Earlier this year, Amanda Palmer delivered the performance that her entire career had been building towards. No, it wasn’t her attack on The Daily Mail (but we’ll get to that), and it certainly wasn’t her poem for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (but we’ll get to that, too) – it was her TED talk.
Palmer’s presentation for the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference spanned her life’s work, from her time spent busking as a living statue and sleeping on fans’ couches to her game-changing, record-breaking Kickstarter project for her acclaimed Theatre Is Evil LP. Between TED.com and YouTube, the erstwhile Dresden Doll’s February speech, ‘The Art Of Asking’, has already attracted over four million views and served as a watershed moment in the crowdsourcing debate.
“The big thing that inspired the TED talk,” Palmer says, “was a need to really deeply explain myself after feeling that I’d been heavily misunderstood when I came under fire for crowdsourcing things. In my community, that’s such a natural way of doing stuff, and I was so caught off guard when I was criticised for it.
“I really felt like I was standing up, not just for me, but for all the artists I know who do a lot of crowdsourcing and exchange a lot, creatively, with their fans and their friends. The culture is shifting, especially in America right now, and a lot of artists are coming under fire for how they do things. I felt like it was an important talk to give, to remind people that it really is the artist’s prerogative how they want to interact and exchange with their fans and their friends.”
Followers of Palmer will be aware that when she talks about “coming under fire”, she’s referring to the criticism she received when she attempted to crowdsource “professional-ish horns and strings” musicians to play with her Grand Theft Orchestra last year in return for beers, high fives and free merch. Palmer had raised $1.2 million from 24,883 backers for Theatre Is Evil, but claimed she could not afford the $35,000 to pay these additional musicians.
Legendary producer Steve Albini called Palmer an “idiot” for making the request (he later apologised for using that word, but stood by his sentiment that it was “just plain rude” for Palmer to ask fans to play in her backing band for free). Palmer eventually caved to public pressure and agreed to pay the volunteers; I ask her why she relented and if she regrets not standing her ground.
“It was the easiest way to get back to work,” she counters. “That’s the easiest answer. It wasn’t like I reversed my principles. My principles stayed steady. But with so many people screaming, and with a job to do – this was literally happening during the first few weeks of our tour, while we were driving from show to show and working with these musicians every night – I didn’t really feel like it was the correct time for a political battle. It was time to play music for people.
“What I really did need to do was just shut everybody up and change the agenda back to the tour and away from being at the centre of yet another internet shitstorm. That was the most expedient way of doing it. But it did really suck, because it made the entire tour incredibly awkward with all of these musicians who had just happily volunteered to come up onstage with us and all of a sudden felt like they were under some sort of cultural fire. I felt badly for them that they got stuck in the middle of this stupid situation.”
The crowdsourcing debate wasn’t the only controversy Palmer found herself embroiled in over the past 12 months. She also wrote ‘A Poem For Dzhokhar’, a stream-of-consciousness work that appeared to take a sympathetic view of alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
“My views about this are probably continually controversial,” she shrugs, “but I think human beings should feel empathy towards everybody. When I say ‘everybody’, I mean absolutely everybody. It doesn’t work if it’s selective. That means young, old, violent, non-violent, black, white, you name it. If we’re selectively empathetic, we’re just not doing it right.”
More recently, Palmer attracted positive press for her skewering of The Daily Mail. The British tabloid wrote a bizarre review of Palmer’s Glastonbury performance that made no mention of her music, focussing instead on a minor “wardrobe malfunction”; in response, Palmer threw off her kimono at her next show and performed a new song, ‘Dear Daily Mail’, entirely nude.
“When I saw that Daily Mail article,” she says, “my first reaction was to laugh. I really thought it was so fucking funny that The Daily Mail thought I would be embarrassed someone could see a quarter centimetre of my nipple. Someone at The Daily Mail obviously didn’t Google my name. I just thought that was so funny, but also so telling about how culture is built, because they’re functioning on a planet where a female artist is fundamentally supposed to be embarrassed by something like that.
“As a female performance artist, nudity is definitely a powerful tool… especially if you use it with humour. That can be a really powerful statement because often, female performance art and nudity gets stuck in a box of ultra serious, highly academic feminist bullshit. Sometimes it’s just really funny to rip your clothes off and do something hilarious.”
BY ROHAN WILLIAMS
Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra play Enmore Theatre (all ages) on Saturday September 14. The Sydney Fringe Festival presents In Conversation With Amanda Palmer on Friday September 13 at Venue 505.