In addition to writer, musician, performer, ex-Dresden Doll, Ted Talk-er, Twitter superstar and Kickstarter millionaire, Amanda Palmer has had some other interesting job titles over the years — though the one that best led to her success in the new music economy was her stint as a stripper.
“In my early 20s when I was a living statue, I was also a stripper, a dominatrix, and I worked for a naming and branding company, and an ice cream shop,” she told interviewer Bob Lefsetz while discussing her career Thursday at a CMW event in a hotel ballroom. “I did all these things at the same time. I had an interesting early 20s.”
The room, led by Lefsetz, chuckled en masse.
“There's a million parallels you can draw between Stripper World and Music World. And Human Statue World, actually. But I went in there as 24 thinking I’m a really strong woman, I love human beings, I’m totally compassionate, I’m a feminist, I’m going to make a lot of money, and I’m going to figure it out. And what I found was that it was the attitude that you bring to it. I was very, very different from the other strippers.”
So, too, was famous pin-up model Dita Von Teese, whom Palmer learned an important lesson from by way of a friend who told her a story.
“Dita Von Teese, before she became a burlesque pin-up model fashion star, was a stripper in L.A., and she was surrounded by bleach blondes with boob jobs who were wearing fluorescent clothing, which is pretty much what I was surrounded by when I was a stripper. [Von Teese] would show up in her vintage clothes and her black hair and her crazy performance art tutu costumes and she wouldn’t even strip naked. She would do a sultry old-school striptease down to her underwear and confuse the shit out of everybody. And if there were 50 people in the strip club when the peroxide blondes stripped, they would get a dollar from all the guys [and] she would get fifty dollars from one guy.
"And I was like, that's pretty much the story of my life, the story of the Dresden Dolls. The story of being a really beloved high-art cult band is that you're not aiming at all fifty people.”
Understanding things like this at a young age and following them through to logical conclusions has made Palmer one of the most successful and contentious figures in music- and art-making today. Fans love her boldness, her brashness, and her woman-of-the-people approach to things including but not limited to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Detractors accuse the former Dresden Doll of everything from ripping off musicians to stealing from her fans.
Over the course of an hour, Lefsetz and Palmer traced her way from being a weird loner in high school to Amanda Palmer: Iconoclast.
“I deeply knew, since I was 12 or 13, that I wanted to be a rock star,” she said. “I knew I loved music, I loved performing, I loved the idea of having some crazy weird alternative lifestyle, and the only people I could see out there who were in my periphery who got to do everything, and made videos, and made theatre, and [wore] weird shit and expressed themselves, and got to be the pan artists where they weren’t just an actor or just a writer, were Cyndi Lauper, Prince, and Madonna.”
Over the course of that hour, Palmer traced everything back to that twelve-year-old's idea of what a rock star was. Her work, she explained, stemmed from a childhood desire to do it all. Unfortunately, there were roadblocks, and college was one of them.
“There were no rock star classes at Wesleyan [University],” she explained, to laughter. “I was looking towards college thinking that it was going to be 'Animal House,' and that I was finally going to find all of my lost brothers and sisters, and that we were all going to do acid and run in the woods, and that it was going to be fantastic, and it was just going to be red wine, philosophy, art, and nakedness.”
It wasn’t like that, though. College didn't deliver on a young Palmer's naïve beliefs. Accordingly, she fell into a deep depression at Wesleyan that didn't relent until she left. “College was dark times,” she said.
The start of Palmer's ascent happened, quizzically enough, when she decided to be a street performer (a human statue of “a fucked up ballerina"). As she described it, this led to a lightbulb moment that led to a lot of what came next. The secret: “Seeing other people doing it, and going 'I can do that.' [Realizing that it wasn't] more complicated than being really, really brave, painting yourself a colour, and standing on a box.”
The vulnerability inherent to this act led to Palmer realizing that monetizing her work started and ended with being forthright enough to go ahead and do it, hence her theories on asking for money from her audiences.
“You had to be a good statue” to make money, she said. Lefsetz suggested that Palmer’s success came from knowing how to specifically ask for money, as a performer.
