If not for the small matter of the Internet and the endless armies of trolls who lurk there, Amanda Palmer would likely be having the best time of her colourful life.
The early reviews are in for the Lexington, Massachusetts–raised cabaret punk’s third solo release, Theatre Is Evil, and they are gushing. Hop on Metacritic, which aggregates reviews from heavy hitters around the globe, and you’ll find the album sitting pretty with a rating of 84 out of 100 and a “universal acclaim” stamp of approval. That distinction is well-deserved, as Theatre Is Evil is a brilliant follow-up to 2008’s career-reinventing Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
As nice as the accolades have been, the album’s initial commercial performance has been even sweeter; released on Palmer’s own 8 Ft. Records imprint, it debuted on the Billboard charts at number 10. And then there have been the live shows on her current tour: the sometime Dresden Doll has been easily selling out 1,000-seat rooms, and the atmosphere in said venues has been, by her description, nothing short of electric.
And despite all of this, Palmer doesn’t exactly sound like someone who is sitting on top of the world when she connects with the Georgia Straight via telephone from an Austin tour stop.
Her response to the simple question of “How are you?” is a pregnant pause, followed by a not terribly convincing: “I’m good. I’m hanging in there.”
Pressed for a breakdown of her current mental state, she elaborates: “I’m living two lives. I’m living the life of touring rock musician, which is not without its challenges—bus-driver-going-to-hospital problems, and the gear and tech and crew issues that plague any tour. That’s the shit that no one hears about. Then there is Amanda Palmer: Internet meme, which is a totally different job.”
It’s the online side of things that’s making Palmer wish Al Gore had never invented the Internet. If you’ve been following so far, you’ll recall that, this past spring, Palmer launched a Kickstarter campaign that saw her fans pony up about $1.2 million. That money—a record-setting amount for the site—enabled the singer to record Theatre Is Evil.
No one complained when Palmer tapped her fans for financial support earlier this year. But a shitstorm erupted a few weeks back, when, while preparing to go out on tour, she announced that she was looking for musicians in each city to join her on-stage for free. Or, more accurately, for hugs and beer. Suddenly, every troll with an Internet connection—including producer/famous misanthrope Steve Albini—was on the computer suggesting that she was the worst thing since Nickelback.
Even though she has reconsidered, and will now pay those who take the stage with her, the backlash continues. And that’s what has her down on this day.
“The fundamental problem of the Internet is that it’s very easy to hurl insults and rotten truths at my direction from behind the safety of a computer,” Palmer suggests. “No one would dare come do that at a rock show. I’m really grateful that I’m on tour right now, because it’s such a beautiful and loving relationship that my fans have with me. If I wasn’t on tour, I don’t think that I would be able to weather the storm of misunderstanding.”
There’s a good argument that her Intraweb critics have made a major issue of something minor. (Ironically, some of her most vocal critics write for websites that probably don’t pay them jack shit.)
Palmer notes that she’s from a community where it’s accepted that not everyone gets paid for every favour.
“I come from a culture of street performance, DIY everything,” she states. “Constant favours for friends in all directions. No one ever had any desire to pull me down or rake me over the coals for that.”
In this case, Palmer wasn’t asking members of the VSO to volunteer their services at her upcoming Commodore show, and she wasn’t asking anyone to quit their jobs and hit the road with her while paying their own way. She simply asked her fans if they wanted to play with her on-stage, fans with whom, she notes, she has a relationship closer than that enjoyed by most artists. (Think Ween and those who worship the Boognish, rather than John Mayer and whatever John Mayer record buyers call themselves).
“This is such a de rigueur move for Amanda Palmer and her touring family that no one in my camp understood why people would freak out about it,” Palmer says. “I’ve been doing it for years. But I’m now considered a very particular brand of, you know, financial celebrity. And that is where people get really weird.… If people could look at my tour financial situation they’d laugh, because I’m actually taking a bit of a bath.
“I think I’ve hit a cultural nerve in two ways,” she continues. “People in this country are very frightened about the state of available work and the economy, and they have every right to be because things are scary out there. But also, I’m achieving a financial success through crowd-funding that’s pretty—um, what’s the word I’m looking for?—I wanna say outstanding, or unusual, in the literal sense. My Kickstarter was a real phenomenon in a world of utter confusion regarding where the music industry is heading. So people are examining my every move really carefully, for better or for worse.”
What’s getting lost in all the furor is the fact that—backed by her Grand Theft Orchestra—Palmer has made a great fucking record, one which should make every Kickstarter supporter happy they opened their wallet or purse. The album kicks off with the percussion-bombed psychedelia of “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)” and then proceeds to dabble in everything from nudge-nudge-wink-wink new wave (the “My Sharona”–referencing “Melody Dean”) to Pretty in Pink synth pop (“Bottomfeeder”) to glitter-stomp glam (“Do It With a Rockstar”).
Over the course of an epic 15 tracks Palmer once again proves herself as clever lyrically as she is musically. Consider “Grown Man Cry”, where, on top of electro-buzz percussion and computerized beeps and blips, Palmer sums up everything wrong with commercial rock, alternative or otherwise: “I’m lying on the sofa, and the radio is blaring/I’m scanning through the stations as the boys declare their feelings/But it doesn’t feel like feelings, it feels like they’re pretending/It’s like they just want blowjobs, and they know these songs will get them.”
It all adds up to one of the year’s great records.
Even more gratifying than the response that the album has been receiving everywhere, including the Internet, has been what Palmer sees when she looks out into the audience. Amid all the controversy, her fans seem to be circling the wagons around her, trolls and haters be damned.
“What I’m seeing at these shows is that there is always a handful of people who have been dragged by a boyfriend or girlfriend or friend,” Palmer says. “These people are leaving evangelical Grand Theft Orchestra converts. If you thought my solo shows were good, the amount of craziness and energy that the band brings is impossible to explain, unless you see it live.”
The best thing about this statement? Amanda Palmer sounds anything but bummed while making it.
Amanda Palmer plays the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday (September 29).
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