If you didn’t already know about Amanda Palmer’s new album — Theatre Is Evil, her third solo release since semi-leaving the Dresden Dolls — then you probably have no idea who Amanda Palmer is. And how exactly do you explain Amanda Palmer to the uninitiated? I’ve tried, and trust me, it’s an exercise in futility. “She’s like the indie Lady Gaga, but for adults, and the music is better, and she’s married to the comic book author Neil Gaiman, which makes her like the Princess Diana for nerds, but she’s weird in ways that aren’t just appealing to 16-year-old gay guys.” Nobody has ever become a fan of Amanda Palmer because of my clumsy explanations.
On the other hand, those of you who are aware of Amanda Palmer and love her music certainly don’t need to be reminded about Theatre Is Evil. Not only are you aware that it comes out today, you probably helped pay for it, contributing to the Kickstarter campaign that raised millions to get Theatre Is Evil recorded and released. You know about the album because you’re an investor. If you donated more than $300 and were in Los Angeles this summer, you might’ve even been on the guest list for her show at the Pop tART gallery in Koreatown, where she invited the audience to paint her naked body. Were you there? If so, fuck you and your good fortune. Telling you that Amanda Palmer has a new album is the dictionary definition of redundant. It’d be like going on Fox News and saying, “Hey guys, I’m pretty sure Obama is a socialist!”
I called Palmer to talk about balloon dresses, the kindness of strangers, and why it’s important to steal Metallica’s music. I only spoke to her for about 30 minutes, but I’m already prepared to fight Neil Gaiman for her hand.
You sometimes go by the full name Amanda “Fucking” Palmer.
That’s right, yeah.
Where’d the “fucking” come from? Did you give yourself that middle name, or was it given to you?
A little of both. It happened while I was in Nashville, working on Who Killed Amanda Palmer with Ben (Folds, who produced the album). There was someone in Ben’s life who was not particularly fond of me, and I guess she referred to me to Ben as “Amanda Fucking Palmer.”
Not meaning it as a compliment.
Not at all. But Ben thought it was funny. He mentioned it to the engineers in the studio, and they started calling me AFP as a joke. For a while we even considered using it in the album title.
I heard you considered calling it That’s Amanda Fucking Palmer to You.
Yeah, that’s true. Even when we gave up on that title, I kept using the name. I appropriated it, just like black people appropriate n****r.
You took the power back.
I took back the fucking power.
To paraphrase my mother, when I told her that you sometimes use “Fucking” as a middle name, “Is that necessary?”
[Laughs.] You know, my mom asks the same thing. And I guess the answer is no, it’s not necessary. But neither is music, art or life. I don’t think I ever officially released any music under the moniker. It’s a nickname I use when I need a little emphasis.
Are you ever tempted to kick it up a notch? Take it from “Fucking” to “Motherfucking”? As Spinal Tap would say, take it up to eleven?
No, I think “Fucking” says it all. “Fucking” is enough for me. I remember in the ‘90s seeing a t-shirt that Ani DiFranco had made. It was really small white letters that just said “Ani Fucking Difranco.” I thought that was a brilliant piece of merchandise.
One of my favorite things about you is there will never be a tabloid headline that reads “Amanda Palmer Nipple Slip.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, probably not.
If there’s a nipple being shown, it was probably intentional.
Well, not necessarily. I do run around clothed occasionally.
Well sure, but you’re more comfortable with nudity than 99.9% of celebrities.
I guess that’s true.
You did a show in Brooklyn this summer, where you wore a balloon dress and invited the audience to pop it. Was there a moment of anxiety before you went onstage, where you thought “What the fuck am I doing?”
You know what’s funny about the ballon dress? None of that was planned in advance.
How much? The popping part or-?
All of it! Before the show, this guy came up to me and said, “Hey, look what I made for you.” It was a balloon dress, and I immediately said to him, “Give it to me!” [Laughs.] We didn’t have any kind of discussion about it. I didn’t ask him, “Can I try it on? Can I wear it?” I just ripped my clothes off and he tied me into it. I didn’t have a chance to think about it.
Did you know you were going to ask the audience to essentially disrobe you?
I got the idea on stage. The whole thing happened in under two minutes. It was totally spontaneous. Had I actually have planned it out, it probably wouldn’t have been as awesome.
