Be Bold, Part Seven: Amanda

Everyone hates Amanda Palmer.

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Even Amanda’s fans hate Amanda Palmer.

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But…everyone loves Amanda Palmer. Especially her fans.

When still signed to record label Roadrunner, and the sight of her slightly rounded belly in a music video led to the label wanting certain scenes cut, her army of devotees called for a ‘rebellyon’ and bombarded Roadrunner’s social media with pictures of their own squishy, and perfectly normal, tummies.

She one of the biggest artists on Patreon, a ground breaking new method of art patronage, and receives a donation of anything from $1 to $1000 from each of the 11’000 fans who have signed up to support her every time she releases a new ‘thing’ (be it song, album or performance art film).

Palmer is divisive in a way like no other artist. You may not have even heard of her. If you have, it may be for her TED Talk on The Art of Giving (if you have 13 minutes to spare, I highly recommend it, it’s a great watch), or it may be as “Neil Gaiman’s wife”. In some circles, the very fact that a weirdo American art-punk chick with hairy armpits had the audacity to marry handsome British million-selling author Gaiman was enough to draw vicious internet ire. To be fair, Gaiman is himself a black-wearing weirdo gothy-punk writer (with, I imagine, hairy armpits also). But men are allowed to be weird. Women are just supposed to be pretty, right?

Is she simply misunderstood, or an attention seeking narcissist? Or both?

Amanda Fucking Palmer, as she is affectionately known, former member of punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, now solo singer/songwriter and one woman Twitter storm, is a true social media pioneer. From her early DIY days, hand-pressing CDs and updating mailing lists by email and message boards, she has always been directly accessible to her fanbase. She was the first artist to break the $1 million barrier on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and then drew widespread condemnation in the music industry for putting out a call for musicians to play on her tour for “beer and hugs”. There is no barrier, no security, no filter. She tweets back, she follows conversations in her fan groups on Facebook, she organises ‘ninja’ gigs on street corners, she takes the time to sign, hug and take selfies with the long queue of devoted fans after every live show. To celebrate her Kickstarter record, she even stood naked and let fans sign her body. Her body is something that bothers a lot of people. Her proud nakedness, her body hair (letting it grow under her armpits or shaving it off of her eyebrows), dyeing her hair whilst breastfeeding her son, Palmer has taken criticism for all of these and more. And, in typical post-modern, self-referencing style, she wrote a song about it.

I say grow that shit like a jungle

Give ’em something strong to hold onto

Let it fly in the open wind

If it get too bushy you can trim

They don’t play the song on the radio

They don’t show the tits in the video

They don’t know that we are the media

They don’t know that we start the mania

We Are The media has become a battle cry for Amanda Palmer fans (myself included). Palmer has shown that you don’t need to be part of the music machine to make music. She got her record label to drop her mid-contract, and now releases what she wants, when she wants, direct to the people who want it. Social media, crowdfunding, genuine contact with fans, these are things that she tried telling the record execs were vital to her success, but back in the early Noughties they didn’t want to listen. Website? Who needs a website?

Art is great that way, you can do anything

You can make pop music

You can paint ducks

But if you’re a pop star and you’re a woman

Then it’s much more likely that

People will say your art sucks

There is no denying that her body of work is, at times, problematic. Her “Poem For Dzhokar”, written hastily in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, was both badly-timed and ill-conceived. Her Evelyn Evelyn collaboration with Jason Webley drew condemnation from disability groups for their stereotypical circus freak show performance as conjoined twins. Often criticised for being a privileged white woman who likes to shoot her mouth off, even though plenty of white male rock stars shoot their mouths off in equal measure without drawing half the vitriol.

Prolific and ever changing, like a Madonna for the Buzzfeed generation, Palmer keeps coming back, ignoring the critics, using the media obsession with her body to nourish her art (see her supposedly NSFW video for the beautiful Pink Floyd cover ‘Mother’ where she breast feeds a Trump lookalike), refusing to conform to the traditional role of wife and mother (though she is both). Amanda Palmer is a true autonomous artist.

