When the music industry finishes going through its painful digital rebirth, you bet there’ll be a chapter in the textbook on Amanda Fucking Palmer.
The ex-Dresden Dolls singer, purveyor of insatiably emotional ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and owner of a pair of eye-popping eyebrows, has had a passionate niche of fans for more than a decade. But the reason the world sat up and took note is that she, more than anyone before her, worked out a way to turn her tribe into a viable business plan.
After raising $1.2m through Kickstarter to fund her album, proclaiming “this is the future of music”, she became a poster child for crowdfunding, feminism, TED (her talk’s had almost 10 million views) and Twitter (with a million followers). As well as one of the most hated figures on the internet.
Talking to The Big Issue as she races from Boston to upstate New York (where she is launching a work-in-progress musical) Amanda says both her philosophy and her thick skin go back to her days busking as a human statue in Boston. She felt part of a “street eco-system” including “buskers and vendors and newspaper hawkers and homeless people”.
Both her philosophy and her thick skin go back to her days busking as a human statue in Boston
“It informed my philosophy about the music community and what is possible when you maintain an ecosystem like that.”
Prominent among these was the local street paper vendor. “I loved that guy,” says Amanda. “He’s been selling copies of Spare Change [Boston’s equivalent of The Big Issue] in Harvard Square for 20 years. He was often my company as I stood there as a statue.”
Amanda has refined her world view into The Art of Asking (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help), which explains that asking for help is not begging but “an act of intimacy and trust”.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
It reads like a passionate late night conversation, putting the world to rights with a friend over bad red wine. But then, as someone who was there when The Dresden Dolls first played the UK, I know whose side I’m on. Does she worry about critics?
“I’m terrified,” she admits. “The idea that it would be waved in the air as yet another example of how I am a flaming narcissist is a profound fear.”
Combining the personal and the polemical, The Art of Asking sits among a new wave of feminist writing featuring Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham. Like Lena and Caitlin, criticisms of Amanda have mostly centred around her supposed self-obsession and her ‘unexamined privilege’, as though her comfortable upbringing precludes her right to tackle misogyny when she runs up against it.
Amanda refuses to make life easy for herself – her sympathetic poem for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev comes to mind. But if you don’t believe that much of the criticism is bound up in sexist ideas about how women should behave, look at how her husband (author of Coraline and American Gods) Neil Gaiman is treated. Spoiler: it involves fewer death threats.
The intimations that Amanda only got her book deal because of Neil – or that she got him to write it for her – have been as predictable as they are depressing. But Neil’s only input was to help tell the story of how they became the geek world’s Brangelina.
Amanda refuses to make life easy for herself – her sympathetic poem for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev comes to mind
“We are a bizarre couple,” says Amanda. “We may argue about who was supposed to pick up so-and-so from the airport but when it comes to defending each other’s artistic choices, we are each other’s biggest champions. It is the rock on which our marriage is built.”
Since Amanda and Neil travel independently so much, parts of their relationship are carried out on Twitter – gold for their legions of fans. “All I try and remind people who idealise our relationship is, there are plenty of conversations we don’t have on Twitter, guys,” laughs Amanda.
To navigate these choppy waters of intense love and infamy, Amanda returns again and again to the lessons learned on the streets of Boston. Her strategy for the “future of music” – studied by fledgling musicians, artists, record label executives and Bono alike – is the same as the advice she’d give to buskers and street paper vendors.
“Don’t focus on the people who are walking by and ignoring you, who have absolutely no interest in you. Focus on the small sliver of people who actually are engageable,” she says.
“If it’s one in a thousand people, that one in a thousand people is your audience. Love them.”