the next artfully sloppy, the next crashing and violent, is immediately and recognisably unique; each little flourish brings to mind pianists from Tom Waits to Matt Bellamy to Chico Marx (sometimes simultaneously), but succeeds in forging its own distinct sound. Her voice can travel the distance from raw, throaty whispers to rich, operatic bellows deeper than any other contemporary female singer I can think of, all without a shred of artificiality. She veers from the emotional and introspective to the bombastic and ridiculous with barely a second breath.

The set encompasses old Dresden Dolls numbers, songs from her debut solo album (the Ben Folds-produced Who Killed Amanda Palmer?), work-in-progress new material (she asks the audience not to record these, and touchingly, they seem to yield to her request), comic cabaret novelties and wry covers of unexpected classics. She talks, she jokes, she takes periodic swigs of beer, introduces a voluptuous belly dancer, and eventually demands that the audience join her and the band in a vigorous work-out routine to the sudden blare of ‘Safety Dance’, before leaping off the stage and swimming through a sea of cheering, laughing humanity. And that was just the first half.

Partway through all this, I realise that there are probably people who would pay good money to watch Palmer exercise in front of them (I further realise that, inadvertently, I have become one of them). But more importantly, what I suspected when I first saw her sing, and what is particularly exciting to a curmudgeon who spends his days listening to old music and chasing old ghosts, is that Palmer may be approaching the most interesting part of her career: when the artist, after all the false starts and failed experiments, knows what they want to do, and attacks those goals with savage and single-minded ferocity, and does it in a way that is entirely new.

I think of Lou Reed with an iron cross shaved onto a skull that hides a keen and poetic intelligence, simulating shooting up with the microphone cord before blowing the doors off the place; I think of Ian Dury, sweat-drenched and winking, riding through English towns like an art school crime lord with a gang of pub rock criminals; I think of Tom Waits singing songs of romance and desolation to smoke-filled after-hours joints, with a drink resting on the piano. I think of artists at the turning point, in the white-hot prime of their creative lives — and increasingly, Palmer starts too look like one of them.

Hot, Not Hungry

But like all the artists I mention, there are signs that she dances on the edge of a precipice, albeit of a different kind from the reliably drug-addled legends of yesteryear. Palmer’s relationship with her fanbase (she blogs almost compulsively, and has a well-earned place amongst the Twitterati) is something that Palmer has, against all odds, turned into something unique and sincere, and such constant exposure means that the world has been able to follow the development of her career — and the misadventures behind it — with unusual closeness. It is through this relationship, and Palmer’s sometimes dangerous honesty, that the agenda behind her work becomes comprehensible.

“there is a collection of angry men who are railing against me. it’s no longer me & my band against the world. they are now looking at me as a woman alone on stage, and they don’t like it… in their minds i will either turn into: 1) madonna meets liza minelli (and play madison square garden and make them millions of dollars) or 2) a completely cult phenomenon (and play clubs of 500-1000 people in every city and make them no money). they think i’m doing everything in my power to become the latter. they are only partly right.”

— Amanda Palmer, blog post, 28 November 2008.

A concise account of that career is difficult; the prolific variety of Palmer’s work means that each project demands its own spotlight, to be seen on its own terms. The Dresden Dolls — the “Brechtian cabaret punk” duo she formed with drummer/collaborator Brian Viglione — was an enterprise that almost from its inception set out to defy and subvert the assumptions their image aroused, repelled by the ‘gothic’ cliches it associated them with. Such concerns never troubled Roadrunner, a subsidiary of Warner Music, to which Palmer signed in 2003 and then spent the next six years trying agonizingly to extricate herself from.

Admittedly, the label never seemed a good fit for Palmer, to say the least — something which both Palmer and Roadrunner seemed to quickly figure out for themselves. Roadrunner had a slew of profitable heavy metal behemoths that played to the niche Roadrunner felt comfortable with, but it rapidly become clear that the label had no idea — no good idea, anyway — of how to handle or promote an artist like Palmer, despite (or perhaps because) she brought with her a niche-audience all of her own that was difficult to define.

While at first their new corporate connections helped the Dresden Dolls to achieve airplay and garner overseas press, it soon seemed that the label was doing more harm than good. Having done little to promote Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, the relationship was further damaged by a series of ham-fisted attempts to ‘handle’ Palmer, which culminated in an infamous falling out over the video for her single ‘Leeds United’, after Roadrunner suggested cutting or digitally altering certain shots of Palmer’s exposed stomach.

It must take a certain hardwired capacity for self-delusion to see Palmer as overweight, and watching the ‘Leeds United’ video afresh, in which Palmer struts, poses and glows with unrestrained mischief and passion, it’s still hard to see how it could be improved by some visible rib-bones. “i’m not TRYING to look hungry,” Palmer wrote on her blog, “I’m trying to look HOT.”