Her music.

Her body.

Her art.

Her way.

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Be Bold, Part Three: Lauryn

Mention Lauryn Hill and many (white) people will say one of two things. ‘Oh didn’t she say some terribly racist thing about white people not buying her music?’ or ‘She was great, but didn’t she go a bit mental and not pay her taxes?’

And herein lies the problem with the way that female artists, and especially Lauryn as a black female artist, are portrayed. It is not the music, the talent, the genius or the creativity that is the focus but the scandal, the shame, the salacious and the downright untrue. Of course Lauryn Hill never said she would rather her children starve than white people buy her music. But this lie serves certain mind sets well, allows them to negate the phenomenal success of a young black woman by calling her a racist.

My emancipation don’t fit your equation.

Yes, it is true that she went to prison for three months for an unpaid tax bill of $1.8 million dollars. All of which she was able to pay back, and had been paid by the time she served her sentence. In an open letter at the time, Hill stated she purposely refused to pay her taxes to a Government that she felt did not represent her or other black people fairly.

While I’m not saying that withholding your taxes as a political decision is right, if it was a political decision, she had a point.

To understand how truly ground breaking Lauryn was, her award winning Miseducation Of…album, released in 1998, held sales records that were not beaten until the pop colossus that is Adele came along and smashed the shit out of everything.

In the hyper-masculine world of hip-hop, Hill didn’t use her sexuality to compete with the boys. She was authentic and never seemed like she was trying to be something she wasn’t. The album itself is both delicate and tough. Heartbreaking and raw, self-assured and forthright, yet never cocky. On the track To Zion, Hill sings of how she was encouraged to abort her first child so it didn’t interfere with the music machine.

Think of your career they said,

Lauryn, baby, use your head.            

In the video for Doo-Wop (That Thing), Hill is quite clearly pregnant with her second child. Can you think of any other stars who have done this? Can you think of any record labels happy for their stars to do this? The music industry has no problem with the heavy sexualisation of music videos, but when it comes to the reality of female reproduction, it gets a bit icky for them.

Hill has been labelled a recluse, much the same way that Kate Bush, for ‘turning her back on the music industry’. Lauryn Hill has six children. Maybe she just thinks it is more important to be a good mother than be on promotional tours and making pop videos. She herself has said she found fame hard to deal with. Most young mums can run to the shops to buy their kid some medicine after being up all night without worrying about having a camera put in their face or being criticised for how their hair or skin looked.

I don’t know the kind of things Lauryn Hill experienced growing up under the scrutiny of the public eye (she was just 21 when The Fugees multi-platinum album The Score was released). Her first love, heartbreak and loss played out through the lens of world touring. Having a baby just as her first solo album dropped. It probably wasn’t the life she had planned for herself. Lauryn Hill is still making music, just on her own terms, outside the corporate oppression of the industry.    

Without Lauryn Hill, there would be no Adele. There would have been no Amy Winehouse. There would be no Beyonce. To this day she is still being sampled by artists like Cardi B and Drake. She was a true innovator and inspiration to all who have come after.

 

 

 

Be Bold, Part Two: Roisin

Sing It Back by Moloko is one of the iconic Ibiza choons, but to dismiss their vocalist as a rent-a-voice 90s superclub singer would be to miss the point entirely. Before there was Gaga, before there was Sia, there was Roisin Murphy, the Irish queen of avant-garde art-pop.

Her work with Mark Brydon under the banner of electro outsiders Moloko is how I first encountered her stunning vocal range and curious jazz phrasing. I was drawn to lyrics that were about more than just love and lust. Their album Things to Make and Do, released in 2000, features songs about Murphy’s parents divorce, her fraught relationship with her mother and the collective post acid-house cultural come-down of ‘Absent Minded Friends’, showing a self-awareness not seen in dance music up to that point.

