What, exactly, did we prove by hating Amanda Palmer?
This was what I found myself wondering as I plowed through the 15 hours of Palmer’s new memoir/self-help book/manifesto/self-apologia The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. For reasons of masochism and/or incompetence (take your pick) I was only able to get my hands on the audiobook version, which meant there was no skipping ahead: I spent nearly one full day listening to Amanda Palmer speaking directly to me, and frequently speaking about the fact that journalists hated her. I was once one of those journalists. And I found myself, by around Hour Seven, wondering what on Earth I had accomplished by disliking her. What any of us had. What hating Amanda Palmer actually did.
For those not up on the human blog-controversy-generator that is Amanda Palmer, she emerged in 2003 as the frontwoman for the Dresden Dolls, a weird punk-slash-goth-slash-yes-they’re-wearing-mime-makeup band that attracted very little mainstream notice but earned a base of devoted fans, most of whom seemed like the kind of sensitive, sweet oddballs who might put a lot of thought into what to wear to the next Rocky Horror Picture Show screening. This, for a while, worked out; she was famous without really being famous. If you liked her, you probably knew about her, and if you disliked her, she wasn’t ubiquitous enough for you to mind. (Someone recommended the Dresden Dolls to me in 2004. I listened once or twice, thought it sounded too much like musical theater, and essentially didn’t think about Palmer again for the next six years.) Then, in 2011, she married the author Neil Gaiman, who is just plain famous. The relationship catapulted Palmer into the spotlight. Her approach did not adapt to meet the circumstances. Things unraveled from there.
The Dresden Dolls live at Bonnaroo in 2006
I was an early adopter of Palmer-hate. In 2010, on my blog Tiger Beatdown, I ran a piece by Annaham of FWD/Feminists With Disabilities that detailed the ugly fall-out of an interaction with Palmer. Annaham was an ardent Amanda Palmer fan herself, a fan who was disappointed Palmer’s offensive and insensitive choice to play half of a conjoined-twin duo in her cabaret act Evelyn Evelyn. (I mean, the insensitivity was not subtle: The “twins” played “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as part of the act.) Amanda Palmer responded by laughing about “disabled feminists” on TV. Amanda Palmer’s fans, meanwhile — the dedicated, compassionate “family” Palmer considers her greatest accomplishment — reacted by subjecting their fellow fan to a torrent of harassment and abuse, including instructions to “just fucking die” and “fuk u die slow.”
Annaham’s essay was an important piece. It was by and about someone Palmer had demonstrably harmed. It was about the power celebrities wield, and their obligation to exercise that power responsibly. It deserved attention. But it wasn’t the one that stuck. It was only in 2012, after a few more years, and a few more offenses, that the mainstream press got into the idea of hating Amanda Palmer.
The actual controversies — the $1.2 million Kickstarter album; the implausible album budget which people (including some musicians) frequently suspected of concealing much more take-home pay for Palmer than the $100,000 she initially claimed; the offers to pay local musicians in beer and hugs; the spectacularly ill-conceived and ill-timed “Poem for Dzhokar,” which, by Palmer’s own admission, she did not spend more than nine minutes thinking about before posting — are so well-known it’s hardly worth talking about them. The thing to remember is the headlines. So, so many headlines: “Amanda Palmer Is An Idiot.” “Amanda Palmer Stoops To New Low.” “Amanda Palmer: visionary or egotist?” Gawker called her a “grifter” and “a deluded and opportunistic narcissist who sells rhetorical snake oil to people too full of unearned self-regard to join an actual cult.” Buzzfeed listed “7 Times Amanda Palmer Pissed People Off.” WIRED and New York magazine published lengthy pieces (“The Art of Asking Why We Hate Amanda Palmer,” and “The Amanda Palmer Problem,” respectively) that are actually not Amanda Palmer hate pieces; they represent the ultimate solidification of media consensus, pieces written about the fact that so many people had written about hating Amanda Palmer.
