Fandom Intermissions with Amanda Palmer
I wanted this to be a thoughtful critique. In my head, I imagined a balanced exploration of Amanda Palmer's work and public image/persona, including her numerous problematic missteps. I was going to reevaluate the more popular criticisms and discuss the ways she's grown as an artist and a person since then. Her new album, There Will Be No Intermission, came out March 8th, so it seemed like a great time to give her some thought.
But then I started reading through the blog posts and articles that came up when I searched for things like "Amanda Palmer Problematic", "Amanda Palmer Hate", and "Amanda Palmer Controversy", and I just...lost interest in that angle. Maybe I'll come back to it eventually. It's not totally without merit, but right now, I don't care. I don't have the energy to care if she did something privileged and oblivious back in 2006 or 2010 or 2014, or etc.
I'm not a superfan. I don't support her Patreon. I never donated to her infamous Kickstarter. I don't buy her merchandise, nor do I purchase all of her new releases. In fact, I don't even like everything she's released, and I've had some rather harsh reactions to some of her more recent work. I see what she's going for, but I've found a lot of her singles and projects from the past few years to be a bit dull and pretentious. I'm glad she's in a place where she can pretty much do whatever she wants. More artists should be in that place, especially women, but I can wish them artistic freedom without liking what they do with it. Learning how to step back and stop being disappointed when a favorite artist takes a turn I don't care for has been a fundamental part of my evolution as a fan.
With AP, as I'll be referring to her from now on, that process began in 2012, with Theatre is Evil. I bought it from a now defunct F.Y.E. I didn't even know she had a new album out, and the fact that I paid full price with absolutely no clue as to its contents should indicate how much I loved her previous work. In fact, I bought the first Dresden Dolls album on a late night trip to Wal-Mart, and that was based purely on the cover art. I mean, just look at it. No-one reading this will know my aesthetic, but there it is. That cover photo utterly captivated a fifteen-year-old me.
I wasn't disappointed. As soon as "Good Day" began trickling through my headphones, I was hooked. I'd never heard anything like it before. That piano! Those clever, twisty, literary lyrics! That voice! I listened to that album at least once a day for months. It is permanently embedded in my memories of that winter, along with the books I read and my disastrous attempts to recreate AP's outfit. Which, I should add, I wore to a rural, public high school. I don't need to say I was one of the Weird Girls, do I?
Anyway. Back to the music.
I downloaded Yes, Virginia track by painstaking track on Limewire, using a dial-up AOL account. I listened to it even more than the self-titled album. I memorized everything about it. As I'm sure many others have---and will---I made a home in those songs.
That year I wrote a review of Yes, Virginia for my high school newspaper. I'll be honest; I don't remember most of it, but one line has stuck with me, "AP doesn't sing merely sing; she performs." Yes, the italics were in the original.
Making that distinction meant a lot to me, and it still does. I run the risk of sounding as pretentious as I've sometimes accused AP of being, but think about it. Haven't you heard the difference, at least once? I'm not calling one style better than the other, or trying to draw some absurd comparison between pop music and "real" music. Fuck that way of thinking entirely.
No, what I was trying to get at back then was how theatrical the Dolls were. I knew nothing about them or their history, so naturally I had no idea how personal these songs actually were for AP. What came through for me was how well she embodied an endless array of characters. Each song was a different story, a different woman with her own desires, issues, and relationships. To one degree or another, they're all AP, though, and that's part of what makes her such a fantastic writer and performer. She knows how to tell a story lyrically, and she knows how to create characters you can find yourself in and care about.
Is Delilah* a real person? I've never tried to find out. I'm not sure I want to know. She probably exists, in one form or another, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is how well that song draws us in, and how well it builds to an intense and cathartic conclusion. We all know a Delilah, or we've been her. Maybe both. I've never believed AP's narrator genuinely intended to abandon her friend. She just needs to say that right now, as a way of coping with what that friend keeps doing to herself. There's also the possibility Delilah's just a projection of the narrator's own mistakes, and the patterns she can't seem to escape. Maybe this song is the conversations she has with herself, trying to sort it all out. Maybe not. That's the beauty of it.
