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 crowd sourcing 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 crowd sourcing 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 crowd sourcing 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 (and keen observers of internet shitstorms) will be aware that when she talks about “coming under fire”, she's mostly referring to the criticism she received when she attempted to crowd source “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 her Theatre Is Evil LP, 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). American Federation of Musicians president Raymond M Hair Jr joined in the chorus: “If there’s a need for the musician to be on the stage,” he said, “then there ought to be compensation for it.” 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 on stage 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.”
In Palmer’s defence, it hardly seems unfair to ask fans to volunteer their services in a time when music streaming services like Spotify have legitimised their ability to enjoy her work without compensating her fairly. Add outright piracy to the mix, and it’s never been easier for fans to take without giving. “Well, yeah,” Palmer agrees, “and this is the grand irony of it all. You can look at it as theft; you can look at it critically. The world is the way it is, and things are constantly changing, and we can look at things negatively and pessimistically or we can look at them optimistically and say, okay, digital music is here to stay. How are we going to take care of each other in a culture like this, without yelling at each other and without punishing each other? And that goes both ways, for the artist and for the audience. I don't like it when artists punish the audience, either! I don't like seeing anyone greedily demanding that the system be some way that it organically does not want to be.
“I have absolutely no desire to go hunting down and punishing someone who's torrented my music. I think [torrenting is] a totally obvious, natural thing to do, especially if you're just 13, you're on your computer and you're interested in my music. I think we're at a really volatile cultural point right now and I think the most important thing is to have a discussion about what our relationship to each other is. How we think about each other, how we treat each other, and how we want to take care of each other, instead of just trying to take advantage of each other and drain each other's energy. Because hopefully, at the end of the day, it isn't about money.
“Hopefully, at the end of the day, it's about art and helping each other survive, whether it's with money or with the kind of music that makes us want to survive and get out of bed in the morning. If that's the agenda we can talk about, we're talking about the right stuff. If artists and fans are screaming at each other about Spotify and digital downloads, I think we're screaming about the wrong things.”
The crowd sourcing 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. That being said, it's a lot easier to feel empathy for a five-year-old than it is for a 37-year-old suicide bomber, but that doesn't mean it's not possible.”
Most recently, Palmer attracted more 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 remembers, “my first reaction was to laugh. I really thought it was so fucking funny that The Daily Mail thought I would be embarrassed that 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