Amanda Palmer: Rebel With A Cause

Amanda Palmer: Rebel With A Cause

By Nicole Powers

Feb 17, 2009

Amanda Palmer is a rebel with a cause; she fights fiercely for her artistic freedom.

When the musician and singer, who is currently on hiatus from the "Brechtian punk cabaret" band The Dresden Dolls, made a video to promote one of the songs from her debut solo album, Who Killed Amada Palmer, it seems her belly didn't conform to the ideal expressed by a male executive at her label, who apparently explained: "I'm a guy, Amanda. I understand what people like." She fought the label's attempt to slim down her stomach's role in the clip for "Leeds United" (it was already pretty damn small). Her loyal fans also rose to her defense, and a grassroots ReBellyOn website was launched.

The incident was the final straw in Palmer's already fractured relationship with Roadrunner Records, a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group. The singer subsequently asked to be released from her contractual obligations. So far the label has declined her request.

Palmer consoled herself with the very loving and direct relationship she enjoys with her fans via MySpace and her own blog. So when she sparked even more outrage with the release of her follow-up video, for the song "Oasis", they were the first people she turned to for help.

Amanda's semi-autobiographical lyrics tell a story of rape and abortion as told from the perspective of a teenager, who gets through the traumatic experience thanks to her preoccupation with the Brit-pop band Oasis. The subject matter of the song, and the up-beat way it was portrayed in the video, proved to be too much for broadcasters to handle.

Palmer, who is currently touring Europe, received an email while she was in the U.K. from her label there explaining that "all"' of the TV outlets had refused to play the video due to it "making light of rape, religion and abortion." Palmer, in response, reached out to her fans via a lengthy missive on her blog, and by calling up SuicideGirls.

Nicole Powers: Hello.
Amanda Palmer: Bonsoir.
NP:
So you're in France right now? Whereabouts?
AP:
I'm in Toulouse. It's really quite beautiful.
NP:
So are you enjoying the French experience, the fine wine and wonderful cheese?
AP:
Yes, unfortunately. It makes performing seem secondary actually, to the cuisine and the wine, but one does what one can to shuffle.
NP:
I think that would be the rule of thumb for the whole of France; Anything that anyone does in France is secondary to the food and the wine.
AP:
Yeah. It's clearly a beautiful way to live life. I have noticed that as I grow older I am becoming more and more orientated towards the enjoyment of food and wine, and much less concerned about basically everything else.
NP:
I'm guessing that being in France is probably a good place to be right now, because maybe it's putting the drama of the video situation in perspective.
AP:
Yeah. Nobody in France gives a shit actually about how funny I am or am not about rape and abortion luckily.
NP:
Does the humor even translate?
AP:
The fans know, the fans know what the songs are about. One thing I have to say that's really nice about my fan base in general in France or Germany, or wherever, is that the vast majority of the people are highly educated and all speak English, so they pick up on the subtly of the lyrics, which is really important to me because the lyrics are obviously so critical to the music. None of them are really just throwaway who-gives-a-shit lyrics, they're really central.
NP:
So you're touring in Germany too. That's almost like selling ice to Iceland, because the particular form of cabaret that you do was born in Germany and Berlin during the war.
AP:
Yeah, well we certainly gave an early nod to Germany when we were first explaining to people what the band was like and about. But it's one of those chicken and egg things. I mean, I think, even if the band wasn't called the Dresden Dolls, and I hadn't tagged us with this Brechtian name, I think people in Germany would totally dig the style anyway.
NP:
But I think it's important to underline, given what you're going through now, that the style of music you do was born out of a terrible situation and a terrible time in war-torn Germany and Berlin, where such humor was a coping mechanism.
AP:
Absolutely. I think that you'll find that's true across the board in every way with so many things, that art is always a direct, sometimes desperate response to what is going on culturally and politically. I mean that story is as old as the hills.
NP:
Getting on to the video ban and the subject matter of the song, my initial reaction as an adult was that it was inappropriate, but then as I listened to the lyrics and watched the video, I realized what a great characterization it was, and how accurately you depicted the voice of a teenager. Teenagers do trivialize the stuff that they're traumatized by the most. Again, it's a basic coping mechanism, and the people in charge of what gets broadcast clearly aren't understanding that.
AP:
Well you know, I think it's worse than that. I think that the broadcasters do understand it, but they're not giving enough credit to their audience to be also able to pick up on the irony. I think the broadcasters are sitting around saying, "Well we understand the humor, but obviously the general public won't be able to pick up on the subtlety." And I think that that is incredibly dangerous and really insulting. Because what happens then when you wind up with a bunch of mainstream content that's completely shooting at the lowest common denominator? Then you wind up in a snowballing situation where, if the content isn't intelligent, then people will actually become stupider.
NP:
I think it's also something more insidious than that. I found it very interesting that in your blog you said that someone at the BBC said the song might be palatable for broadcast if you sung it slowly and in a minor key. That's like saying rape and abortion is only OK to discuss publicly as long as we view the woman as a victim.
AP:
Yes, and the situation as sad and tragic. That's why this conversation gets really dicey. It's why, in my blog, I drew the comparison to that incredible Holocaust movie, Life Is Beautiful. There's nothing about the song or that film that says don't take this thing seriously, but it's a commentary about life that says people, especially teenagers, don't always take things seriously, and that's a subtle differentiation but such an important one in art. Because you're reflecting what's out there, and what's out there isn't necessarily good, you know?
NP:
It goes without saying, obviously the teenager in your song was not happy about being raped, but is society saying that if a woman is raped it's only palatable if she sits around moping and is in tears for the next six months?
AP:
Yeah. I think you basically just hit the nail on the head. It really makes people uncomfortable, especially with subjects like this, when you tell it how it might be...I think the most important thing, to bring it back to the artist's position, is that you have to have the freedom to reflect on everything. You have to have the freedom to reflect on a fucked up teenager's fucked up reaction to a fucked up situation, even though there are a lot of elements of that whole landscape that people might find uncomfortable. If you can't reflect on the realities of what's going on out there because people don't like those realities, then you're sort of forced to sweep those realities under the rug, which is when you get into trouble.
NP:
In your blog you talk about how the song isn't really about rape and abortion, it's about the girl's denial. But what the song's actually bringing out is society's own tendency towards denial.
AP:
Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. It's very complicated, I mean there's so many issues that are stirring around in there that you could dredge out, like how people feel about abortion, and how women often are blamed. The same is true with rape and date-rape, and all of these really touchy subjects can come up. But, none of those subjects were in my mind when I wrote this song. It's just funny how that winds up happening because none of that was on the agenda at all.
NP:
You talk about how women are blamed for abortion, in America abortion is a terrifying prospect, not only because of the procedure, but because of the traumatic experience a women has to go through at the hands of the anti-abortion brigade.
AP:
Absolutely.
NP:
Why are these people so focused on being anti-abortion? Wouldn't their energy be better used if they were anti-rape? They should focus their anger on the fact that kids can't always get the correct 'family planning', I hate that euphemism, information, or access to birth control. Why do women focus their anger on other women in terrible situations?
AP:
Yeah. Absolutely. To me it's such a terrible irony. The most obviously example was some years ago when those pro-lifers busted into an abortion clinic and shot a bunch of people. How exactly are you defining pro-life?