I was in my first semester of undergrad when Who Killed Amanda Palmer came out. I saw the video for "Runs in the Family", and I was instantly smitten with this new, solo AP. I downloaded the album, but I didn't fully appreciate it until I saw her perform it live.
I was pressed against the stage, right in front of her. If she'd taken a few steps forward, I could've reached out and touched her. She was real. The voice in my headphones, the face in the photos, belonged to an actual woman. Every moment of that night is burned into my brain. She wore a fabulous outfit. She was so beautiful, I didn't know whether I wanted her or wanted to be her. Both, probably, at different times. I met her before and then again after the show. She signed my original (I've gone through two) copy of first Dresden Dolls album. My favorite, I told her. Actually, it was the only one I had a legitimate version of at that point, but I couldn't say that, not to her. After the show, she wore a satin kimono and hugged me. Right then, I definitely wanted her to be her and me to be me---well, a prettier, more sophisticated me, who could somehow get her attention.
I mostly lost track of her over the new few years. Evelyn, Evelyn happened. I read a brief description of the project and knew it wasn't for me. Eventually, I listened to the album. My original instinct was correct, as were the criticisms I'd read. It's boring, pretentious, and painfully ableist. The ableism in particular has been discussed at length by much more qualified people, so I'll just say, at best, that project was a mistake, and at worst, it was a gross display of privileged obliviousness, as was AP's general reaction to the controversy.
There was the stuff with the ukulele, none of which I really cared about. It felt very twee. After reading her book, The Art of Asking, I understand how she got into it, and why she likes playing the ukulele. I still don't care much for those songs. Back then, I really didn't care for them. I wanted an album.
That brings us back to Theatre is Evil. I'm not going to rehash the Kickstarter controversy. I'd rather talk about the album itself, which I didn't love at first. There was a long warming up period. A few songs charmed me right off, but overall, it didn't work. This wasn't the AP I knew and loved. Sure, she had to evolve. She couldn't wear that mime make-up and corset forever, nor could she just play the piano and write about Astronauts and Coin-Operated Boys. I got that. I did.
Except, no, I didn't, not really. I wasn't ready for Theatre is Evil. I wasn't ready for what it--and she--had to say, or for where she wanted to take me. However, bit by bit, I finally got there, and just as I was getting there, she started releasing new work. She changed again. There was the album with her father, You Got Me Singing, then the stripped down Piano is Evil, the collaboration with Edward Ka-Spel, I Can Spin a Rainbow, and some other projects. I didn't hate these projects. I was mostly disinterested in them. I also had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth from her behavior and general image. Besides, I'd found new artists to explore. Old favorites had come back around.
The solo songs she began putting out just didn't speak to me. I didn't hear anything of the artist I loved, and I thought it might be the end of my fandom. I'd always treasure what came before, but it was time to let go. I understood what she was trying to do with songs like "A Mother's Confession", but it was way too specific, and at eleven minutes, it seemed to drag on and on.
But then she announced a new album, and I was intrigued. When she revealed the cover**, I was more than intrigued. I wanted to hear it. The cover is as lovely and captivating as that first Dresden Dolls cover, only this one has a strength and experience the other lacks. It's still AP. She's in both photos. But she's also not. She's a different person now; her art is different, and I, the listener, am not the same anymore either.
Change often scares us, and we resist it, even though we know it's necessary and can lead to exciting places we never even dreamed possible. I'm still waiting to receive a physical copy of the album before I dive into it, headphones on, maybe reading a book or studying the artwork during the first listen. My listening habits are one thing that never seems to change. I may not love it at first, or even like it very much, but that's okay. We'll catch up to each other eventually.
*Yes, I realize there’s some problematic language in that song.
**If you haven’t seen the cover, here it is.
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