donderdag 16 mei 2013

Het (feministische?) fenomeen Amanda Palmer: de punkkoningin van de provocatie.



De Amerikaanse muzikante en voormalige street perfomer Amanda 'Fucking' Palmer is niet vies van enige controverse: de vroegere leading lady van de punk cabaretband The Dresden Dolls schopt immers graag tegen de schenen van de goegemeente en provoceert steeds met passie. Haar flamboyant gedrag op en naast het podium, tezamen met haar heel eigen opvallende ideeën over het hedendaagse feministische denken, zorgen ervoor dat de meningen over deze artieste – zeker binnen feministische kringen – vaak uiteenlopen.

Zo kwam Palmer deze zomer bijvoorbeeld nog in opspraak toen bleek dat ze met haar revolutionaire
Kickstarter-project – een website waarop bands en muzikanten hun muziek rechtstreeks kunnen laten financieren door hun fans – maar liefst 1.2 miljoen dollar had opgehaald voor haar nieuwe album Theatre Is Evil. Op zich lijkt dit niet zo heel problematisch te zijn – crowd funding zorgt er immers voor dat het geld van muziekfans rechtstreeks bij de artiest in kwestie terecht komt en niet aan de vingers van op geld beluste managers blijft kleven – maar de Amerikaanse media vroegen zich terecht af of Palmers marxistische en DIY-attitude wel te verzoenen viel met het ophalen van zo'n ontzettend gigantisch bedrag. Daarnaast viel het bij vele fans en professionele muzikanten ook niet in goede aarde dat Palmer onder haar fans muzikanten ronselde om gratis op te treden tijdens haar wereldtournee.

Palmer besloot nadien gelukkig om al haar muzikanten te betalen, en krabbelde na dit incident meer dan gewoon maar recht, omdat ze door heel deze controverse werd uitgenodigd om
een TED-talk te verzorgen waarin ze onder meer inging op haar radicale – maar inspirerende – ideeën over crowd funding en de muziekindustrie.

Niettemin kwam ze onlangs nog maar eens in opspraak nadat ze op haar blog een gedicht met de – volgens sommige offensieve want te empathische titel –
A Poem For Dzhokhar plaatste. Als geboren en getogen Bostonian, wou ze als artieste haar emoties delen over de recente bomaanslag in Boston, maar vele van haar critici (maar ook fans) vonden dat ze met dit gedicht de grenzen van de goede smaak ver overschreed.

Dit maar om te tonen dat Palmer – zelfs meer dan Madonna – de titel van koningin van de provocatie verdient. En dit is zeker zo als het op Palmers verhouding met het feminisme aankomt: hoewel ze zelf steeds het gevecht aangaat met de absurde schoonheidsidealen die gelden binnen onze maatschappij en de muziekindustrie in het bijzonder, blijkt uit interviews dat ze toch niet zo tuk is op het politieke feminisme. Daarnaast stuitte één van haar meest recente muzikale projecten met indiemuzikant Jason Webley, Evelyn Evelyn genaamd, heel wat feministen (en de groepering
Feminists With Disabilities
in het bijzonder) tegen de borst: Palmer en Webley traden tijdens hun muzikale acts namelijk op als een Siamese tweeling, die zogezegd uit een freakshow gered waren door Palmer en Webley. Deze paternalistische gimmick ging voor velen net iets te ver.

Uit dit alles blijkt dus dat provocatie centraal staat in het muzikale werk van Amanda Palmer, maar betekent dit ook dat ze louter provoceert om te provoceren? En moeten we haar dan meteen een postfeministe noemen omdat ze vooral lijkt te willen opvallen en tegelijkertijd erg kritisch is voor bepaalde vormen van feminisme? Of gaat er onder het laagje – of zeg maar dikke lagen – van provocatie en rebellie toch nog een andere Palmer schuil die wel aandacht heeft voor gender en feministische kwesties?

In onderstaand (Engelstalig) artikel probeer ik door middel van een introductie op Palmers oeuvre en haar voorliefde voor het Brechtiaanse Verfremdungseffekt een andere, misschien wel meer feministische kant van deze artieste te tonen...

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Eyebrowless, but eye-catching. Theatrical punk entertainer, but without the typical punk nihilism. Enigmatic and (post-)feminist provocateur.


