This is a bit of an experiment for me. I love music and have a plenty big collection of both vinyl and CDs, but I don’t have the first idea to go about talking about it in a way that expresses exactly what it is I like about it – I tend to be more on the side of saying “I likez it cos it be done sounding goodz to me”, or some such rubbish. Still, at some point I have to dive in and say something on the subject and the person who has pushed me over the edge is Amanda Palmer.
I can’t remember how I first became aware of Ms Palmer’s work – I read something and looked her up on Spotify and had a little listen to her first album while I was writing How To Fill A Black Hole – but sometime last year the fact that her new album was due was flagged to me. The moment I started listening to Theatre Is Evil I was hooked, and now I’m going to attempt to explain just what it was that pulled me in…
Music and sex are intimately entwined and have been for time immemorial, no matter mow much the carols sung in churches up and down the land try to prove otherwise, but all too often that sex is portrayed in a masculine-led manner, no matter the singer. Even artists as popular and seemingly in control of their careers as Beyonce and Madonna seem to be pandering towards male fantasies in order to sell their music rather than owning their own sexuality. We live in a society which likes to ‘slut-shame’ – where a woman who likes sex and doesn’t mind admitting it and owning it is told how bad she is for doing so – but that is beginning to change. While feminist ranks are in disagreement over the ‘SlutWalks’ of 2012, there can be no doubt that attitudes are changing for the positive – even if we live in a world where a female politician can be asked to leave a state Senate by her male counterparts for using the word “vagina”.
The most vocal and visible person in music on this front is without a doubt Lady Gaga, but if you ask me Palmer is both the stronger and more interesting voice (that’s not to do down Gaga’s work, more to elevate Palmer’s). In fact, I’d say her voice is perhaps the strongest and most original to come around since Shirley Manson sang about “The queerest of the queer” back in the mid-90s. Manson got a little swallowed up with the sheer degree of success that came her way and ended up wearied by the experience, while never quite following up on the strength and brilliance of that first Garbage album.
But where Manson and Garbage were worn down by the demands of a major label, Palmer owns her career in a way that would never have been imaginable back in that 90s heyday. Theatre Is Evil was funded in its entirety through Kickstarter, allowing Palmer to produce the album on her own terms, commissioning great artworks to decorate the album and enclosed booklet. And the power that she has displayed in pulling the album together is also on display in the songs themselves.
While a good music journalist is like a wine critic in being album to detect the subtle notes and flavours of influence, I tend to just know that I like a good pinot grigio and be done with it. However, I’ll try to pull out a few of the random influences I’ve detected in there, the first of which seems to quite clearly be Cabaret, the 1972 Liza Minnelli musical, which is on display both in the short “Meow Meow Introduces The Grand Theft Orchestra” that opens the album (and excuse my naiveté/stupidity, but is Meow Meow a reference to the Kit Kat Club of Cabaret fame?), and in Berlin, the penultimate track. Alongside that, there’s a lyrical and musical reference to My Sharona, the great 70s single from The Knack. In addition, I’d throw in Garbage and a number of 90s indie bands, but then that’s where most of my music taste lies so that’s probably me picking out what I want to hear rather than the influences that were actually there.
Of more interest to me are the lyrical stylings. There are a number of tracks which utilise long strings of words which, when written down, you struggle to find the rhythm, and yet in Palmer’s hands they become some of the catchiest lyrics around.
I never met a lady quite as pretty as Melody Dean and even though I know you are a little bit angry with me you know that it is you I love and you I want to get me off but you can only do that when you’re here and right now you are not.
The above chorus from the cocky confessional Melody Dean is repeated again and again in its addictive staccato way and now I can’t help but say it in time to the music.
Similar things happen with what, for me, is the standout track of the album, Lost, which starts as a mournful hymn and ends on a note of almost euphoria celebrating the lives rather than mourning the passings of those loved ones lost.
Nothing’s ever lost forever it’s just caught inside the cushions of your couch and when you find it you’ll have such a nice surprise. Nothing’s ever lost forever it’s just hiding in the recess of your mind and when you need it it will come to you at night.
But where Palmer really underlines the sex and power this album oozes is in the single (I think), Do It With A Rockstar. Where so many male rock stars (and, lest we forget, R&B and rap stars too) are urging women to throw themselves at them to service their every need (as Palmer sings on Grown Man Cry, “The radio is blaring … as the boys declare their feelings … it’s like they just want blowjobs”), so does Palmer – there is no doubt who will be doing the using, turning the usual sexual tables on their heads. Are you man enough to take her on? or…
Do you wanna go back home?
Your animals are all alone
Oh there’s a chicken waiting on the stove
And your cousin left his DVD of swinging in the seventies
Or do you wanna go back home
Check your messages and charge your phone?
Oh are you really sure you wanna go
When you could do it with a rockstar?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot more to this album than just the sex – through the 15 tracks Palmer takes in a full range of emotions and is in complete control of all of them. This is an album that deserves to be listened to from track 1 to track 15 – no random play – taking you on the full journey. Something I have done almost daily since I picked up the album in the week of general release.
10/10 (4 stars)
As an addendum to this post, I just wanted to mention Palmer’s latest blog post, inspired by some ego-surfing that revealed at hate-filled post at the New Yorker blog (of all places) which led her to google “Hate A…”. The auto-complete brought up Amanda Todd, a name Palmer wasn’t familiar with. Some further research revealed that Todd was a teenage girl who posted a youtube video of her despair before ultimately taking her life, along with some horrible parallels between that video and some work Palmer had been doing around the same time. Anyway – go read the post – Palmer can explain her emotions better than I can summarise them.
Now she’s trying to think of how she can use her position to help just one or two (though hopefully more) of the teens that are experiencing similar levels of despair. It reminds me a lot of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, something which was born out of Dan’s position and the increasing number of young LGBT suicides. Hopefully she will find a way to help do something, and in the meantime we can all look around us to see if there is anyone we might be able to offer comfort and support to, anyone in our lives who might be despairing and in need of kind words.