But you know, I didn't deal with it in my blog, but that was my experience. I would have to say the worst part about getting an abortion wasn't the surgery itself, it was having to deal with people screaming at me outside of the clinic, and literally shoving up against me, and shoving pictures of mutilated fetuses in my face. I think, if anything else, when it comes down to it, writing that song was my way of processing that kind of assault, and just making it into a joke, which is how I process it, and that's got to be fair.
NP:
How old were you when that happened?
AP:
I was seventeen.
NP:
So you were essentially that girl in the song?
AP:
Pretty much. I mean obviously I exaggerated it, and I turned it into a really hyperbolic joke. Certainly, I was taking it much more seriously than the character in the song. But to be able to characterize those things, and to be able to laugh at them, it's an effective -- and it has to be a valid -- coping mechanism.
NP:
I love the way you talk about how humor is a weapon in your blog. It is a weapon that can raise us up out of victimhood. You yourself, are not a victim. You've used humor to transcend that.
AP:
Absolutely. But I think more importantly, it's not that you have to choose humor, it's just like a woman's right to choose between having a kid and getting an abortion, your experience is your experience, and you should be able to process and deal the way that you need to without other people demanding that you feel and experience anything a certain way. That includes everything, absolutely everything.

I think that's where art and artists are really essential in culture period, because they often break that ground that helps people come to terms with, and cope with, their own emotions about things. Because artists do always take it one step further, and push the edge and open up strange possibilities and pry through the darkest cracks of consciousness that you don't usually do just like sitting in your kitchen, brewing tea.

That's why people love music so much, and it's why people tend to embrace art and get really personal about it, because the best artists and songwriters, at least in my life in my experience, are those who put those experiences into a perspective that we're not able to, and laugh about them, or cry about them, or make them completely surreal. It's so necessary for life that we not only allow it but it should be encouraged -- we should be encouraging artists to do that.
NP:
What helped you at the time? You were seventeen and must have felt very alone and very shocked.What music were you listening to to help you cope?
AP:
Seventeen, it probably would have been The Cure and Depeche Mode. Seriously...I was a singer in high school, I think right around then my favorite band was The Legendary Pink Dots, and I was probably still listening to Violator and Disintegration, and Robyn Hitchcock who has a fantastic, bizarre sense of humor and shaped me a lot...Also Morrissey, who also has this great way of pushing the lines between what is and isn't appropriate to sing and talk about.

