Amanda Palmer's TED Talk: Is Greed Good? Celebrity and "asking" in a crowded age

Anyone who understands the artistic process knows that guilt and shame are part of the game. In a way, expressing yourself through artistic means is all part of a circle of guilt and shame: you channel your inner guilt and shame, form it into a song, or a picture, or a blog post; you choke down guilt and shame in order to present your art to the world; and the rest of the world is simultaneously forced to confront the guilt and shame at the core of your work, and hit you back with guilt and shame that you dare do something artistic while they have to get up for work in the morning. Which means that, unlike a normal job where an exchange of work for money is standard and relatively unburdened by guilt and shame, attempting to make a living in the arts is to crawl out of the guilt/shame spiral in order to get, you know, a fraction of a percent of a cent for a spin on Spotify.

There are some, though, who dare to go about their artistic business as if guilt and shame don’t exist as barriers to making money in the arts. One of these folks has been local mime-made-good Amanda Palmer, who of late has gotten more headlines for her ability to raise money for her musical projects than for the music that she ostensibly is known for. Last spring, she put out a Kickstarter campaign aimed at financing her then-upcoming album, the enigmatically-titled Theatre Is Evil; she raised $1.2 million, way above and beyond the $100K that the Kickstarter required to fund the album release. The campaign also funded her subsequent lavish tour extravaganza, during which she ran afoul of some observers when it was revealed that she was asking for classically trained fans to play on a few songs that required additional musicians for free in exchange for her eternal gratitude. “But you just raised $1.2 million,” the naysayers shouted, “can’t you afford to pay these musicians?” Palmer eventually relented in the face of abysmal press, paying the musicians for their services.

But us Bostonians familiar with Palmer’s tenacious ways know that there was no way she wouldn’t get the last word on the matter, which is why no one was surprised when the incident became the centerpiece of a talk she gave at the TED conference last week entitled “The Art of Asking.” Seen from Palmer’s perspective, asking for money, whether through Kickstarter, or at a performance, is part of her natural connection with her fans. And it isn’t just money: it’s getting fans to play on her stage, or crashing on the couch of a fan, or going onto Twitter and asking for things from her following. To her, this is the equivalent of a trust fall: she built up this following, she falls backward, and into the arms, hopefully, of those that make up the community surrounding her musical aura.

The opposite of shame is of course shamelessness, and a large part of Palmer’s message is that being shameless, feeling shameless about “asking”, can liberate the artist-- literally, in Palmer’s case, from the allegedly odious record label contract that bound her, post-Dresden Dolls, to a music business that didn’t care about her art. Palmer’s TED talk is, at heart, liberation theology: that if you, as an artist, are willing to step outside of your guilt and shame, and ask those who would be your fans for help, for money, for a place to crash, for whatever, that you can alleviate the need to be bequeathed to the standard musical-industrial complex. Technology’s march to progress is, as Palmer sees it, the key to this candyland of awesomeness: “And then Twitter came along and made things even more magic, because now I could ask instantly for anything anywhere,” Palmer squeals with unbridled glee. In Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign, she dubbed this “The Future of Music”-- an evolutionary step forward, away from The Way Things Have Been.

Am I the only one who gets a whiff of Gordon Gekko upon hearing this kind of thing? Replace “asking” with “greed”, and you pretty much have the meat of Michael Douglas’s character’s memorable speech to a shareholder’s group in the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street. As Gekko puts it, justifying his brazen zeal for making Bain-ey corporate liquidation deals:

I am not a destroyer of companies; I am a liberator of them! The point, ladies and gentlemen, is that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.

Okay, okay, perhaps I’m not being fair; there is a difference between asking for money and just taking it, Gekko-style. But there is something about Palmer’s need to justify the fairness of “asking” that rubs the wrong way. In the talk, she somewhat unwisely decides to use, as an example of fairness, a moment when her and her entourage, post-show, crashed with a fan in Miami whose family, according to Palmer, were “undocumented immigrants.” The family slept on the couch and floor while Palmer and her people slept in the bedrooms; summing the recollection up, after recalling how the fan’s mother regaled Palmer with how much her music meant to her daughter, Palmer chokes up a bit before exclaiming “This is fair.”

