radio vulture

The Amanda Palmer Problem: How Does a Cult Musician Become a Figure to Be Mocked?

 Singer Amanda Palmer attends The Anatomy of Amanda Fucking Palmer: An Inside Look during the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas.
Singer Amanda Palmer attends The Anatomy of Amanda Fucking Palmer: An Inside Look during the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas. Photo: Earl Mcgehee/Gety Images

There’s a large and growing number of people who know Amanda Palmer only nominally as a musician and recognize her instead as a small-scale media personality, Internet character, or frequent object of derision. This situation might be slightly unfair, but it’s also perfectly natural, and I suspect there are things about social relationships and art and the web that can be learned from it.

From the beginning of her career, Palmer’s fit a divisive archetype, one you might picture in a late-eighties teen movie or college novel: the extroverted drama-club kid whose classmates view her as weird, pretentious, and obnoxiously attention-seeking. This is not a bad type to be; the eye-rolls of strangers are easily shrugged off, and if you make successful art, there are those who’ll receive you as a hero. I’d argue that Palmer’s first act, the “cabaret punk” duo Dresden Dolls, made very successful art: There’s a brave high melodrama to the music that can only come from a songwriter who’s congenitally theatrical and totally unworried about seeming (or being!) pretentious, grandiose, uncool. By their second album, Yes, Virginia, Palmer was conjuring some of the same wit and emotional specificity that marked the melodramatic weirdos and drama-club heroes of yesteryear — including, say, Morrissey, whose vocal inflections echo neatly through tracks like “Backstabber.” Fans can connect to that sort of thing with alarming intensity — especially now, in an era when Internet fandom for solo artists can quickly become a creepy overheated cult of personality worship. Palmer’s put admirable time and work into nurturing those connections.

So, how does a cult musician like that become a figure of popular sport? A lot of circumstances conspired to introduce her to the larger public, from a heavy online presence to her relationship with popular writer Neil Gaiman. But the turning point came when she broke from her label, took to Kickstarter to crowd-source funding for her next project, and raised — remarkably, unexpectedly — more than a million dollars. This constituted an actual general-interest news story, in which Palmer’s accomplishment could be touted as proving something important concerning “the future of music.” (That claim’s a questionable one: It’s been clear for a while now that artists with major-label histories and established audiences can gather fans around independent projects, at least the first time out. So?) And negative reactions to that press were merely warm-up for the main hating-Palmer event, which arrived when she, in the course of assembling a tour, asked fans to volunteer at various stops to play strings and horns as part of her band, unpaid. This was, technically, just another facet of that intimate connection with the audience — letting them participate in the music-making, a daydream-come-true for plenty of fans. But when you’ve just raised more than a million dollars from fans and sold them tickets to your show, it’s evidently poor PR to ask them to perform for free — and even more unseemly to claim, when criticized, that you literally can’t afford to do otherwise. It’s also an open invitation for curious parties to investigate your finances, and when other musicians did so, they tended to be baffled. Palmer suggested she was returning her Kickstarter windfall to fans in the forms of lavish gifts for donors; others saw her rough budget breakdowns as a festival of profligacy and unnecessary costs. There were also, as a matter of routine, those strangers who didn’t much care either way but found Palmer’s entire manner of being vaguely off-putting.

She’s politely explained and defended her choices at length on her blog, but the forum Palmer chose to unpack her philosophy as a whole turned out to be both the most ideologically friendly and the easiest to mock: She recently gave a TED talk. As TED talks go, it hit all of the right marks. She wrapped the length of her career, from street performer to lecturer, around the kind of single, simple insight that appeals to people who regularly consume fairy tales about creatively “disrupting” established business models and summoning Utopia via wWi-Fi. Her relationship with fans, she explained, is the economic equivalent of crowd-surfing — leaping out into an ocean of people and trusting their love and enthusiasm to keep you afloat. This may not be understood, she noted, by the casual observer; it may seem in some way that she’s begging for indulgence and resources. But what those observers don’t see, she said, is that an actual exchange is taking place between her and the audience, in an economy that consists partly of cash money, but also of art, love, care, reassurance, joy, and other literally invaluable gifts. She described a fan’s family, undocumented immigrants from Honduras, sleeping in their front room so she and her band could crash on their beds, and she described herself wondering: “Is this fair?” In the morning, she was told in broken English how much her music meant to the daughter who invited her, and thanked for coming, and she decided: Yes, this is fair.