Given all of this, The Art of Asking probably works best in audiobook form. It is, after all, adapted from a speech — a wildly popular TED talk Palmer delivered in 2013 — and Palmer is primarily a performer. Put bluntly, there’s a reason why Palmer’s speeches and songs attract ardent fans, whereas her blog posts attract PR crises: Her prose style (uncapitalized, or ALL CAPITALIZED, with unnecessary line breaks and a heartbreaking dependence on exclamation points) frequently makes her seem more overbearing and less articulate than she probably is. Half of Palmer’s reputation as a woman who spends her day literally screaming for your attention could be fixed with some decent copy editing. But, most of all: Palmer has been portrayed so consistently as a human black hole, a sucking moral and intellectual void from which no shred of human worth can emanate, that it’s probably necessary, in some way, to be confronted with the actual sound of her voice. To hear her, to get the inflections and breaths and emotional subtext, so that you can stop reacting to “Amanda Palmer,” and start listening to a person.
Palmer’s TED Talk
Her voice is much quieter than you would think. It’s more level. Amanda Palmer is not actually shouting at you all the time. She laughs at her own jokes — I always thought Amanda Palmer would laugh at her own jokes, didn’t you? — but not that loudly. She laughs at herself. In one passage, she describes her band, the Dresden Dolls, with one of those trademark incredibly-pretentious-yet-overwhelmingly-dorky phrases that can spark a lifelong Amanda Palmer hatred, “Brechtian punk-cabaret duo.” But, shockingly, she does this with one of the most audible eye-rolls I’ve ever heard, as if she somehow knows exactly how silly the phrase “Brechtian punk-cabaret duo” is. Amanda Palmer sounds, in a word, normal.
There’s also the matter of what she says. For most of this book, Amanda Palmer is talking about the one thing she is known least for: Making music. How she formed her band, how she promoted her band, why she signed to a major label, why she left it.
More to the point, she has actual points about music, which I found myself agreeing with wholeheartedly: “Punk-cabaret duo,” for example, comes in the context of a story about how her label cut one album’s promotional budget because radio-play experts didn’t “hear a hit.” She says it while explaining that a Brechtian punk-cabaret duo, almost by definition, is never going to produce anything that radio-play experts will consider “a hit.” It will also not be purchased by people who want to hear hits from the radio. It will be purchased by people who want to hear Brechtian punk-cabaret albums, and the point of a budget is to find them: “We didn’t need a fucking hit,” Palmer insists. “Our audience loved us precisely for all the weird radio-unfriendly shit we did.”
Amanda Palmer, as it turns out, is arguing for the right to make very specific, potentially alienating records that some people love, rather than making very broad, very safe albums that everybody likes. This point is correct, necessary and important. Musicians should be making it. The problem is that the person making it is Amanda Palmer.
By 2012, as Nitsuh Abebe pointed out in “The Amanda Palmer Problem,” most people “[knew] Amanda Palmer only nominally as a musician.” The most shocking thing I found out in the course of researching this piece is that Theatre is Evil—the actual album part of Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter album controversy — had received some glowing reviews. Not just from Palmer’s fans, either: Rolling Stone called it one of the best rock records of 2012. I listened to it. It may not be to your taste, and it’s not to mine (“bombastic” is an understatement) but it’s also not bad. As it turns out, all of that fighting was about an hour’s worth of high-gloss, guitar-driven, Ric-Ocasek-inflected pop-punk that sounds a lot like Charli XCX, and even more like this year’s Ex Hex album. It’s funny, until you realize how incredibly sad it is that, in another world, with a different set of decisions, Amanda Palmer might be Charli XCX, or at least Mary Timony; if anyone had listened to this album, it would have been popular.
“The Killing Type,” a track from Theatre is Evil
But instead, she became Amanda Palmer. And what the album sounded like never became part of the conversation.
The other thing one learns from this book is that 2012 and 2013 nearly broke this woman. Not always for the reasons you’d think, either: She got unexpectedly pregnant and had an abortion on the advice of her doctor. She hit a rough patch in her marriage as the result of her post-abortion depression. Her best friend was diagnosed with leukemia. While on the Theatre is Evil tour, she was sexually assaulted by a fan. And, oh, yeah, she had a blog. So, in the midst of all this, and while we were wringing our hands about the insensitivity of writing a poem about the Boston Marathon Bombing, she was fielding strangers’ offers to “shove a bomb up her cunt.”