It probably wasn’t the best example of this she could have given, as even its recitation drips with cheap piety. However, Palmer’s passing mention of the fan’s mom trying to ply her with a Bible made me think that when you are getting into the morality of hospitality, it is perhaps best to consider the example of Sodom and Gomorrah, of how sharing your home to passing guests, and accepting the offer of staying in someone’s home, is a crucial part of the spirit of community-building. In Palmer’s talk, she gives and receives, her fans give and receive, and all is good. Another anecdote has her cribbing with well-to-do New Yorkers: “They are pouring me a glass of wine and offering me a bath -- and I have had thousands of nights like that.” It’s an interesting conundrum: we live in a world where the rock star, a wealthy and degenerate icon for millions, is an accepted and acceptable pathway for the successful artist, someone who makes money and spends money and lives a lavish and reckless life in exchange for allowing his/her fans to experience these indulgences vicariously through the music (and fame’s intrusion). So why does Palmer’s willingness to “ask” seem so tacky? Is it the guilt/shame cycle rearing its head -- that seeing someone enjoy the fruits of celebrity so publicly, crashing on couches when she has (one imagines) the means to have a nice place of her own, is too much cognitive dissonance?

It’s important to put Palmer in the context of pop music’s moneyed 2013 landscape: compare her, for instance, with Beyoncé, a much-beloved performer who, unlike Palmer, tows the line of standard music biz practice. Beyoncé recently performed at the Super Bowl halftime show-- and although she was super awesome, there was little criticism of the fact that the performance was part of her $50 million contract as a Pepsi spokesperson. And unlike Palmer’s Kickstarter payday, ultimately funded by nearly 25,000 investors, Bey-Bey’s just came from one organization, putting her on over 100 million television screens in the middle of the most watched program on television all year. Would Palmer be more palatable to those who criticize her hands-out approach if she went straight to corporate instead of hitting up her rabid fans? And it isn’t just pop superstars like Beyoncé who are selling out; at this point, even the most itty bitty indie band will pitch anything if there’s a payday at the end. Think of those noxious Bushmills billboards you see everywhere with Best Coast, Bon Iver and Chromeo trading Pitchfork cred for hooch dough. And there are even lower places for an artist to stoop in the name of product endorsement. To the Amanda Palmer faithful, being solicited directly is refreshingly clear amidst a sea of endless indirect product-based solicitations.

Palmer has been thinking about this issue for a while-- in 2010, she staged an impromptu “audition” for a TED talk at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. with a presentation entitled “Toward A Patronage Society”:

Here, she lays out many of the points that she would go on to refine in her TED talk. Central to both is the idea of patronage-- of connecting with people who will directly support her musical career. Most of us are used to, as music fans, being asked indirectly to participate in music culture; in fact, recorded music is perhaps the culprit for the standardization of this indirect relationship. After all, prior to recorded sound, you had to physically be in the same room or space as a musician in order to experience music. Once that sound could be captured and distributed to thirsty ears far and wide, the singer and the song were disembodied, and we as listeners became free to have our own relationship with not just the song, but the sound, independent of the voice and person behind it.

It’s somewhat perverse for Palmer to raise the spectre of “patronage”: when most think of patronage-based arts, we think of the Catholic Church censoring the painters it paid, or of wealthy families funding a steady stream of flattering portraits. Most of our modern sensibilities regarding the arts derive from the idea that the artist, upon being so hired, would subversively sneak individuality into their work, in such a manner that the paying patron would be none the wiser. Whether its the death-mask hidden in plain sight in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” Sistine Chapel mural, or Disney illustrators sneaking adult content into works aimed at children, we are comfortable with the artist smuggling a Trojan Horse of truth through the gates of artifice in the name of true artistic expression.

Seen this way, an artist like Palmer who wishes to surround herself with those who love her the most is, in a sense, excusing herself from the world at large and its relationship with her art. Palmer would say that this is eschewing celebrity, or at least redefining it more locally; as she puts it in the TED talk:

For most of human history, musicians and artists have been part of the community, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the Internet and the content that we’re able to freely share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and those people being enough.