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“That moment of asking for help can be seen as something in the form of a gift,” she said. “Certain people in certain situations like being asked, love helping artists, love feeling involved, like feeing useful, like feeling helpful. There's a real difference between being like, 'can you give me five bucks?' and 'could you help me do this thing, and how could you help me, and maybe if you did this, I could help you in this way.'
"The musicians that I see and the artists that I see that are successful at it understand that if it’s between force and openness and trust, the ability to ask someone means that you trust them and it builds the relationship, and it is kind of a gift."
In 2012, that openness came back to bite Palmer.
After raising $1.2 million via Kickstarter, she became the target of criticism after it was reported that she was recruiting volunteer musicians to play on the tour that followed the release of "Theatre Is Evil" for free. Steve Albini was perhaps the loudest, harshest critic, but there were scores. Owen Pallett took a swing at how the money was spent (i.e. not on musicians), though he ended by writing, “I believe, in my heart, that you mean well here and you are not trying to rip anybody off. But it reads all wrong.”
To many, Palmer’s trust factor went from mountain high to valley low in a matter of months. Lefsetz asked her about the experience, about her side of it.
"It was really painful," Palmer said. “That happened the day my record dropped. I was at Webster Hall soundchecking with my band when I got a call from the New York Times saying ‘there’s a petition saying that you asked all these volunteers to come onstage with you to play songs on tour and you’re not paying them. Can you comment?’ I was like, ‘yeah, sure, no problem,’ not expecting anything bad to happen, and then within a week it was all the world was talking about, and it was a giant pain in the ass. And like any controversy that I've been involved with, the hardest part and the most painful part was feeling so deeply misunderstood by the outside world, because all of the musicians that were literally there at the shows who volunteered their time [weren't upset in the least].
"I had been doing this for years with the Dresden Dolls, asking painters and musicians and performance artists and buskers to come to our shows, usually unpaid, but they were always happy to be there because they either got paid in tickets or in merchandise or, you know, buskers would come to our shows and pass the hat and make plenty of money, and it was this ecosystem that just worked. We never questioned it.
“But all of a sudden because of the million dollar sign over my head, something had changed and it was really frustrating because I felt that these people who knew nothing about me, who hadn’t been watching my community functioning for ten years, were all of a sudden casting judgment on us. And we were okay. The musicians coming to the shows were fine and were like ‘yeah this is really fucked up, sorry, we volunteered and wanted to be here.’”
In the end, Palmer started paying the volunteer artists. Not necessarily because she felt she had done anything wrong, but more because she understood that there was an optics problem and she had to fix it.
“Any time the world crashes down on you and says 'you're an asshole,' it's never easy," she explained. She ended up talking to her band about how best to put the pin back in the grenade, about dealing with what Lefsetz described as how "we live in an apology world'" where everyone has to be sorry for something.
“It was a really difficult week,” Palmer said. “The flames outside the door were growing and the story now was getting misinterpreted to the point that the Twitter meme was 'Amanda Palmer Never Pays Her Band' and things that were just untrue. And I was so exhausted by it, and I think it's also important to remember the context — this is now on Day Five of the first week of a four-month international tour and my record had just dropped, my record that I had spent two years making and was really, really proud of, and no one was talking about my record. All people were talking about was this controversy. And I think against my better judgment, my team basically took a vote and said 'you need to do whatever you need to do to just make this go away, and move the conversation on.'
“I knew from talking to the musicians who'd volunteered that none of them were going to be unhappy with getting paid $100 at the end of the night."
Boom. Optics problem solved, sort of.
But now, years later, in front of a room of people who are part of communities still talking about whether she was right or wrong, Amanda Palmer said the most Amanda Palmer thing ever.
"In retrospect, I think I did it wrong. I kind of wish I had stuck to my guns. But I also look back compassionately at the artist who was trying to deal with this between sound check and four-hour shows and two-hour signings and a phone call in the morning going 'oh my god what do we do about this problem?’ and going to the internet and seeing #amandapalmerisanasshole every day, you get to the point where you're just 'make it go away, make it go away.'"
If that’s not a "Sorry Not Sorry" I don’t know what is. In other words, it’s a quintessentially Amanda Palmer thing to say.