Self-expression, self-promotion, and fan-participant culture via the divisive musician and artist of “asking.”
Image from Flickr via OpenEye
By Andrea DenHoed
Amanda Palmer—musician, eyebrow artist, nudity enthusiast, and social media savant—might not mean to provoke controversy. Yet provoke it she does. Her most recent unintentional dust-up was regarding a poem posted on her blog shortly after the search for the younger of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in her hometown of Boston. It’s called “A Poem for Dzhokhar.” Here are the opening lines:
you don’t know how it felt to be in the womb but it must have been at least a little warmer than this.
you don’t know how intimately they’re recording your every move on closed-circuit cameras until you see your face reflected back at you through through the pulp.
you don’t know how to stop picking at your fingers.
you don’t know how little you’ve been paying attention until you look down at your legs again.
you don’t know how many times you can say you’re coming until they just stop believing you.
you don’t know how orgasmic the act of taking in a lungful of oxygen is until they hold your head under the water.
you don’t know how many vietnamese soft rolls to order.
you don’t know how convinced your parents were that having children would be, absolutely, without question, the correct thing to do.
you don’t know how precious your iphone battery time was until you’re hiding in the bottom of the boat.
The rest is similar: a tossed-salad of not-so-oblique references to the manhunt, oddly specific images of mundane indecisiveness, and grand existential ruminations. As a piece of writing, it’s sloppy and a little strange. It’s unclear whether Palmer is speaking as though inside Dzhokhar’s head, or if she’s drifting down a stream of solipsistic free-association, and, if the latter, why the piece is called “A Poem for Dzhokhar.”
It didn’t take long for the internet to pounce on Palmer—for being presumptuous, for being insensitive, and for writing poorly. Salon called the poem “trollish.” Gawker called it “world-historically horrific” and said Palmer was “elbowing her way in to the conversation.” On her blog, a comment signed by “a fan” said, “This isn’t a poem for Dzjokhar, it’s a poem for yourself because you imagine you know how he feels… You didn’t know this boy, but you’re putting words and feelings into his mouth… Don’t make your own feelings into his feelings using the megaphone you wield.”
On social media, Palmer seemed to be taking the whole thing in stride as she responded to critics and supporters. Her husband, the author Neil Gaiman, tweeted “A long time since I’ve seen incoherent obscene tweets telling me how evil my slut wife is. It makes me feel young again.” Palmer urged a more rigorous reading of her work: “now that everybody’s panties are in a twist, i’d like to say: the poem is actually about more than you think it is. read it again.”
A few days later, she published a blog post aimed at clearing up the confusion about “a poem that took me—no exaggeration—about 9 minutes to write.” She recalls the day she wrote the poem—she’d eaten Vietnamese soft rolls, she’d picked at her fingers, she’d fretted about the bombing. The post oscillates between downplaying the weight of the poem and defending it as a piece of empathetic art and as an exercise in therapeutic expression. “As many people in the comments have pointed out,” she writes, “art is how i deal.”
There’s a cultivated arty-ness to Palmer’s persona. Throughout her career, her look has been heavy on corsets and eyeliner; she has the trappings and demeanor of a well-funded theater geek. She first found success with her band the Dresden Dolls, which labeled its music as “Brechtian punk cabaret.” Their foot-stomping songs had strong melodies with lots of piano flourishes and a frantic edge created by the crescendos of Palmer’s round, half-talking vocals. Her work with her current band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, has more of a rock sound, but a similar tone. Their top song on Spotify is currently “The Killing Type,” a slow-building murder fantasy which, in the music video, is acted out with campy literalness: the band starts dressed in pure white, but by the end they are covered with blood and Palmer is holding a still-beating heart.
Her Twitter feed isn’t a glimpse behind the curtain; it’s an ongoing demonstration that there is no curtain.
To Palmer’s dedicated fans—who know her as Amanda Fucking Palmer, or simply A.F.P.—the Dzhokhar poem was merely one installation in the constant stream of unfiltered sharing that she carries out through social media. Palmer and Gaiman, both, interact with their fans with a degree of frequency, immediacy, and openness that can be confusing to the uninitiated. Palmer often tweets dozens of times a day, sharing, debating, and just chatting with her 868,000-plus followers. She seems to be online almost constantly and she’s not very careful about how she comes across. She shares her thoughts and feelings, and declares her love, but she also answers questions, laughs at jokes, and asks for opinions. She recently solicited input on what font to use in her summer tour logo. If she needs something while she’s on tour, she’ll send out a call and someone nearby will usually bring her what she needs. The spelling of “theater” in the title of her latest album, “Theatre is Evil,” was determined by an informal Twitter poll over the course of an afternoon. Casual immediacy is Twitter’s raison d’être when it comes to celebrity public relations. Palmer seizes that capability and takes it to an extreme. Her Twitter feed isn’t a glimpse behind the curtain; it’s an ongoing demonstration that there is no curtain.
