We Are The Media: Reflecting on the Flawed Brilliance of Amanda Palmer

By Samantha Kelly
As seen as Wom*news #11: Women in Public

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Image: thisisfakediy.co.uk

Normally when I look back at my teenage self, I am both amused and embarrassed at how heavily I idolised particular musicians. Don’t get me wrong; I think a lot of artists have brilliant perspectives on politics, religion and, well… art.

 

But to hang on their every word…

To form crushes through a computer screen…

To turn giddish or speechless at a signing booth…

 

These things are childish. And unhealthy.

 

Right?

 

I’d like to think I have grown up. In most cases, I can safely say that I have stopped acting like a screaming fan-girl in the presence of my favourite artists.

 

But then… I went to watch Amanda Palmer play live at The Tivoli.

 

The gig was incredible. It had all of the theatrics, beauty and attitude I’d hoped for. But it also made me think hard about the way societies are conditioned to judge women in the public realm. And more specifically, how I myself judge musicians.

 

‘Do it With a Rockstar’ kicked off the set. Amanda jumped into the crowd and joined the mosh-pit. As people pulled and pushed one another around to get up-close, she grabbed the lapels of passionate fans, one after another, singing right into their faces. When she did this to me, I mouthed the words in time but no sound came out.

 

I was amazed by the very fact that someone whose words I regularly absorbed through a pair of headphones was right there, in amongst the crowd.

 

This was the person who inspired so many aspects of my feminist identity.

 

Whose music had at times made me laugh and cry simultaneously.

 

I’d loved Dresden Dolls since I was twelve. And as I developed an interest in Gender issues, I began to really admire Amanda Palmer, for her lyrics, blogs and interviews.

 

She openly wrote about masturbation, polyamory and abortion. She took pride in her body hair and her sexual orientation. Without realising, I’d labelled her as the ‘perfect’ feminist.

 

And so naturally, I was conflicted when groups of feminists began to raise criticisms about this woman.

 

Bloggers began to point out that some of the politically incorrect comments she’d made, including those which could be classified as ableist, transphobic and racist. As I further

investigated the events that had stirred controversy, I felt that these criticisms were well-justified. And I couldn’t just dismiss this.

This forced me to accept the fact that Amanda Palmer is not perfect.

But upon accepting this, I was able to appreciate her art and view her as a human being. To be at peace with the idea of holding high regard for a person, while also taking issue with some of their choices.

And this is the difference between the way I view artists now and the celebrity-worship mentality I used to have.

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Something Amanda Palmer does particularly well is drawing her listeners’ attention to the gender biases in music criticism. The live track ‘Dear Daily Mail’ is by far my favourite thing on the internet this year.

It was written in response to a review of one of her performances in the UK. The review placed an extensive amount of focus on the fact that her breasts had ‘escaped’ her bra, rather than her actual music or performance. Upon introducing the song, she commented, “The funniest thing about this is that it happens all the time… but… I don’t think they knew.”

In the lyrics, she points out that she was “doing a number of things on that stage up to and including singing songs. But you chose to ignore that and instead you published a feature review of my boobs.”

She then calls the Daily Mail ‘sad’ for it’s “focus on debasing women’s appearance.” She highlights the double-standards, screaming “I’m tired of these ‘baby-bumps’, ‘vag-flashes’, ‘muffin-tops’… where are the news-worthy cocks?”.

The song ends brilliantly: ‘When Iggy or Jagger or Bowie go shirtless the news rarely causes a ripple. Blah blah blah feminist, blah blah blah gender-shit. Blah-blah-blah, oh my god- nipple.’

I interpret these last lines as a three-way satirical statement, poking fun at dominant reactions to feminism and the ridiculously large stigma attached to breasts, while also embodying Palmer’s characteristic references to the conventions of song writing.

 

I watched this leading up to the concert and felt it overshadow the critical stance I had previously developed.