Watch Amanda Palmer get into her balloon dress:
You also did a show in L.A. where you asked the audience to paint you. Was that exhilarating or terrifying?
Exhilarating. There’s a beautiful feeling in a moment like that.
There’s no anxiety in realizing that you just invited a crowd full of strangers to touch your naked body?
It’s not really anxiety. It’s a feeling of, “I trust these people so much that I’ll stand here and be this vulnerable.”
That’s an awful lot of trust. How can you be 100% certain that everybody out there is going to treat it as an collaborative art project and not a chance to cop a feel?
I kind of trust the crowd to self-police. Even if there are a couple of creeps there or a couple of drunk people, my fans will take care of me. They act as my own security. And they collectively set the tone for a moment like that. So I feel very, very safe.
Do you have any body insecurity at all?
Let’s do a Mad Libs. “I wish my BLANK wasn’t so BLANK.”
Well, I have a historically large pot belly.
Your pot belly will be written about in history textbooks?
It might. Also, as my face has been aging, I have this wrinkle in the middle of my forehead that I’m sometimes obsessive about. But other than that, no, I don’t have much body insecurity.
I interviewed Matthew McConaughey this summer, and he told me he was nervous about being naked in Magic Mike. And he has abs that could deflect a gunshot. Why are we as a nation so self-conscious and insecure about our naked bodies?
I think we’re just freaked out by imperfection. For me, I’ve found it to be an ongoing and exciting challenge. Being naked takes a certain kind of bravery. Being naked and imperfect takes another kind of bravery. This is definitely a TMI moment. We did a Kickstarter gallery show, which was a really small, exclusive party for a couple hundred people. And the bands did this incredible acoustic set, and I was wearing a satin dress with no underwear. I’m on the pill, so I shouldn’t be getting my period.
Oh wow, I think I know where this story is going.
The cellist came up to me at the end of the set and said, “I know this is really blunt but do you need a tampon because the back of your dress is covered in blood?”
And there it is!
[Laughs.] And I thought, this is the sort of moment that in 8th or 9th grade would have been, “Oh my god, I really am going to just die of embarrassment.” It was sort of nice to feel, you know, “Well hey, I guess the back of my dress is covered in blood. What do you know about that? I don’t think anyone here fucking cares, so whatever.” That’s actually a really beautiful moment when you realize, all of that was in your head to begin with.
“The only thing to ever be embarrassed about is the level and the height of anxious insecurity in your own head. When you look around and realize you’re surrounded by human beings who are generally just as afraid of you, it’s very easy to strip away the fear.”
Everybody is too wrapped up in their own insecurities to worry about your dress being drenched in period blood?
Exactly, right. The only thing to ever be embarrassed about is the level and the height of anxious insecurity in your own head. When you look around and realize you’re surrounded by human beings who are generally just as afraid of you, it’s very easy to strip away the fear.
That’s an easy philosophy to agree with intellectually and emotionally. But in actual execution, not so much.
Yeah, but I think a lot of it is just about challenging yourself. It’s fascinating to watch your brain do all of these gymnastic calculations about what the outside world is seeing. “Do I look perfect? How do I appear?” Ripping yourself apart and being able to call yourself out on your own vanity is incredibly empowering. It doesn’t necessarily mean it goes away. I think we’re all vain in our own ways and at our own levels. But recognizing it and playing with that vanity is about as empowered as I can get. I know I’m never going to get rid of it. But I can kick it around the block.
There’s a lot of nudity in the video for your new song “Want it Back.” Some people are going to respect the artist integrity of it. And some people are going to, you know…
[Laughs.] Yeah. Not respect it so much.
You can’t control what people do with your art.
And I wouldn’t want to. Once you make something and put it out there, it’s out there. It’s the end of your story and then the art has its own story. It’s like that with everything. You can’t control people’s reactions, and I don’t think you’d want to. Why would you even want to do that? If you could control everybody’s reactions, what’s the point in making art at all?
Watch the video for “Want it Back” (NSFW version) below:
As a teenager, I did some things while looking at Madonna videos that maybe she didn’t intend.
Things get taken out of context, especially when there’s a sexual element.
And context is everything. But you have to reach a point as an artist when you realize you have no control, especially with media being as manipulatable as it is. All you can do is just pray that context will inform as much as it can.