Coming from most celebrities, a reply or re-tweet is a rare benediction, an occasion for breathless disbelief. For Palmer’s followers, it’s part of the deal. It’s hard to tell the difference between Amanda’s tweets to her fans and those to her friends. The A.F.P. galaxy is made up of easy banter galvanized by the centrality of Amanda. The calculated spontaneity pays dividends in the fierce devotion she receives from her fans.
Palmer’s unfettered expressiveness doesn’t always translate well to the outside world. Palmer points to the failure of outsiders to get in the rhythm of the community as the cause of the misunderstandings that lead to controversies. In the case of the poem, Palmer wrote in her follow-up blog post:
the first few hours of comments came in and the poem had resonated with my readers.
there was a nice discussion and a lot of nodding heads about the confusion we shared.
then it was found and shared by people far outside my community, who had never heard of me, my music or my blog, and a giant shit-storm started.
This is not the first time that Palmer has had trouble bridging the gap between the understanding she has with her fan base and the sensibilities of the larger public. In September 2012 she was widely criticized for asking brass and strings players join her band onstage on some of her tour stops, in return for which she would “feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.” When she came under fire for not hiring paid musicians, she initially defended the request as part of the give-and-take ecosystem of art and community. A week later, without a stated mea culpa, she announced that she would pay the guest musicians after all because, her blog post implied, she could, so she might as well.
“Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance. But the internet is taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close, and about those people being enough.”
But in March of this year, Palmer took to the starkly lit stage of the 2013 TED conference to give a talk called “The Art of Asking,” in which she defended her original reasoning regarding guest-musician payment.
Palmer was well suited to the TED forum, which specializes in big ideas writ small and off-beat personalities writ accessible. With shiny boots, a belt studded with bullet casings, and a single white daisy in her hand, she talked about her philosophy of money and music, hitting the notes of uncompromised aesthetics and creative idealism that give TED talks their juice.
Her whole career, she explained, is analogous to her post-college years working as a living statue in Harvard Square, handing out flowers in return for tips. But the real transaction, she says, was not monetary:
I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks. And we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street. And we would sort of fall in love a little bit. And my eyes would say, “Thank you. I see you.” And their eyes would say, “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”
Other passersby, unable to see this trade, would yell at her, “Get a job!”
The ethos of spiritual exchange carried on as Palmer found success as a musician. She recalls a time she and her band were hosted by a teenage fan whose parents were undocumented immigrants. Palmer says she remembers lying awake thinking, “These people have so little. Is this fair?” In the morning her young fan’s mother took her aside: “She said to me, in her broken English, ‘Your music has helped my daughter so much. Thank you for staying here. We’re all so grateful.’ And I thought, this is fair. This is this,” Palmer says as makes the gesture of handing over a daisy. Her career, by this analogy, is an ongoing swap where her fans give what they have to offer, and in return she sees them clearly and offers them herself.
Those who criticized Palmer for asking musicians to play for love and beer didn’t understand what was actually going on. “They weren’t with us on the sidewalk,” Palmer says, “And they couldn’t see the exchange that was happening between me and my crowd. An exchange that was very fair to us, but alien to them.”
Near the end of her talk, Palmer offers a reflection on the nature of celebrity, and on what makes her approach to stardom special. “For most of human history,” she says, “musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community.” The TED overhead projection switches to a sepia photo of a young Pete Seeger playing his banjo and singing to a small but crowded room. “Connectors and openers, not untouchable stars.” The projection switches to a rock concert, where a band plays on a brightly lit stage in front of thousands of people. “Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance. But the internet, and the content that we’re freely able to share on it, are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close, and about those people being enough.”
The average price paid for Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” was $2.26, and free downloads outnumbered paid ones. The average amount given to Palmer’s Kickstarter was around $48.
It’s no surprise, according to Palmer’s sketch of the community she’s created, that outsiders didn’t join in her crowd’s head nodding and “nice” discussion in response to “A Poem for Dzhokhar.” They weren’t attuned to Palmer’s practice of handing out virtual daisies of self-expression. The people who had yelled at her in Harvard Square had become the people who yelled at her to pay her musicians. Now those people were judging her poem without paying the entry fee of presupposed acceptance and communion in the Seeger-esque sing-along she presides over online.
In one of the many of the post-poem articles about Palmer and her P.R. misdeeds, Nitsuh Abebe, at New York Magazine’s Vulture blog blamed Palmer’s serial controversies on a misestimation of the disconnect “between the way things look to the interested and the way they look to everyone else.” Crowdsourcing might be like crowd-surfing, as Palmer says in her TED talk, but, Abebe wrote, the web “makes it near-impossible to fall into the arms of just one’s fans.”