When I look at those songwriters who I really worshipped...When you hear people singing about the unsingable or talking about the unspeakable, but they're artists, I just assumed growing up that all artists had a special status in which they were immune to any kind of rules and regulations about what they were or weren't allowed to talk about, and that anything that was imaginable was allowed to be put into creation. But you know, it's not up to anyone to do that but the artist themselves. It's the artist who has to sit there and get the wild idea and manifest it and stand on trail
NP:
Instead of it getting easier for artists to express unpopular or uncomfortable ideas (as it did in the first three-quarters of the 20th century), it seems now to be getting harder. Obviously the Dixie Chicks is the example to throw out there.
AP:
Oh that was ridiculous.
NP:
And this kind of censorship goes on all the time, behind closed doors in the offices of broadcasters on a daily basis. There's so much censorship going on that we don't even know about or question.
AP:
I think there's two things that come to mind when you talk about that. One is the fact that mainstream music in order to survive has had to become increasingly more commercial, but that is due directly to the fact that music now can exist pretty much entirely on the internet and spread via word of mouth and not rely on mainstream promotional channels at all. So things are getting pushed in both directions. MTV is getting more and more terrified, and your mainstream radio outlets, who are losing business by the boatload, are making even more conservative decisions than usual because they can't afford to lose a single advertiser.

But in the meantime, an artist like me who has never really relied on those mainstream outlets, is getting all of her attention via MySpace and YouTube and by word of mouth by email. I think people underestimate the degree to which that is right on the brink of permanently changing. That sort of control is just going to be a thing of the past as everything become totally democratized on the internet.

The thing we need to worry about now is the outlets like YouTube starting to edit content at the hands of the advertisers, which is very slowly starting to happen. I mean, I don't know if you also picked this up on my blog, but YouTube just took down a whole bunch of my videos because they're involved in a lawsuit with Warner Music -- about money. It's just such an interesting time because we've got a lot to talk about and there's obviously this whole new paradigm that is taking shape, and the artists are sitting within it trying to figure out where exactly they fit.
NP:
So your videos all just got caught up in the lawsuit?
AP:
Yeah. They've since been put back up, but not with the original play counts. So a video that had a couple of hundred thousand hits now is just starting from scratch, which is obviously a pain in the ass.

It's scary, we're all used to everything on the internet being free, but there is going to come this breaking point at which things become, once again commercialized. It's something I really worry about, because I hear young rock bands talking about this nowadays, and they're actually talking about getting endorsed by products, sneakers and sunglasses, as if this is something cool. They never got the memo that that's actually completely ridiculous, and that they need to be so much more careful with their image and their art.
NP:
But to be fair on these new bands, that's because people don't value music and they don't consider it something that should be paid for, so these bands have no expectation of being able to make money from music sales.
AP:
Yeah. But that's fucked up. We actually can't survive that way. That is not any way for real artists to function.
NP:
People need to start valuing music again.
AP:
Well it comes down to the artist/fan relationship. Ignoring the middle-man for a second, and ignoring all the other people who want to make money, can the fans and the artists make a pact with each other that they will take care of each other, without interference. That's what I'm trying very hard specifically to do with my fan base, and they're coming along for the ride, which is fantastic. I would encourage all other artists and fans to do the same thing.

It's like a real relationship. It's a commitment. The fan has to be able to commit to the artist and say, "Wow, you rely on me to survive. I'm going to have to give you some money." And the artists have to be able to turn round to the fan and say, "You are literally supporting me, and I need to treat you with respect, and not over-price my fucking tickets. And not screw you in any way, not take advantage of you, not push products in your faces." Like any other relationship, it's got to be based on a real trust and mutual respect. Those are the relationships that will stand the test of time, and those are the bands that will survive, the ones that really get that that is fundamentally where we're headed.
NP:
How do you explain to your fans about this trust and two-way support?
AP:
I literally explain it to them through the blog and through the mailing list. I just constantly reiterate and point out that I'm relying on them to survive -- especially since things have gone awry with my relationship with the label that I'm on. That I really need their support, that I need them to actually buy the record, I need them to sign up for the mailing list, I need them to tell people about the shows.

In exchange I give myself completely when I play live. I refuse to phone-in a gig, and I will meet every single person who is standing in line for an autograph every night, even if it takes me four hours sometimes. So it's an ongoing dialog. That's what I fucking love about the internet. The questions are different every day, and the audience can actually ask me, and I can sit there at my Mac backstage and type in, "This is what we should do...this is how we can support the system."



Here are the "offending" videos. Let us know what you think in the comments section below.


"Oasis" - Making light of rape, religion and abortion?



'Leeds United" - Not what people like?


Amanda Palmer is currently on tour. Check her MySpace page for further info.
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