Shall we drink a toast to

Absent minded friends

To all who turn the corner and

To those who went round the bend

Everybody raise your glasses

Drink and drown

Melancholy for the masses

Love come down.

While never conforming to the stereotypes of how women in the music industry should look or behave (she milked a cow wearing a full suit of armour on the cover of Moloko’s second album) it is through her solo work that Murphy emerges as a unique force in fashion, music and performance. She is equally at home being interviewed by Vogue as MixMag. When her 2007 album Overpowered was a released, a male journalist asked her if she saw herself as the new Kylie. It is hard to imagine Kylie wearing the baggy hi-vis jacket and hardhat Murphy sports in the videos from her Take Her Up To Monto album, or sitting on the loo brushing her teeth, as seen in the Overpowered video.

She lets it slide at first but is obviously stewing on it, coming back to the idea half an hour later with obvious irritation. “How was I trying to be Kylie Minogue? If I was a man no one would say I was trying to be Kylie Minogue.”

And there’s the rub. No matter how hard female artists try, no matter how innovative and creative they are, they will always be lumped together because of their defining feature i.e. they are women. I have never read an interview with Frank Ocean asking him if he’s the new Justin Timberlake (an equally banal comparison).

As Tammy Wynette sang, and Roisin Murphy quotes in the liner notes to Overpowered, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.

 

Be Bold, Part One: Courtney

Music is my dilithium crystal core, my flux capacitor, allowing me to fly and travel in time. I cannot function without it. It makes me, in the words of a dear friend, soul satisfied. In this series, I will be writing about female musicians I admire and adore.

This is not intended to be exploration of all the outstanding or underrated female musicians around the world, this is simply introduction to some female artists who are important to me. While I can appreciate the flow of Middle Eastern female rappers such as Paradise, the hypnotic beauty of Malian singer Rokia Traore or the sheer brutal grindcore assault of Japanese female metal bands like Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation, I am first and foremost a lyrics person. I am a writer, a wordsmith, a letter wrangler and I need the lyrics to speak to me.

So first of my bold female artists is Courtney Barnett.

 

Australian singer, songwriter and guitar hero Courtney Barnett is everything teenage me loved about 90s bands like L7 and The Breeders. She looks like a real person, not an unattainable, ethereal acoustic strumming goddess or body-jacking, booty-shaking pop tart. And she rocks out. I mean she truly shreds. Her songs are at once deeply existential and comically mundane.

Erroneous, harmonious, I’m hardly sanctimonious

Dirty clothes, I suppose we all outgrow ourselves

I’m a fake, I’m a phony, I’m awake, I’m alone

I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio

Barnett’s particularly perceptive Australian brand of bluntness comes out in her dead-pan delivery and poetic lyrics, which touch on the typical female singer/songwriter subjects one second (love, relationships, self-exploration) and then flip onto the perils of house buying, destruction of the oceans and food industry ethics the next. I am sick of female singers chirping away on songs someone else has written for them, rhyming ‘you, true, through and do’ or ‘me, be, free and see’, imploring their ‘baby’ to love them. I want to listen to Courtney Barnett’s tales of trying to impress someone she fancies at the local swimming baths.                 

Held my breath longer than I normally do
I was getting dizzy
My hair was wet and frizzy
Felt my muscles burn, I took a tumble turn
For the worse, it’s a curse
My lack of athleticism, sunk like a stone
Like a first owner’s home loan
When I came to, you and your towel were gone

Sitting within the current wave of lo-fi female bands and artists that also includes Cate Le Bon, Warpaint and Childbirth, as well as being co-owner of the Milk! Records label, Barnett shows how indie is shaping the future of the industry, rather than the other way round. The DIY indie ideals of the late 80s and early 90s grunge and riot-grrl scenes, which seemed quite gauche at the time, have now simply become the way things are done. Making and sharing music is now easier than ever for women, and I for one am thankful for that.