Punk in public
Singer Amanda Palmer
Whether or not she means to be, singer Amanda Palmer is controversial. In 2013, Buzzfeed handily summarized the outrage against her to date in a post entitled “7 Times Amanda Palmer Pissed People Off.” The antipathy toward her runs so deep that a concert reviewer in the U.K. once accused her of “gazing and cooing” too adoringly at her husband, bestselling fantasy author Neil Gaiman, in public, in a way that had the potential to dampen the feminist impulses of her fans.
Palmer spent the early aughts as a member of t he Dresden Dolls, a duo whose music she has described as “Brechtian punk cabaret.” She was embraced as a feminist poster girl for her strong, in- your- face performance style and disregard of conventional gender roles. When she went solo, she caused a stir by singing unexpectedly boppy songs about rape and abortion on 2008’s Who Killed Amanda Palmer. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording and release of 2012’s Theatre Is Evil, with her band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, generated more than a million dollars from fans — but critics didn’t approve of an established musician asking for money in the first place and then denigrated how she handled the money when she released a list of expenses. (She turned the experience into a successful TED talk and 2014 book, The Art Of Asking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help.) Still, a rumor persists in the nooks and crannies of the internet that the Kickstarter funds were secretly given to the Church of Scientology — because her husband grew up in the oft- disparaged religion.
In conversation with Pasatiempo, Palmer said that as an artist who takes creative risks, whatever she does is up for criticism. Like many people who become famous, her ego seems able to withstand being picked apart by strangers on the web, though she acknowledges the ire can be exhausting. After she and Jason Webley, her frequent collaborator, played a set of conjoined twins for a concept album called Evelyn Evelyn in 2010, the project received a not-unwarranted negative reaction from portions of the disability community. (Palmer apologized and addressed specific criticisms on her blog.) After the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, she posted a poem on her blog that expressed empathy and sympathy for one of the bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sentiments many readers found so unacceptable that the website Gawker declared it “the worst poem of all
time.” It’s not, but such headlines exemplify Palmer’s status as “the most hated woman on the internet” — a moniker that comes from the headline of an article for InTheseTimes.com.
Bottom line: Palmer doesn’t do what she’s told. She refuses to adhere to the strict linguistic and ideological requirements popularly embraced by swaths of the online feminist and social-justice commentariat. Her full stage name includes a profanity
Pasatiempo can’t even print. If that doesn’t amuse you, then it’s possible Palmer isn’t your cup of tea. What is often lost in all the rancor is whether or not Palmer makes music worth listening to. Fans around the world connect to her deeply psychological, irreverent, personal, and emotionally direct lyrics, set against a catchy punk-pop- orchestral hybrid that can also include Palmer on the ukulele. Palmer, joined by Webley, plays the opening night of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return on Fridayy, March 18. In advance of the concert, Palmer chatted with
Pasatiempo about the interactive art of Meow Wolf, existing in the public eye as a polarizing figure, and life with a new baby.
Pasatiempo: How did you get involve ed with Meow Wolf?
Amanda Palmer: We decided to spend a littlel time [in Santa Fe] over the winter becauuse Neil needed to get some writing donee, and he sent me an article about what George [R.R. Martin] has been up to. George has been Neil’s friend for many, many years, back when they were just dorky writer dudes at conferences. My favorite thing in the world is interactive theater that doesn’t rely on a stage, so when I read that article, it totally blew my dress up. I emailed George, who was nice enough to show me around the undertaking and introduce me to Vince [Kadlubek, co-founder and CEO of Meow Wolf]. A couple hours later I was asking about thet opening, and Vince told me they wanted to get somme musicians, and I volunteered.
Pasa: What kind of show will you play with Jason Webley?
Palmer: Jason Webley and I have been collaborators and friends for 15 years now — he was actually the guy who introduced me to Neil. Meow Wolf has this wonderful little performance space that has a traditional stage and audience set up, but I can’t imagine that Jason and I won’t take some advantage of the uniqueness of the [installation] and do something weird. Jason and I are known for neither of us ever doing the same thing twice, so I imagine something unique will most likely happen.
Pasa: Do you think you’re controversial??
Palmer: I kind of hate answering that question, because I always feel like controversy is about other people. I never do any thing hoping that controversy is going to land in my lap. When it does, it’s usually a product of the fact that I don’t do things using the average rules. That tends to piss people off or make them afraid or upset. I learned to not mind when I piss people off, and I’ve learned to ask the right question, which isn’t “What did I do wrong” but “What did I do right,” because usually when I’m pissing people off, it’s a sign I’m heading in the right direction.
Pasa: What about you makes people so angry?
Palmer: It should maybe go without saying that in the culture at large nowadays, people may like strong women, but they want their strong women to fit a very particular mold — and watch it when you step out of line. It doesn’t matter whether you’re me or Beyoncé. It’s a dangerous playing field. I think our job as women entertainers or public figures is to accept that it’s going to remain true until it’s not, but to refuse to be silenced just because we’re not getting things exactly right, or because we’re not the perfect feminist, or we’re not the perfect role model. There’s truly no pleasing everybody. The only thing you can do is make yourself happy and hope that the right people will see you and find you.
Pasa: Where is the space for artistic risk in the current climate, whichh tends to politicize what it doesn’t like?
Palmer: You could say that all art is political or that everything is art, even angel figurines sold in a gas station. I think it becomes very silly to take yourself too seriously, whether you’re the audience or the creator. Who has time to waste spending their life criticizing art for not being political enough or for being too political?
Pas sa: Si nce becoming a mother in September, what has changed most in yyour life?
Palmer: I have to consult with my husband a lot more. I cannot just leave thet house and leave the baby on the flo oor without telling someone.
Pas a: Some people say t hat when you becom me a parent, your entire outlook on love ch hanges. Has that happened to you?
Palmer: Not at all. I still haven’t had the moment where I look down at the child and my head explodes. In fact, it’s weirdly the opposite. I look down a at him, and it just feels like the most wonderful, mundane thing that this kid now by my side. One of the things I’ve found as a new parent is that you confront all of these clichés about having children. Some of them you find absolutely apply to you — or you don’t, and you wonder if a) there’s something wrong with you or b) everybody wa s lying. But in all seriousness, it may have something to do with the fact that I’m a much h older mother. I’m thirty-nine. I think if I’d had a kid at twenty-two it would have blown my brain open. I’ve experienced a lot of love in 39 years. This one is certainly unique; there’s nothing like this. But I would be lying if I said that it t’s totally changed my outlook on love. My outlook on love is the same — and ever expanding.
I CAN’T IMAGINE THAT JASON AND I WON’T TAKE SOME ADVANTAGE OF THE UNIQUENESS OF THE [INSTALLATION] AND DO SOMETHING WEIRD. JASON AND I ARE KNOWN FOR NEITHER OF US EVER DOING THE SAME THING TWICE, SO I IMAGINE SOMETHING UNIQUE WILL MOST LIKELY HAPPEN.
— AMANDA PALMER
▼ Amanda Paalmer and Jason Webley in concert ▼ 9 p.m. Friday, MarchM 18 ▼ Meow Wolf Art Complex,C 1352 Rufina Circle; www.meowwollf.com ▼ Sold out