Friday, May 8, 2015

"You want this thing, I have this thing"

Amanda Palmer
     One of the many benefits of being utterly uncool is you can shamelessly discover something that is already familiar to everybody else. Thus I had no embarrassment whatsoever learning about this interesting singer only Monday, even though most people I asked already knew at least something about her. It's a big world, with lots in it, and I have to say becoming acquainted with Amanda Palmer embroidered this week considerably.

    Monday I first heard an Amanda Palmer song. By Tuesday I was trying to help her find a venue for a free concert in Chicago and on Wednesday we spoke.
     Fast world, this.
     The song, "Ukulele Anthem" was in a YouTube video sent by a Cleveland friend. Palmer, a "punk cabaret" singer, is seen standing on a platform before the Sydney Opera House, wearing some kind of a harness, and trailing white streamers in the stiff harbor breeze, whaling away at a ukulele, this humble near-toy of an instrument, which she turns into a metaphor for bravely creating whatever it is you feel like creating, unpolished though it may be. "Ukulele small and fierceful, ukulele brave and peaceful," she sings. "You can play your ukulele too."
    Works for me. I posted it on Facebook and tweeted it and sat down to listen to a few of her other songs, which range from a bawdy romp in praise of pudenda ("Map of Tasmania") to a confessional ode to the teen fiction icon Judy Blume to the tearful "Bigger on the Inside," whose opening lines are a spot-on indictment of online snark ("You'd think I'd shot their children, from the way that they are talking. And there's no point in responding, 'cause it will not make them stop.").

     What intrigued me first about Amanda Palmer is the honesty, humor and intelligence of her lyrics, underscored by the sense of her pushing the limits of her ability. It's one thing to caper around nearly-naked in a music video when you're Miley Cyrus, or sing when you have the pipes of Lady Gaga. Quite another when you're, as she once put it herself, describing her initial critical reception as half of the Dresden Dolls, "the fat, hairy, obnoxious attention-getter" with a vocal range of about half an octave. That takes guts, and after hearing a few songs I wondered if she ever came to Chicago. Tap, tap, tap: yes, Friday in fact, speaking to the HOW Design Conference, going on this week downtown, in her role as a crowdfunding guru—in 2012 she turned to Kickstarter, ending up with $1.2 million from her adoring fans, which led to a TED talk, seen 6 million times, on the power of drawing sustenance from others, leading to a best-selling book, "The Art of Asking."
    She slept through our appointed time to talk, but two hours later had a good excuse. Two good excuses, actually.
     "Pregnant rock star," she laughed. "It's the worst. I don't recommend being a pregnant rock star."
     She and her husband, hugely-popular fantasy author Neil Gaiman, are expecting their first child in September.
     At a performance in Dallas in April, she said she would be "disappearing into motherhood." True?
     "I am not," she said. "I'm about to embark on a five-week trip to the UK, to tour and record my little ass off."
     "Why!?" I asked, in a tone of sincere horror.
     "Good fucking question," she replied. "I don't know. I decided it would be a good idea to go over and promote my book."
     She married Gaiman, who's 15 years her senior, in 2011. I wondered how that came about.
     "Finding a partner who's supportive and enthused and unthreatened by my career was not easy," she said. "Finding a guy whose very manhood is not threatened by the hugeness of my universe was no easy task. That's one of the real attractions of Neil. He didn't even register as a potential romantic partner. I met him and thought, 'He's weird. He's old. Who is this guy?' As we got to know each other, we recognized each other in a deep, fundamental way. We come from very similar emotional backgrounds. We developed the same desperately-loving relationship with our fan bases. Though our genres are totally different, we both get each other."
     With a million Twitter followers, she periodically finds herself in the middle of the usual nasty Twitter kerfuffles-- particularly the $1.2 million on Kickstarter, by far the most ever raised there by a musician, which cast a new, harsh light on her practice of sleeping on sofas in fans' homes while on tour and paying local musicians in beer. She told Salon last year that "a little bit of the magic drained out" after that, and the unfair slur "millionaire who doesn't pay her musicians" stuck to her like an ill-advised tattoo—it's the most common reaction I got to floating her name. Although, as often happens with Kickstarer, by the time she got done sending the incentive gifts back to those who funded her, and paying for the album it was underwriting, there wasn't anything left. But when I asked if Kickstarter had been a poisoned chalice, given the ill will it engendered, she disagreed.
Photo by Shervin Lainez
   "No, I would never do it differently," she said. "My fans have stuck with me, the people who understand me, have never gone away, The exercise of the Kickstarter wasn't to impress Rolling Stone, Spin and the New York Times. It was to directly connect the people in my community, cut out the media, cut out the labels, cut out the middlemen, and for all the yelling and screaming, that part worked. I made 25,000 people really happy. That's the story that never gets told, and the fact that I spent two years making an art book, touring the world and making a fabulous record. Nobody asks about that."
     Well, glad I did then. Palmer said that, in general, the online world seems less vile than just a year or two ago. "The conversation feels like it's shifted," she said, suggesting people are beginning to suspect, "maybe human beings are on the other side of this snark." (I hope to tuck myself into that group of sympathy-worthy humans, since I imagine that writing about Palmer as an outside observer will strike many of her fans as Bad Form, though I would point out to them that the right to honestly assess the world is not her exclusive domain; others may partake, too).
     Being so new to her huge universe, I thought I'd better seek out expert judgment, and consulted Marty Lennartz, the veteran DJ at WXRT. He called Palmer a "polarizing and controversial artist mainly because of her extracurricular activities. But she's a really interesting artist, both musically and visually. Her work with Dresden Dolls was a cool and weird goth cabaret act."
     That sounds right. Now she's on Patreon, where an artist's online community bankrolls his or her efforts in an ongoing relationship: kind of a mob Medici.
     "I now have 5,000 people in my life, lifetime subscribers , supporting me. I'll never need a label again," she said. "Never need press again."
     "And yet we're talking," I said, in a crushed little whisper that she ignored. I'm proud of my art too.
     Her HOW conference talk isn't open to the public, and I wondered why she didn't slip into town, deliver it, and leave. Why bother with a free show, being pregnant and all?
     "You'd have to be me," she said. "There's no money involved. Literally no money. These venues, the friendly ones, just open their doors. I play. Everybody leaves, everybody's happy. It's pretty amazing. I have a bunch of fans who are practically family in Chicago. They said we would love to come to see you, but tickets [to the conference] are 700 dollars. It's an emotional level of showing up in town and not seeing your old friend. You carve out time to have lunch."