These three descriptions immediately suggest that Amanda Palmer, former front lady and pianist of the Boston-based punk cabaret band The Dresden Dolls, and now a full-time solo artist, isn’t your typical American singer-songwriter: as a talented musician, she bravely fights against the monotony that is so central to the contemporary alternative music scene nowadays, and as an empowered woman, she refuses to be enslaved by today’s superficial beauty standards that have always been and still are dominating the music industry and our society as a whole.
    
If one ought to describe Amanda Palmer’s artistic performances, then her style should be compared to a postmodern hybrid mix of PJ Harvey’s and Lady Gaga’s styles: unlike Harvey, Palmer isn’t your typical British demure siren, but she certainly is as multitalented as her, which means that Palmer isn’t afraid of mixing different music genres with one another. Palmer’s love for outrageous, artsy shows also instantly reminds us of Lady Gaga, but where the latter really tries to put as much glitter and glamour in her performances as possible, Palmer usually takes a more sober and minimalistic approach to performing. If Lady Gaga claims to have become an exemplary, embodied postmodern art piece, a performance by Amanda Palmer should probably be seen as the anachronistic paradigm of entartete Musik, but then with a touch of feminism– or at least gender subversion– and gothic punk.

Although Palmer herself doesn’t like to be labeled as gothic or emo, and has always refrained from labeling her music style tout court, there are nonetheless some clearly visible leading motives present in the oeuvre of this rebellious artist. Both her duo and solo projects namely touch upon the genres of punk and cabaret: Palmer constantly evokes Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s raw, almost alienating theatricality in her songs, and all of Palmer’s music usually comes wrapped in a package of ironic self-mockery and a strongly developed sensitivity towards feminism, or at least towards women’s and gender issues. It is this interesting combination of Palmer’s love for theatricality and her awareness of and focus on women’s issues and the societal role of gender that could help us give an overview of the oeuvre of this remarkable punk cabaret goddess.


The Dresden Dolls & Who Killed Amanda Palmer. From Brechtian punk cabaret to bittersweet ballads with a bite.



“I can paint my face
And stand very very still
It’s not very practical
But it still pays the bills”
(The Dresden Dolls - Perfect Fit)

 

Amanda Palmer actually started her career as a street performer: masked as her favorite Eight Foot Bride character, dressed in a white wedding gown and with a white-painted face, she learned the tricks of the trade on Boston’s famous Harvard Square. As a living statue, Palmer teased and challenged her spectators, whilst transforming ordinary and simple bodily movements into an artistic and extraordinary event. During these mime-like performances, Palmer actually laid the foundations of The Dresden Dolls’ philosophy – the punk band she started a couple of years later with her friend and drummer Brian Viglione.

The band’s philosophy mainly consisted of the idea that bonding with The Dresden Dolls’ audience was of the utmost importance: during performances, Palmer and Viglione always seemed to symbiotically amalgamate with their spectators by giving them a voice and an active role in the band’s performance. The Dresden Dolls’ fan group – The Dirty Business Brigade – soon came into being, and many street performers and artists, such as burlesque dancers, fire breathers, and circus freaks, grouped together under the aforementioned name to support and invigorate the band’s live shows. This illustrates that Palmer’s performances always have been theatrical, and that her histrionic attitude should therefore not be regarded as a mere attention-seeking gimmick.

Besides Palmer’s passion for the grotesque and bizarre, one could also detect a certain paradox at work in the oeuvre of The Dresden Dolls: on the one hand, their songs always portray a certain fragility and tenderness, but this musical loveliness usually tends to be disrupted after a couple of minutes by either one of Viglione’s threatening drum solos or Palmer’s frightening shrieks. This predilection for discontinuity, paradoxes and the alienating, also has played an important role in naming the band: although Amanda and Brian at first wanted to name their band Eleven Eleven – after Amanda’s bizarre fetish with the number eleven – they in the end opted for the combination of ‘Dresden’ and ‘Dolls’. The band’s name therefore not only alludes to Palmer’s idolization of Germany’s Weimar culture, but it also, according to Palmer, reveals the essence of their music: Dresden – the German city that was completely wiped off the map during World War II – obviously symbolizes destruction and chaos, whilst the Dolls element relates to Palmer’s sometimes softly-sung vocals.