The thing, though, is that in order for music’s celebrity culture to be “taken back” to a pre-celebrity time, the music celebrity him/herself would have to disappear. This is, arguably, already happening, with Exhibit A being the rise of the EDM star over the rock and pop star, as music is “produced” instead of “written” and “performances” are more about communal dance than a star on a stage being the focus of attention. Palmer’s music and celebrity have nothing to do with this movement: even as she is giving herself to her fans, she is still the star of the show. She may be “touchable”, and perhaps to her that is the “punk” part of her presentation; but she is hardly promoting a shift away from the cult of celebrity in music culture.

Of note too is the way that, for her, the goal for a performer is “people loving you” -- it is clear that her appeal to her fans has to do with the way that she so enthusiastically wants to share this love, to be part of a manic back-and-forth with those that get what she is doing. Music is, above all else, about subcultures, and that is why this sort of exchange will always flourish, no matter what the state of the larger music industry. But for many, music is about more than an exchange whereby a performer gets “love” in trade for goods, money, cheers, etc.

For that matter, it’s also worth considering just what Palmer is doing at TED in the first place. Not that she isn’t important enough, or interesting enough, or provocative enough -- she’s definitely all of those things. It’s more that she is putting her ideas into a place where they can be elevated by those who usually concern themselves with business and technology. In her talk, she extols the ideal of believing in your art, especially if there are those who get in your face and tell you to “Get a job!” And yet ultimately, what she is being praised for here is business acumen, being smart, hard-working and entrepreneurial in a tough industry. Which would be fine if she were developing or marketing widgets -- but this is art we’re talking about, music. Do we really need more entrepreneurial spirit from our musicians? Is it possible to make great music, important music, that doesn’t come accompanied by a huckster’s hard-sell, or an accompanying business strategy that involves ways to build brand loyalty amongst prospective fans?

Or to put it another way: What would the world of music be like if literally every musician took Palmer’s advice, and started aggressively panhandling their audiences? Sure, you wouldn’t have the music industry marketing towards you -- but instead you’d have thousands upon thousands of pushy musicians stepping on each other’s heads for pocket change from any passerby. Shows would be pass-the-hat opportunities, and being a fan of an artist would be shorthand for being a sugar daddy for some enterprising minstrel. I’m guessing that Palmer sees her “asking” as being along the lines of a wandering Medieval troupe singing for their supper in a strange burg -- but the truth is that, in a sense, the guilt/shame thing keeps young people dabbling in music from making flagrant and bullying asses of themselves in their desperate bid to make their fame in rock/pop before they get too old and have to admit defeat. In this hypothetical world of shameless “asking”, music, and minor music celebrity, would become a true commodity, openly traded in the marketplace with boorish haggling and bitter competition replacing the pretend-cool of most current musical climates.

Way back in 2000, when Napster and Internet “piracy” were just beginning to be taken seriously as threats to the major label global order, Courtney Love wrote a rambling-yet-thoughtful piece on how artists and fans could interact without big business’ intervention. In concluding, Love wrote:

I’m looking for people to help connect me to more fans, because I believe that fans will leave a tip based on the enjoyment and service I provide. I’m not scared of them getting a preview. It really is going to be a global village where a billion people have access to one artist and a billion people can leave a tip if they want to. It’s a radical democratization.

Sound familiar? The problem, however, is that Courtney was looking at the situation from the perspective of a massively famous rock star who made it in the “old” system -- and Palmer, as much as she poo-poos her former record label, made her name and fame in that antiquated system as well. The truth is that modern artists and today’s music fans both are staring at a glutted and overcrowded musical world where a billion people have access to a billion artists. It may be more democratic, but it’s also far more chaotic, with faster and faster hype cycles.

Palmer, in her 2010 A.R.T. “TED audition” talk, said “There’s this warped idea that artists should be making art just for the joy of it, the fun of it.” She is, of course, implying that if you are an artist and you are presenting your work to the world, you should strive to get paid, and that is all well and good. But there is also something to be said for doing music for the joy/fun of it -- if only because if your goal, otherwise, is to be loved, or to find community, or to acquire adventure by crashing at the homes of strangers, etc., you may find at some point that you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing for the wrong reasons.


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