Earlier this year, Amanda Palmer delivered the performance that her entire career had been building towards. No, it wasn't her attack on The Daily Mail (but we'll get to that), and it certainly wasn't her poem for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (but we'll get to that, too) — it was her TED talk.
Palmer's presentation for the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference spanned her life's work, from her time spent busking as a living statue to her game-changing, record-breaking Kickstarter project, and it succinctly explained how these seemingly disparate things related to each other.
“The big thing that inspired the TED talk,” Palmer says, “was a need to really deeply explain myself after feeling that I'd been heavily misunderstood when I came under fire for crowdsourcing things.
“In my community, that's such a natural way of doing stuff,” she continues, “and I was so caught off guard when I was criticised for it. I really felt like I was standing up, not just for me, but for all the artists I know who do a lot of crowdsourcing and exchange a lot, creatively, with their fans and their friends. The culture is shifting, especially in America right now, and a lot of artists are coming under fire for how they do things. I felt like it was an important talk to give, to remind people that it really is the artist's prerogative how they want to interact and exchange with their fans and their friends.”
Followers of Palmer (and keen observers of internet shitstorms) will be aware that when Palmer talks about “coming under fire”, she's mostly referring to the criticism she received when she attempted to 'crowdsource' musicians to play with her Grand Theft Orchestra last year. She eventually caved to public pressure and agreed to pay the volunteers; I ask her why she relented and if she regrets not standing her ground.
“It was the easiest way to get back to work,” she counters. “That's the easiest answer. It wasn't like I reversed my principles. My principles stayed steady. But with so many people screaming, and with a job to do — this was literally happening during the first few weeks of our tour, while we were driving from show to show and working with these musicians every night — I didn't really feel like it was the correct time for a political battle. It was time to play music for people.”
That wasn't the only controversy Palmer found herself embroiled in over the past 12 months. She also wrote 'A Poem For Dzhokhar', a stream-of-consciousness work that appeared to take a sympathetic view of alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
“My views about this are probably continually controversial,” she shrugs, “but I think human beings should feel empathy towards everybody. When I say 'everybody', I mean absolutely everybody. It doesn't work if it's selective. That means young, old, violent, non-violent, black, white, you name it. If we're selectively empathetic, we're just not doing it right. That being said, it's a lot easier to feel empathy for a five-year-old than it is for a 37-year-old suicide bomber, but that doesn't mean it's not possible.”
Most recently, Palmer attracted more positive press when she skewered The Daily Mail. The British tabloid wrote a bizarre review of Palmer's Glastonbury performance that made no mention of her music, focussing instead on a minor “wardrobe malfunction”; in response, Palmer threw off her kimono and performed a new song, 'Dear Daily Mail', entirely nude.
“When I saw that Daily Mail article,” she remembers, “my first reaction was to laugh. I really thought it was so fucking funny that The Daily Mail thought I would be embarrassed someone could see a quarter centimetre of my nipple. Someone at The Daily Mail obviously didn't Google my name. I just thought that was so funny, but also so telling about how culture is built, because they're functioning on a planet where a female artist is fundamentally supposed to be embarrassed by something like that.
“As a female performance artist, nudity is definitely a powerful tool... especially if you use it with humour. That can be a really powerful statement because often, female performance art and nudity gets stuck in a box of ultra serious, highly academic feminist bullshit. Sometimes it's just really funny to rip your clothes off and do something hilarious.”
Amanda Palmer will speak at the Bigsound Conference (September 11-13) and perform at The Tivoli on Thursday September 12.