I have sympathy for this argument, because the exchange she’s talking about really does get lost when we talk about the economics of art; we focus on material questions of who should pay for what, and often act as though the attention and approval artists get from us is a bigger gift than the world full of art we get from them. However: Palmer’s logic here is itself generally identical to cold, hard free-market capitalism. Yes, the exchange she’s describing is “fair” — everyone involved is willing and happy to engage in it. It’s also “fair” to pay someone minimum wage for work that makes you millions, and fair for a male musician to spend every night having sex with starstruck, consenting young fans, but fairness is not the same thing as nobility, and neither of those arrangements is something you’d present as a revolutionary new relationship. Also not new: the very notion of music as a do-it-yourself gift-based community exchange. One reason some musicians have banged their heads on walls over Palmer’s post-Kickstarter press is that they’ve been doing this sort of thing all the time for decades — independent music in this country is a vast laboratory of artists and fans collaborating to sustain niche scenes, a context that’s weirdly unacknowledged when Palmer talks about her career. (Low-overhead cost-cutting is so second-nature to them that the million-dollar budget was bound to look profoundly indulgent.) Neither is it new to “give music away for free,” which every musician now does, like it or not; encouraging and assisting free access is meaningful, sure, but acting as if it’s remarkable is like two parents giving their 28-year-old child permission to have sex: It’s already happening.

I hesitate to even point this stuff out, both because it’s been remarked on at length over the past year, and because it amounts, in the aggregate, to an astonishing glut of policing the way Amanda Palmer feels like making art. It’s not, after all, like she’s defrauding or preying on anyone, which is more than can be said for people in countless other corners of the music world. And while the level of attention paid to her business is driven partly by serious debates that she willingly participates in, it seems just as much driven by the fact that many people inevitably find Palmer herself — her manner, music, eyebrows, gender, whatever — fun to hate. See, for instance, her latest gust of controversy: posting, on her blog, a piece of writing entitled “a poem for dzhokhar,” a text soon enough virally hate-read by large numbers of people. Oh, the poem’s a bit silly and meaningless; and there’s something either really disingenuous or absurdly context-blind about Palmer thinking she could spend nine minutes writing lines referencing a captured terrorist, post it online, and not get groans and jeers in return; and sure, I find it incredibly annoying when artists respond to substantive criticism by suggesting that their art must be wonderful to have gotten so many people talking. But you might argue that this is the sort of annoyance from which the world can easily look away; doesn’t there come a point where people are pointing and groaning at the “attention-seeking” person because we’re actually getting something out of it?

And that, really, is why I address this, because I think there’s a lesson to be learned from Palmer, and it’s not the falling-into-the-crowd lesson she offers. Yes, she’s correct: The web offers an opportunity to fall into the open arms of fans, in ways that weren’t available before. Here’s the catch: The web also makes it near-impossible to fall into the arms of just one’s fans. Each time you dive into the crowd, some portion of the audience before you consists of observers with no interest in catching you. And you are still asking them to, because another thing the web has done is erode the ability to put something into the world that is directed only at interested parties. Its content isn’t like a newsletter mailed discreetly to private homes; it’s like a magazine on a newsstand, asking to be purchased. Telling the world all about your life can look generous to fans and like a barrage of narcissism to everyone else. Those who used certain mobile devices to visit Palmer’s blog with the intention of mocking her poem were greeted with a pop-up asking if they’d be interested in downloading the official Amanda Palmer app. This is a way of using technology to reach out to and engage interested fans, yes, but it’s also indistinguishable from the intrusive begging of any corporation — say, if I went to the Hardee’s website to marvel at the number of calories in their food and was greeted with requests to sign up for a customer loyalty program. In recent months, Kickstarter’s been used to crowd-source funding for a Veronica Mars movie (i.e., a corporate endeavor, using grassroots methods to mitigate economic risk); it’s currently being used by well-known actor Zach Braff to fund an independent project, sparking predictable disdain from people who dislike Braff and wouldn’t see his film no matter how it was funded. They might feel like he’s asking them to pitch in anyway, and the truth is that he is: It’s damnably difficult to carve a private audience out of the open web, and the artist reaching out to fans is, ultimately, not necessarily any different from a commercial entity reaching out for sales, market share, and the kind of customer engagement that nets Applebee’s enthusiasts the occasional free appetizer coupon. It just depends on if you like Applebee’s or not. It’s amazing how many of the decisions Palmer makes wind up exposing precisely that disconnect, between the way things look to the interested and the way they look to everyone else.

The Amanda Palmer Problem