The controversy — a shortcut to the ever-popular discussion of celebrity body image — gained an inordinate amount of media attention before dying down, but the damage was done. “a few weeks later,” Palmer blogged, ” i had a meeting with the owner of the label. he said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. and he thinks that someday i’ll see the light and write some better songs. i told him i made exactly the record i wanted to make… he shook his head and felt sorry for me.”

There are a lot of ways a singer or musician can express their displeasure with their record company; the fact that Lou Reed recorded Metal Machine Music, a double album of meticulously produced feedback, in order to get out of a record contract in the most undiplomatic way possible has become a minor legend. Palmer took the direct approach, and began actively campaigning to be dropped by Roadrunner — even writing a song to that effect — which the label perversely refused to do for as long as possible. They seemed determined to squeeze as much as they could from Palmer, for as little effort as possible.

“…Because it still hasn’t gotten weird enough for me.”

— Bill Murray, Where the Buffalo Roam

Meanwhile, her career evolved. She put out a gorgeously realised book of photography, portraying her playing dead in a variety of poses and dispatched by a variety of grisly means, accompanied by prose and poetry from Neil Gaiman, the acclaimed bestselling fantasy author (and since his marriage to Palmer, contender for the title of Luckiest Bastard Alive). She starred as the Master of Ceremonies in a Boston production of Cabaret, and staged a play at her old high school based on the music of Neutral Milk Hotel.

She did an entire album of Radiohead covers, performed solely on the ukulele. She recorded a single about an Oasis fanatic aborting the pregnancy that resulted from being raped. A second musical duo was formed, this time with Jason Webley, in which the pair portray two conjoined sisters — Evelyn Evelyn — that have escaped from the circus (a graphic novel based on their exploits will be published shortly).

Any one of these notions, by the conventional wisdom of the industry, is commercial poison. Yet the kind of eccentric side-project that other artists might allow themselves as an indulgence between profitable, ‘proper’ albums have almost become Palmer’s exclusive province. She stopped having a career in spite of the music industry, and built one that seemed to exist in open defiance of it — not merely by presenting an avant garde or ‘outsider’ image, or even by having the bravery to produce worthwhile but proudly uncommercial work, but by finding a way to avoid the compromises that most artists resign themselves to, bypassing the mechanisms by which they are supposed to survive — and found her way much more effective.

“I’ve built up such an independent empire while being signed up to a major label that it hasn’t even mattered what kind of label I’m on because I’m functioning independently anyway,” she told Pitchfork in 2009, “I’ve managed to do an entire world tour with almost no promotional help from them. That’s the paradox: I’m signed to this major label but I’m a totally DIY operation. My fans are so much more powerful than the media or the label… and it’s fucking incredible.” (“Amanda Palmer Tells Roadrunner Records: ‘Please Drop Me'”, by Ryan Dombal, 1 April 2009)

Palmer is rare, but not a singular phenomenon. Sufjan Stevens — he who vowed to write an album for every state in America, released a collection of electronica based on the Chinese zodiac, wrote a multimedia tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and a dozen other projects besides — of a similar example of a phenomenally talented songwriter that has followed his muse through whatever territory it may take him, and it’s difficult to imagine him any other way; he still writes the cheques at Asthmatic Kitty, the label he runs with his former stepfather where, Stevens told me during a 2009 interview, they are “artists first”. There’s no rule that others cannot live the same way.

There will be well-meaning pragmatists who would call Palmer’s career something to admire, but not emulate. I’m reminded of something a film student friend of mine once said about the paradox of his classes on Orson Welles: students are taught everything about Welles’ life and work in tones of breathless awe… before being told, in the same way children are warned against falling into a life of crime, that his is not a career path they should follow.

There’s a touch of truth in that; Palmer’s multifaceted career is not a format that can easily be copied. And the extraordinary transcend, one way or another; it’s a clue to their nature. However, as times grow hard, the matter at hand might not be whether aspiring artists should wander from the well-beaten track, but if they have any other option. In an embittered economy, where technology marches terrifying on and the old certainties of a bloated, self-satisfied music industry appear to die on the vine, the old path to a career in the arts is increasingly blocked.

At the time of writing, Occupy Wall Street continues to gain momentum. In spite of mass media sneers, the astonishing variety of groups, individuals and ideologies involved seems to be fueling that momentum, rather than confusing the issue. But if and when it stops, the challenge issued by the idea at its core must be answered: Is there another way of doing things? Can we make the world work a different way?

If we can, it will not be a way of fortune without limit. It will not be mansions and private jets and end-of-year bonuses and pillowcases full of drugs. The music industry, and many others besides, might do well to ponder Tyler Durden’s dream of a world in Fight Club, “stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center…” Or we might, if we dream well enough, find a way to distinguish music from the money that can be made from it, and discover that, as it turns out, the world works the way we tell it to work.

That remains to be seen, and I have vast reserves of pessimistic cynicism which remain untouched. But if any of that is possible, it will be a revolution Palmer — and every brave artist like her — helped begin.

“i want to be happy. i want to make people happy. i do not need to be rich to do that.”

— Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer performing for Occupy Wall Street Protestors – Photo by Katie Sokoler / Gothamist

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