A year ago, nobody would have accused Amanda Palmer of misunderstanding the internet. In May 2012—before the poem, or the TED talk, or the unpaid musicians—Palmer was making one of her first appearances in mainstream headlines, because of her Kickstarter campaign to fund her first studio album since leaving her record label in 2010. She asked for $100,000 and expected she might receive as much as $500,000, but by the time fundraising ended she had gathered $1,192,793. (The previous Kickstarter record for a musical project was held by the Christian ska band Five Iron Frenzy, who raised $207,980.)
Bands had tried crowd-funding before, arguing that music lovers would pay good prices for good content (this was the basis of Radiohead’s 2007 experiment with letting fans choose how much to pay for an album), but Palmer believed her fans would step up because she was giving them something different and more intimate than most celebrities offered. The average price paid for Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” was $2.26, and free downloads outnumbered paid ones. The average amount given to Palmer’s Kickstarter was around $48.
Palmer advocated her socially-based business model from the start. She told SPIN Magazine that a lack of support for online presence was one of her main reasons for leaving her label: “They figured that when we were off cycle the band didn’t need to be on the Internet. I would sit there banging my fucking head against a desk saying you don’t understand the Internet… It’s all our closeness with our fans that makes them buy our records.” She realized that her business model would be perceived differently by outsiders and by her fans. She said the million dollar mark was “a milestone, but it’s also one of those things we know means a lot more symbolically to the rest of the world than it does to my fan-base or myself or my art.”
As Palmer describes it, the money merely validated the authenticity of her vision of the kind of celebrity she was: “The thing I’ve found is the specific relationship with the fans with Twitter and the blog is like any other human relationship. It’s a two-way conversation all the time.” She had used the internet to let people love her up-close.
To celebrate the end of the Kickstarter campaign, on May 31, 2012, Palmer announced that she would be holding a “street party” in Brooklyn. It was hard to keep up with all the plumes of anticipation erupting from Palmer’s online crowd as they gushed with love and enthusiasm. “Having a seriously shitty day,” wrote one fan, “so I’ve decided to spend the rest of it watching AFP’s numbers rise rise rise. Hey Amanda-I hope you realize that this is lifting EVERYBODY’s spirits right now.” Another posted a picture of a painting she’d made of Palmer—a stylized depiction of A.F.P. as an exotic fairy queen. The party’s hashtag, #AFPcountdown, gathered new tweets every few seconds as hundreds of people, from around the world, wished they could be there, at the real-life epicenter of Palmer’s virtual world. For those that couldn’t make it to the real party, there was a website (partyontheinternet.com) that would carry a live webcast.
The physical celebration was held in a back lot off the Gowanus canal. When I got there, about an hour after the official start time, Palmer was standing on a box, getting ready to play the ukulele for a small cluster of people. There had been problems getting the webcast started, so Palmer began by telling everyone present to take out their phones to tweet that the feed was finally live and to keep an eye on the Kickstarter total. Leaning into the webcam of a laptop, she sang an apology song to the online audience. The live audience laughed and took pictures. Then she stood up and sang her song “Ukulele Anthem”:
You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve
Like if you want to change the world then why not quit and feed the hungry
But people for millennia have needed music to survive
And that is why I promised John that I will not feel guilty…
…Quit the bitching on your blog
And stop pretending art is hard
Just limit yourself to three chords
And do not practice daily
You’ll minimize some stranger’s sadness
With a piece of wood and plastic
Holy fuck, it’s so fantastic, playing ukulele
Then came the main event of the night. Palmer and her band climbed onto a truck bed that had been framed in sheets of clear plastic, like a giant fish tank. In the tank were phonebooks in which the names of the twenty-four-thousand-plus Kickstarter backers had been written, one per page, by volunteers whose contribution would be rewarded with access to an after-party along with the high-level donors. The band began ripping sheets out of the phonebooks and displaying the donors’ names for the webcam. Slowly, the tank began filling with crumpled paper.
“Do me a favor the next time you’re at a concert of mine. Remember that the person up on the stage is the same one who is typing right now.”
The crowd never grew to fill the lot. There were maybe a couple hundred people there at any given time. A few drank beer that they had brought with them. Some stood on the edges of the space to smoke. Three teenaged girls worked on a giant chalk portrait of Amanda on the pavement. There were some of the side entertainments—an escape artist, a portable pipe organ, fire breathers—but mostly the group stood in a semi-circle around the fish tank, watching the making of the webcast like eager extras on a low-budget film set.
