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

Photo (partial) by Tracy Graham

The arts have always suffered and survived in times of economic depression. Amanda Palmer has forged a career that has not only weathered the recession, but rejects the received wisdom of the music industry. Is she an exception to the rule, or an example other artists should follow?

"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.

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