“On the internet I’ve never asked for tampons, but I’ve asked for pretty much everything else. Twitter is the ultimate crowdsourcing tool for the travelling musician; it’s like having a Swiss Army Knife made up of a million people in your pocket.”
The Art Of Asking: a career laid bare. A blast of cold water turned to steam on the fires of cynicism. A mantra. A selective biography. Perhaps above all, a defence.
Amanda Palmer’s music requires little context to enjoy. She freely admits to her harshly personal lyrics being on what she calls ‘blender level one’: more often than not a fairly straight up artistic depiction of life as she sees it, and her own experiences. This book is equally raw. It covers Amanda the $350/ hour dominatrix. Amanda the stripper. The infamous Amanda the street-statue bride, and Amanda the musician, be it as half of the bizarre congealed twin side project ‘Evelyn Evelyn’ or in her more standard guises as Dresden Dolls, and… well, herself.
That said, this book’s delving through the Palmer archives exists entirely in the context of ‘that moment’: that media furore which, rightly or wrongly, pointed the nub of the crowdfunding debate squarely in the face of a previously popular yet cult musician. If you haven’t seen that TED Talk (and you really should), it’ll help you understand that Palmer’s life is built on the concept of artist and audience, right from the very first day she needed to earn money. It’s divisive, to say the least. I probably fall into that supposedly ‘non-existent’ category of ‘people well aware of Amanda but not hugely in love or in loath of her’ (I think her finer moments are excellent, but wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a fan – I found her perfectly pleasant in interview, for what it’s worth). I’d still argue that ultimately what matters is that her audience care (and the undoubtedly do), but Palmer’s career is a controversial beast in many ways, which makes her perspective particularly interesting.
“You are painted white and you are STANDING ON A BOX. You are so full of shit”, she says of her first outing as a bride statue. But from there the confidence grows. It’s bluntly depicted. She’s forever fronting up to her critics. She’s emotionally fragile, and you never get the feeling she 100% believes. ‘Get a job’, that struggling artists relentless battle, reverberates through Palmer’s brain way after the point we’d perceive her as being successful. Her mantra, “BELIEVE ME”, comes across as reflexive. It all comes back to the exchange.(video NSFW)
Palmer bases that argument in a more standard economy, comparing the work of artists and musicians to that of plumbers, bankers and other professionals. Sometimes it’s a little aggrandising, sure, but she highlights a worthy fact: too often, we don’t see producers of art as a profession. An example:
“The surgeon knows that her work is creative work. A machine can’t do it, because it requires human delicacy and decision making. If a surgeon hits an unexpected bump in the process and needs to ask the person beside her for something essential – and quickly – she has little time to ask questions like ‘do I deserve to ask for this help’. Asking for help with gratitude says ‘we have the power to help each other.’” (quote shortened).
Of course, that all comes back to the argument over whether Palmer’s work helps her financial donors as much as they help her. The answer, compelling if ‘The Art of Asking’ is anything to go by, is yes. She has genuine connections with her fans. She makes time for them, and it hurts her to her core when she doesn’t. The examples, like a young fan on the brink of suicide leaning on Palmer’s understanding, are painfully real, and they happen in person, through email and through after show gatherings, not just through the music. The connection seems real.
If that all sounds very arty farty, well it probably is, but then again we’re talking about a woman who lives in a place called the ‘Cloud Club’, home to much of her output, and by all accounts not a million miles from a clichéd 60s commune, drugs aside.
I don’t always agree with Amanda: she’s blunt and doesn’t quite seem to have herself quite together at times, but the self-doubt and uncertainty brings her to life in the words. She’s had a hard road, and it shows beautifully in her music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking for something from people who support you, of course, they always have the option to simply say no.
If I were feeling particularly feisty today, I might suggest that part of the problem with Amanda Palmer’s image is the age old one of being a woman with a very strong opinion. Let’s leave no doubt: this book is full of strong opinions, and no matter who you are (well, aside from Amanda Palmer herself), they’ll probably be a few that annoy you. It does, though, make you think, not least about the future direction of the music industry. It makes you wonder if you utilize all your own resources, and, in fact, if you should. It reminds you how hard a journey Amanda Palmer has been on, and that there’s a vigorous integrity to the way she operates, even if you don’t like the logic behind it (go get it, and read her passages on refusing to take money from Neil Gaiman, for example, or on Anthony, her greatest friend and inspiration).
“The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own” states a quote that Palmer returns to again and again, from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. To her fans, Amanda Palmer is the ultimate artist. She lives it, too, and it’s their money, their musicianship and their love that feeds her career. I needed a 336 page defence outlining gifts, ‘minimum DIY and maximum DIY’, life epiphanies and tragedies of confidence to be entirely convinced. But then there’s being painted all over in the nude. There are the dodgier elements of travel, full of risk but crammed full of reward. There’s the time given to fans, every time. And she gives everything that’s reasonable to ask.
“I’m afraid my friends think everything the critics say is true, but nobody has the balls to tell me. That people think I’m a cheap bitch who doesn’t think about anybody but herself. That people think I don’t work hard enough. That I’m a shitty musician who just tweets all the time. That I’m an ugly, flaming narcissist. That I’m fake.”
We all know the music industry’s struggling. What would you give to save your favourite artist, if they asked? Perhaps, ultimately, that’s how it should work. Amanda, you’ve lived, and it can seem like you’ve made some chunky mistakes in being a bit ‘too’ heart on sleeve. Ultimately, my feelings on this book probably come down to something as simple as what she so often asks of you: do you believe her? Or do you see it as ‘a stupid token flower’ and a world that leaves musicians laden with 500 unsold beer cosies? For what it’s worth, I believe. Hell, maybe I should proffer up my own flower.