I talked to a woman named Katrina Davies who was asking people to sign a t-shirt for her husband, who was overseas for military service. As a couple, they had often traveled long distances to see Palmer perform. “She’s basically our favorite person in the world,” Davies said. “The internet has ruined all my famous people.” Media exposure was bound to reveal celebrities’ dark sides. But not with Amanda: “She promotes goodness and happiness. She’s a real person.” The couple had never met Palmer in person and Davies was sad that her husband wouldn’t be there on the night they got to party with Amanda. She hadn’t yet approached Palmer to sign the shirt—she seemed busy—but it was still early in the night.
Neil Gaiman looked bemused as he took in the scene. “I’m boring and English,” he said, “I’m not very good at nudity and madness, but Amanda thrives on it. She’s edged me further out of my shell.” His wife was in the tank with her band, tearing up phonebooks and vamping for the webcam with fans who sometimes scrambled up to join them. “I love that she doesn’t tell them what to do,” Gaiman said. “It’s the weirdness of authenticity. You just can’t fake it.”
Amanda came over. Sweaty by now, wearing a striped leotard and a tiara that a fan had made for her out of scrabble tiles that spelled “Project Funded.” The publicity around the Kickstarter campaign had brought her to the attention of many people who hadn’t been in the Palmer pasture before. “It’s a risk,” she said. “You have to wonder, ‘Who’s coming into our house? And will they be awesome?’” But it was a risk she was clearly willing to take. “You can’t mold and shape an audience,” she said, “but if I keep it real, I’ll attract the right kind of people. The fans reflect the artist.”
I told her that I hadn’t anticipated that the party would be so geared toward the webcam. “Oh yeah, we’re doing this for the webcast,” she said. “I mean, we’re doing it for everybody, but…” she trailed off.
It had been a hectic week for Palmer, but she said she could summarize the experience in something an old friend and mentor had told her earlier that day: “If you love people enough,” he’d said, “they’ll give you everything.” Palmer called the event “a flooded exchange of love and music and community. If you love people, that’s when it explodes, and people will come to you.”
“I have to go back in the box now,” she said. And back in the fish tank she went.
Close to midnight, Palmer donned a dress made out of balloons and writhed and groaned in front of the camera as the crowd popped it with keys until she was left completely naked. She struck a pose, shouting, “And, scene!” before running off to find her leotard. At midnight, when the Kickstarter campaign officially ended, confetti flew in the air and Amanda held up a sign that said Thank you all so that it appeared to the camera in a tableau of fireballs sent up by the fire breathers. By 12:30, those who had earned admission to the after party had been escorted there, and the parking lot began to empty.
When I got home, I turned on the webcast. The video was still tuned to the parking lot, where a small crew was taking occasional breaks from the clean-up to talk to the camera. More than eight hundred people were watching with me, and the counter said that nineteen thousand had tuned in that night. Several viewers were having a fast-paced exchange via chat with each other and with the people who spoke into the camera. On the fundraising page, Kickstarter backers had left dozens of appreciative messages like this one:
I’ve been feeling pretty lonely and depressed all week…Having the webcast to watch tonight is really making me feel a lot better. I feel less solitary and, especially now, that I’m a part of something big and important…and sort of like I have 24,516 friends around the world because of our shared love. I’m so happy and excited for you. You deserve every bit of this happy!
Amanda Palmer posted on her blog on April 29th. It was eight days after she’d written “A Poem for Dzhokhar,” and she sounded tired:
often, when some sort of event like this poem kerfuffle happens, i find myself wishing that i could turn away from the impossible-to-react-to internet and actually BE with the people i’m talking with.
on “real” tour, it’s almost worse. i experienced this when dealing with the musician kerfuffle this past fall.
my internet audience and my blog commenters and my twitter followers are not exactly the same people who are standing in a line outside the rock venue, waiting to come inside to see the show.
or were they? i never knew, really.
i remember really painful days when i was getting slammed with criticism and simultaneously heavily defended, all online….and i’d be blogging and responding and dealing up until the thirty minutes before hitting stage, and then looking out a thousand faces thinking: “who are you?” i wished i knew. my job was to get up there and play music, and connect with the band.
but i don’t turn off and on so fast.
do me a favor the next time you’re at a concert of mine.
remember that the person up on the stage is the same one who is typing right now.
we’re not different people.
i think this is part of why real celebrities go fucking postal.
She thanked her supporters, recalled some good times hanging out with fans in person, told a story about a man she met in a coffee shop, then signed off:
i don’t need everyone to agree with me, and i don’t need everyone to understand me.
but i do know one thing i need.
i need to be around real people.
let me qualify that: i need to be around real, peaceful people.
the internet is not enough.
so….may we meet each other soon.
and may the schwartz be with you.
i fucking love you all, internet/real people.
Andrea DenHoed is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared at newyorker.com, where she also works as a web producer. You can follow her on Twitter at @amdenhoed.