Their debut album, The Dresden Dolls (2003), depicts this contrast quite perfectly: songs such as Half Jack, Slide and Truce start of as calm ballads, but end up as an overwhelming mixture of bombastic drum solos and loud screams. Interesting is that this constant movement towards provoking feelings of alienation, isn’t only central to this record’s musical arrangements, but also has found its way through Palmer’s lyrics. The themes of The Dresden Dolls’ debut album exemplify this perfectly: provocative topics, such as pedophilia (Missed Me, Slide), intersexuality (Half Jack) and self-destructional tendencies (Bad Habit) are all present, and the song Missed Me in particular can be seen as a typical, puzzling Dresden Dolls-track that shows the band’s love for instrumental and textual discontinuity.
 
In Missed Me, Amanda Palmer plays the role of a young, somewhat naïve girl, who is admired and lusted after by a much older man. The young girl actually appears to feed on his attention:

“Missed me, missed me, now you gotta kiss me, if you kiss me, mister, take responsibility. I’m fragile, mister, just like any girl would be, and so misunderstood (so treat me delicately).”

The older man nonetheless constantly cheats on her, and also abuses her. All of this seems to victimize the little girl, voiced by a softly whispering Palmer, and this kind of victimization would typically lead girls such as these into a situation of powerlessness and silence. But because of the fact that the boundaries between innocence and guilt in Palmer’s world always tend to be rather blurry, Missed Me ends in a completely unforeseen way: shockingly, the little gullible girl wasn’t a victim after all, but turns out to be the force behind this forbidden love affair:

“If you trick me, mister, I will make you suffer, and they’ll get you, mister, put you in the slammer and forget you, mister.”

Throughout this textual (and possibly also morally problematic) deceit, Palmer’s voice changes from a sweet, childish timbre into a roaring, self-confident tone, and she, at the end of the song, relapses back into soft, but not so innocent, mutterings:

“Do you miss me? Miss me? Will they ever let you go, I miss my mister so.”

These lyrical confrontational turns are central to The Dresden Dolls’ entire oeuvre and are hence also noticeable on their two most recent and slightly more poppy albums Yes, Virginia (2006), and No, Virginia (2008). It is because of the latter elements of defiance and alienation, together with the fact that both Amanda and Brian perform with mime-like painted faces that got them labeled as a gothic and emo band. Although their performances can indeed be characterized as post-punk, Palmer wanted another, less constricted label for the band, and that’s how she came up with the term ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’. With this definition, Palmer not only wishes to emphasize the variété aspect of the band, but she also uses this concept as a diversion strategy for inquisitive and often irritating music journalists who are obsessed with labeling and categorizing every music genre out there. This paradoxical conceptual combination in the end actually does tell us what The Dresden Dolls are all about: their cabaret-like style and Palmer’s liberated punk attitude are an obvious part of their act.

The Brechtian element nonetheless requires a more detailed explanation, since Palmer’s solo performances refer to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as well. Although it would be an overstatement to say that a Dresden Dolls performance is completely identical to Brecht’s epic theatre, since Palmer herself isn’t that occupied with social criticism in the Brechtian sense of the word, it is nonetheless true that she also wishes to raise awareness about certain issues and evoke feelings of passion in the audience, without sentimentalizing the result of the performance itself.
                                                      
This anti-sentimentalization tendency isn’t the focal point of Palmer’s solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer (2008), since Palmer here in fact experiments with more sober, ballad-like compositions. This however doesn’t mean that Palmer all of the sudden only started writing schmaltzy, sugar-coated love songs when she became a solo artist: even the more serene songs on the album after some time tend to reveal their venomous essence.
Strength Through Music, for instance, at first appears to be an unadorned, simple song, but when one finds out that this track actually addresses the Columbine tragedy, and Palmer is in fact mimicking one of the killer’s apathy and bloodthirstiness during the accompanying video, the lyrics get a whole new, provocative dimension:


Don’t bother blaming his games and guns. He’s only playing and boys just want to have fun. And it is so simple, the way they fall. No bang or whimper, no sound at all.”

Even the sweet-sounding cover of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s What’s The Use of Wond’rin? (a song that already has a pretty ambiguous meaning on its own) from the musical Carousel clearly alludes to domestic violence. In the original version, the victimized female lead character eventually pardons these acts of violence:

“Oh, what’s the use of wond’rin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad. He’s your fella and you love him, that’s all there is to that.”

But Palmer’s version is quite ironic and liberating at the same time, as can be seen in the accompanying video, where the victim, together with a female friend, confronts her abuser, lures him into a trap, and lynches and skins him alive. 