On one level, this is pure guilt trip: All of this happened to me, and you still held me accountable for my words and actions, you monsters. Throughout the book, Palmer steadfastly refuses to admit having done anything wrong; indeed, in a twist that I can’t avoid reading as manipulative, she refuses to talk about the “disabled feminists” controversy, but tells several lengthy stories about how nice she was to a particular fan who had a disability.
Yet the facts are what they are: I disliked Amanda Palmer because she was careless with her power and that carelessness resulted in someone getting harassed and told to “fucking die.” But I was part of building the media consensus against Amanda Palmer, which made hating her both common and acceptable. And at the end of that process, Amanda Palmer got abuse and death threats. Careless use of power cuts both ways, as it turns out.
It’s hard to see how this was a victory for feminism. Or for music. Or for media: The fact of the matter is, a woman in her mid-thirties wrote, performed and released an album that was musically relevant and probably her best work to date; we responded by talking about her body, her personality and who she was sleeping with. We called her too loud, too self-assured, too ambitious. We wondered why she couldn’t simply live off her rich husband’s income, as if that isn’t a question that feminism has been in the process of answering for the past five decades. We affirmed that the artist’s persona mattered more than the quality of their work, and we affirmed that female ambition or self-confidence was a crime: That if you were a loud or aging or difficult woman, and you wouldn’t let us ignore you, we would turn our attention on you full-force, in order to burn your life down to its foundation.
The hatred for Palmer was uniquely gendered. There are male celebrities who achieve something like her level of notoriety — Justin Bieber, Robin Thicke — but they tend to be both more outrageous and more famous (Thicke performed the most-played song of 2013). Amanda Palmer got dropped by her label and self-released an album, but she managed to get just as much disapproving press, if not more. For a man to be so reviled that it’s considered wrong to support him — and make no mistake, it is considered quite offensive in many circles to have any positive reaction to Palmer — he usually has to be accused of a real and violent crime, like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski or Bill Cosby. Amanda Palmer, meanwhile, was mostly just accused of being annoying. The conversation was about her personality and looks (so loud! so overbearing! so needy! and those eyebrows!), with a tone of derision that even the creepiest, weirdest-looking or most irritating of male rock stars (Rivers Cuomo, Ed Sheeran, Bono) never manage to attract. It was also, yes, about the fact that she was offensive and had bad politics — but Eminem has made an entire career out of being morally and personally reprehensible, and we’re not publishing thinkpieces on “Why Everyone Hates Eminem.” Everyone doesn’t. Eminem is a legend. Palmer is roadkill.
During all this, some great writers tried to keep a focus on the real issues and point out that Amanda Palmer did and said hurtful, exploitative and flat-out offensive things. It’s true that she did those things and that they were wrong. But it’s also true that we now have almost no chance of changing her behavior: A woman who has been told, over and over, for years, that she is an idiot, a narcissist, talentless, worthless, unworthy of being paid or listened to, unworthy of being anything other than hated, will almost certainly not become more receptive to criticism. She will become hostile to it, or at least immune. She must petrify, or shatter. It’s not any one person’s fault that the signal-to-noise ratio got out of proportion, but the fact remains: We didn’t change anything by hating Amanda Palmer. Especially not Amanda Palmer, who is now giving interviews about the “violent, radical brand of feminism” that is out to get her.
The days of the Amanda Palmer free-for-all are over. Palmer controversies don’t summon the same mass outrage they did in previous years. The reviews of her book have been critical, but gently so. It’s not that she changed. It’s that we found new women to hate. We turned our attention to Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey, Lena Dunham. Some of these women are almost as infuriating as Palmer; some are more so. But they are all women; all strange, unacceptable, uncomfortable women, acceptable for us to mock in order to raise our own profiles.
Which is the question that really worried me, as I listened to The Art of Asking: When we hated Amanda Palmer, were we even reacting to Amanda Palmer at all? Was it really her that was the issue? Or was it just a matter of picking on that year’s girl?