The concert itself was without exaggeration one of the best performance I had attended in years. It was full of humour, audience interaction, and a mixture of songs covering personal and political issues.

Both opening acts were chosen by Amanda herself, who appeared at the beginning of the show to introduce them. She returned again as a dancer during the last track of the first band, a German comedy duo called ‘Die Roten Punkte’.

It is clear to me that dominant ideologies impact on critical responses to women in the music industry such as Amanda Palmer. But in a similar way, I admit that my adoration for Amanda Palmer’s music affects my own ability to make objective judgments about her as a feminist.

Nonetheless, it has also occurred to me that that numerous artists who don’t express any political opinions remain unscathed by these criticisms. It is only once we begin to view someone as a spokesperson for a particular cause that we expect flawlessneess.

And at the end of the day, Amanda Palmer is an artist. Not a politician or an anthropologist.

I still believe artists are responsible for what they say and how it affects people. And Amanda Palmer has said some offensive things; but she has also written some amazing music and sparked some very critical discussions.

 

Though Amanda Palmer did not perform ‘Dear Daily Mail’ in Brisbane, she did play ‘Gaga, Palmer, Madonna.’ This track explores how female pop-musicians have continued to face challenges throughout several decades. It also raises questions about how we define art.

As the lead Dresden Doll and as a solo-artist, Amanda Palmer has achieved a lot. And while it is healthy to remain critical about public figures, it is also important to question the standards against which we are evaluating women in art.

At the end of the day, Amanda Palmer is not the sole epitome of feminist progression. Nor is she the leading cause of widespread misogyny.

Amanda Palmer is an artist, a woman and a human being.

~ Samantha Kelly

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Feminist Musicians: Grimes

Avid readers may remember that 15 months ago I talked about tUnE-yArDs, whose music deals with a lot of social justice issues. This time, I’m talking about Grimes, or Montreal’s Claire Boucher. Unlike tUnE-yArDs, it’s hard to say exactly what Grimes’ music is about. Particularly when you have lyrics such as “I lean on walls until I stand/I touch my face with my hand”. What is particularly awesome about her, though, is that she’s outspoken about feminism in the electronic music industry (not known for its egalitarianism) and in general. In addition to this, she has enjoyed critical acclaim in both indie circles (the revered Pitchfork giving her a Best New Music label) and in more mainstream circles (being played on triple J, selling out all Australian shows), despite the very experimental nature of her act. Continue reading

Awesome Feminist Musicians #1

tUnE-yArDs is the moniker of American multi-instrumentalist and generally awesome Merrill Garbus. The first thing you notice about Garbus is her voice, whose capacity to be brash and soothing in equal parts is, put simply, mesmerising. Garbus creates songs by layering melodies over drum loops, combined with ukulele, tambourine, and more recently, electric bass and saxophone.

The most interesting thing about tUnE-yArDs for me however, is the subject-matter of her songs. Her songs cover topics as diverse as body image (Es-so), white privilege in the USA (yep, really – My Country) and police violence (Doorstep, Bizness). These often deep topics are delivered through frenzied combinations of Garbus’s voice, saxophone sections and innovative use of a distortion pedal to deliver a near-cacophony of voice, instruments and frank lyrics. Garbus’s chilled moments are equally compelling, particularly the gorgeous Wolly Wolly Gong, a folksy lullaby. Who Kill, Garbus’s second album has seen a more polished approach to recording than self-recorded debut Bird Brains (fun fact: Bird Brains was entirely recorded on a handheld voice recorder and was initially released only on recycled cassettes!).

So there you have it, tUnE-yArDs, with its bizarre spelling is one awesome feminist musician to check out. As an aside, Garbus plays the Powerhouse on January 22. Check out her Youtube clip of Doorstep performed on the streets of Paris back in April for a teaser. She literally keeps the beat by hitting drum sticks on a nearby concrete pole.

~ Rosie Cuppaidge