                                                                                                                    
Who Killed Amanda Palmer hence is an album filled with deception and absurdities, which makes sense once you know that Palmer’s main source of inspiration wasn’t Brecht, but American filmmaker David Lynch. The title of the album reminds us of the murder on Laura Palmer in Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks, and this famous whodunit was staged by Palmer in a magnificent, yet slightly creepy photo album where Palmer staged her own death in more than fifty different ways. Placed next to photographs of lifeless Amanda’s in bathtubs, rivers, and in a baking-oven – every housewife’s favorite suicide tool! – the lyrics of Who Killed Amanda Palmer strangely enough really came alive.
 
This photo book gimmick luckily didn’t affect the quality of the album: Who Killed Amanda Palmer still is Palmer’s best solo album to date, since it offered Palmer a space to experiment with more intimate songs, and this intimate atmosphere in its turn gave Palmer the opportunity to show off her (post-)feminist sensitivities, as we will see now.


Amanda Palmer as a postmodern riot grrrl? (Post-)feminism and other provocations.


“No one’s asking to go dancing, it’s not like that anymore
It’s romantic if they mean it when they shut your fingers in the door
It’s a gory sort of story that’s been told a hundred times before
It gets tricky, don’t be picky, if the slipper fits you, wear it whore”
(The Dresden Dolls - Glass Slipper)

 

Who Killed Amanda Palmer isn’t only an interesting album because of its paradoxical nature. This album in fact also shows us another side of Palmer: a voice that often got silenced in the midst of the bombastic musical violence of The Dresden Dolls, namely the voice of an emancipated woman. This of course does not mean that Palmer all of the sudden transformed herself from an anti-feminist into a feminist in-between the release of these two albums, but Who Killed Amanda Palmer did give her the opportunity to candidly take on women’s and gender issues.

Palmer’s feminist attitude has always been present: she was the fierce leading lady of The Dresden Dolls, and whilst performing on stage, she often presented herself as a frenzied, postmodern piano playing riot grrrl. In spite of that, Palmer’s relationship with feminism is often rather ambiguous: as she once told me during an interview, Amanda loathes certain patronizing forms of feminism that are, according to her, too preoccupied with sketching out new feminist do’s and don’ts, since this kind of thinking would create a new kind of dominating system of thought.

As a punker, Amanda isn’t too keen on a political feminist project that works with strict definitions and essences of how men and women should act. Palmer’s feminist – or should we maybe say post-feminist? – attitude therefore isn’t as unambiguous and in-your-face as the feminist and queer project of Canadian electro clash queen Peaches, for example, who tries to subvert traditional gender roles and norms by means of outrageously raunchy, queer performances and explicit lyrics. Whereas Peaches is known for her boundary-crossing mockery of gender identities, and pleas to change the denigrating term ‘motherfucker’ into the likewise condescending concept of ‘fatherfucker’ to reveal the sexism in the music industry, Amanda Palmer, on the other hand, has told journalists time and time again that she does not want to attach any radical feminist political message to the her manifestly unshaven armpits…

Should we then conclude that Amanda Palmer is a mere opportunist when it comes to her alliance with political feminism, and only selfishly exploits feminism’s conceptual framework when wishing to make a personal statement? Is she more of a contemporary post-feminist than a Second-wave or Third-wave feminist?

Although feminist critics have often reprimanded Palmer for her egoistic approach to feminism, she nonetheless seems to be aware of and interested in women’s and gender issues, and in challenging and sometimes even queering certain gender roles and norms. But because of her individualistic and DIY attitude, she just isn’t interested in joining any political feminist movement.

So, although Palmer doesn’t want people to think that her oeuvre should be automatically seen as a feminist political manifesto, the foundational themes of her oeuvre nonetheless tend to revolve around gender and gender subversion. Both Half Jack (from The Dresden Dolls) and Sex Changes (from Yes, Virginia) deal with gender issues, and intersexuality and transsexuality in particular. Half Jack can be read and understood in multiple ways: it seems to refer to an absent father figure at first, but Palmer has once stated in an interview that this song also deals with the problematic rigidity of societal gender norms and whether femininity and masculinity are (and should be) as fixed as our society wants them to be. Palmer clearly refers to intersexuality in Half Jack, in order to denounce and potentially disrupt our rigid societal vision on gender identity:

“I’m half Jill and half Jack. Two halves are equal, a cross between two evils. It’s not an enviable lot.”