Let’s talk about Kickstarter. How much did you raise again? A million something?
It closed at 1.2 million.
That’s insane! You’re like a Jerry Lewis telethon.
[Laughs.] I guess so.
Did it exceed all of your expectations?
Not really. It didn’t exceed my expectations by that much. I was hoping we’d hit a million.
I thought you’d ballparked the best case fundraising scenario at $100,000.
$100,000 was an absolute bottom line, because Kickstarter asks you to list a minimum. But that was far below what we hoped and expected to make. I made a conservative estimate that we’d raise somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000.
Even $500,000 would’ve been amazing. It’s counter-intuitive to everything we think we know about the fan/ recording artist relationship in 2012.
You think so?
Well sure. The economy is in the crapper. The world is evenly divided between the broke and destitute, and fat cats lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills. And we’re in a consumer culture where people regularly steal music rather than pay for it. But you’ve somehow convinced your fans not just to pay for your album but donate millions to get it produced and distributed. How the hell does that happen?
I think people love supporting art. And I think even in a recession, especially in a recession, people love supporting art because it’s what brings them meaning. A vast majority of people who gave money to the Kickstarter campaign gave $1 or $5 or whatever they could give. A handful of people who could afford more gave more. But this is a giant community that I’m in. It’s an art and music community, and I think people felt like they were supporting something much bigger than just me and this album. They were supporting Kickstarter.
But people love to steal.
They do, sure.
You encouraged as much on your blog. You wrote, and I’m quoting here, “I have, for years, encouraged my fans to burn, download and share all of my music with each other and with strangers. And I will never stop doing that. All that sharing eventually comes back to me in all forms of income and goodwill.”
I still feel that way.
And that’s incredible. But it also feels a little bit like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire. It’s got shades of “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” It’s sweet that you think that, but the Internet is filled with Stanley Kowalskis, and they’re super-creepy.
I hear what you’re saying. But it’s not being innocent and naive if you have a real relationship with your fans. It’s not easy at all. I nurture it and work on it constantly. And if you look around, I think you’ll see a lot of relationships like that between artists and their audiences. They’re just not the mainstream ones that the spotlight is shining on.
Watch Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra cover Nirvana’s “Polly”:
Musicians can sometimes make a very convincing case to steal from them. I don’t even like Metallica, but I want to steal their music because it’s so satisfying to see the look of moral outrage on Lars Ulrich’s pinched little weasel face.
Well you should do it then.
I should steal their music?
You don’t sympathize with Lars?
I understand his complaints. I can understand bands that had a lot of success in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and they’ve gotten dependent on the system working a certain way. And when that system literally disintegrates before their eyes, of course they’re going to be upset. I’d probably be upset if I was in my 50s and I was used to getting cut a check for a certain amount every month and all of a sudden everything I knew disappeared, and the safe ground I thought I was standing on turned to quicksand. I wouldn’t be happy about that at all. But trying to force the world to stay the same, it’s never a viable option.
And it’s never a good idea to lash out at the people who like your music.
It’s really not, no. Antagonizing your fans, and bossing your fans around, and telling your fans what to do when the tide is clearly turning in another direction is just stupid. It doesn’t work.
Have you followed that whole thing with David Lowery and the NPR intern who admitted to stealing music?
Do you agree with Lowery? Is he right to feel like a victim?
I think a lot of the facts that David pointed out were right. But I don’t think the thesis holds together. I think David belongs unfortunately to that crowd of people who are wishing, “Couldn’t we just go back to the way things were?” albeit not as stubbornly or stupidly as Lars Ulrich. Even when you point out the facts—musicians are selling less CDs, independent musicians are unhappy—that may all be true, but it doesn’t mean we can turn back the clock.
So suck it up?
Suck it up and look for a way forward. These are the facts: Digital music is free. People are going to share music. So how can musicians make money? Let’s focus on that. What do artists need to do? How do audiences need to respond? What is the dialogue we need to have so that the audience can most easily give support to the artist that they love? Those are the questions these people should be arguing about.
But instead they whine about the unfairness of illegal downloading.
And illegal downloading is not going away. Downloading and torrenting exists and will never not exist. You can’t wish it away. So instead of shaking your fist at the sky and saying it shouldn’t be raining, get out your fucking umbrella and deal with it.
Theatre Is Evil is out now.