Sex Changes deals with the same issues, although the title of the song confronts us with a double entendre: on the one hand, the lyrics allude to the constructivism of gender roles (“Boys will be boys will be boys will be girls with no warning, girls will be girls will be guys.”), and on the other hand, the song itself refers to how societal gender norms often mirror our ideas about biological femaleness and maleness, and how hard it is to fight against this kind of biological determinism.

Ampersand and Oasis (from Who Killed Amanda Palmer) also have an obvious meaning attached to it.
Ampersand, a beautiful and bittersweet ballad, is Palmer’s own anthem of female autonomy. Amanda here refuses to be enchained by a relationship in which she would only be known as someone’s better half, or as Juliet of Romeo & Juliet:

“I’m not gonna live my life on one side of an ampersand and even if I went with you, I’m not the girl you think I am. And I’m not gonna match you, ‘cause I’ll lose my voice completely no, I’m not gonna watch you, ‘cause I’m not the one that’s crazy.” 


The autobiographical
Oasis is a plea for female independence as well, but the lyrics and video of Oasis are way more provocative and shocking, since this song touches on the issues of date rape and abortion. Oasis presents itself as a poppy, cheerful song, and Palmer’s lyrics soften the seriousness that surrounds the practice of abortion, since the main character seems to be more preoccupied with writing fan letters to the British rock band Oasis than the fact that she has been raped: 


“Oh, oh, I’ve seen better days, but I don’t care, Oasis got my letter in the mail.” 

This ironic downplaying of the severity of the latter issues is obviously done on purpose, and although it could be seen as problematic, Palmer basically intended to leave all kinds of gravitas out of the picture in this song, in order to produce a cathartic reaction within herself and her listeners. Oasis nonetheless turned into an instant controversy, and the song was quickly banned from British radio stations because it seemingly mocked rape, religion and abortion. When asked about the Oasis controversy, Amanda stoically responded that abolishing dark, biting humor would only cause more misery and bitterness.      
                                                                                                                        
The so-called Oasis controversy wasn’t Palmer’s last conflict with the music industry, however: the video for the song Leeds United also provoked many angry reactions, not because of its subject, but because of the fact that Roadrunner Records – Palmer’s record company at the time – wanted to cut out some up-close belly shots of Palmer, because she looked chubby, according to their standards. “They thought I looked fat, I thought they were on crack,” Palmer laconically responded on her blog after being notified of the incident. The dispute in the end caused Palmer to leave Roadrunner Records, and also triggered a massive online belly love campaign, appropriately named The ReBellyon, in which Palmer’s fans supported her in her battle against the unrealistic and misogynistic beauty standards in today’s music industry.

Since then, Palmer has incited many other controversies, and has triggered many heated debates amongst feminists because of her sometimes post-feminist-like and provocative, rebellious attitude. But although it is now probably obvious that Amanda Palmer doesn’t want to be enslaved by any kind of political feminist movement, she does share the same progressive, punk-like and emancipatory attitude of the riot grrrls movement of the early nineties. Palmer also shares her experiences of being a woman and a female artist in her music, without relapsing into essentialist statements or gender stereotyping, which seems to undermine the possible post-feminist elements in her work that critics have referred to. Palmer even appears to be playing with feminist issues on one of her more recent albums, titled Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, in an, of course, ironic and provocative manner:
Map of Tasmania, for instance, is a tongue-in-cheek protest song that alludes to the horrors of female shaving:

“I say grow that shit like a jungle, give ‘m something strong to hold onto. Let it fly in the open wind, if it gets too bushy, you can trim.” 


We are hence surely not overreacting if we were to describe Amanda Palmer as a postmodern – and potentially also feminist – riot grrrl, who, by writing confrontational and often oblique lyrics, and by being the agente provocateuse she is, challenges today’s oppressive beauty standards and rigidly fixed gender conventions. Seeing Palmer solely as a potentially feminist singer-songwriter wouldn’t honor her complex and multilayered oeuvre enough, but one could of course still label her as a feminist provocateuse, who, ambiguously and with lots of biting wit, moves through the political projects of feminism and hence not only challenges our traditional societal norms and roles about women and gender, but also confronts feminist thought with its own sometimes limited perspectives and academic seriousness. And it is exactly this punk-like, provocative and critical attitude that might have made Amanda Palmer into a feminist poster girl and a punk cabaret goddess for today’s DIY generation…
 

Evelien Geerts, Graduate Gender Programme, Utrecht University (the Netherlands).
An edited and shorter version of this article appeared in the feminist magazine Potentia.

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