     She put out an appeal for concert venues on Tuesday and, easily sliding into the spirit of the thing, I phoned The Hideout—they seem a pretty ad hoc kind of place—and they pointed me toward Schuba's, and Lincoln Hall. She's right, I thought, realizing I was making calls in the middle of the day for somebody I didn't know, people want to help, if you ask them. She ended up settling on the Old Town School of Folk Music, whose students noticed her request and lobbied to host the show. The administration there was delighted to be involved.
     It's a very appealing notion: you fall, and trust somebody to catch you.

     In Palmer's sharp, well-written book, she says that, among her early jobs, she was briefly a professional dominatrix, and I wondered if that didn't help her develop the approach of being supported by a community, since doms have a variety of clients who underwrite their lifestyles in return for being allowed to hang around.
     "I don't think it's a stretch" she said. "It is an unusual but very interesting exchange of energy between a dom and a client, a freelancer in a room with a dude, and incredible amount of trust involved, not abusing that trust, and then dealing gratefully with monetary exchange, It can be beautiful. Those skills are useful in rock and roll, it's the same attitude, You want this thing, I have this thing, How can we gracefully exchange with each other?"
     We were getting along so well, that I asked her how she would describe her voice. When I played her songs for my wife, she grimaced as if tasting sour milk. I told her it's a hurdle to get over, but once you do you hardly notice.
      "As far as vocal stuff goes, that blindsides me," Palmer said. "I came out of fronting a cult cabaret band. For years and year, nobody ever criticized my voice. That was the voice I sang with, unschooled, unpolished, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey. I assumed that was a great voice, totally raw and unpolished. I actually have an allergy to pop vocalists. That doesn't sound real to me...There's a bunch of people out there who hear me and think I sound like a howling cat. People schooled in indie rock, they listen and they hear authenticity. I'm certainly never going to be everyone's taste."
     I asked my Cleveland friend, who sent me the video on Monday how she knew about Palmer, and she said from her 16-year-old daughter. Since the teen started this, I suggested that she ask her daughter if she has a question for Palmer. and she did: "What do you do about imperfection?"
     A good question. But she sent me the question after the interview, alas, though, having talked to her, I feel emboldened to guess how Amanda Palmer might respond. She'd say: You embrace imperfection. You are not only proud of it, but you are strong enough to put it out there for all to see, and hear, because everyone has flaws. Be strong enough to take the barbs and generous enough to return the hugs that come from being yourself, imperfections and all. I believe that is what she's saying.


Postscript

    At noon Friday I jumped on the Divvy bike and rode over to the HOW conference at the Sheraton, to listen to Palmer chat with blogger Maria Popova about crowdfunding. I was impressed with what she had to say, about being an artist and staking out your territory, and the way to find support for what it is you want to do. It was reassuring, in the sense that if an old system of creativity, like the "be-paid-by-a-newspaper" model, goes South, as it seems to be heading, there might be another way to skin that cat lurking around the corner. Palmer used a phrase that I liked, "baked in" several times, implying that certain difficulties are inherent to particular situations. I might assemble an edited transcript on the blog in the near future, if I decide it isn't dwelling in an unseemly and fanboyish fashion. Then, she whipped out a ukulele she had brought and played her "Ukulele Anthem," which I really savored, both because I enjoy the song, and second because there seemed a come-full-circle quality, to seeing her on a YouTube video from Australia Monday morning, to seeing her do the same song live 10 feet away Friday afternoon. Afterward, I went up and asked her to sign her book, and introduced myself, and wished her well with her pregnancy, and then blurted out, "You can sing," which was an awkward and inept thing to say, but from the heart, and a kind of apology, for playing my squint-and-judge media guy role, and she took it graciously, or maybe indifferently, and either way she hurried off and I jumped on my bike and blew down Randolph Street back to the newspaper, feeling very much in the zone on a warm day in May.



65 comments:

  1. Robbie the RobotMay 8, 2015 at 4:11 AM

    I approve. Some humans are ok.

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  2. Having great vocal pipes isn't everything. Look at Eric Clapton, Dylan or Jeff Lynne of ELO.

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  3. Miley Cyrus is a disgrace.

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  4. I wonder if our dear host ever comes on here as anon or in a different name.

    Robbie, you get up too early.

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    Replies
    1. Robots don't sleep, and if Robbie does, I bet he dreams of electric sheep.

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    2. Kind of a "Prince and the Pauper" thing, mingling incognito amidst the trolls? No. What would be the point?

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  5. I fear the day is coming, when Amanda will comprimise her artistic integrity, and get a job. Too bad Terry Pratchett passed away, he is missed.

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  6. Too bad you couldn't link to the Ukelele song in the column itself. It was terrific. And a marvel that she can remember the lyrics to such a long song.

    John

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  7. thanks for the info,A-N-A

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    1. If you think about it, this presents an opportunity for the west to show it doesn't hate Islam or only call-out persecution perpetuated in Muslim-majority nations - no matter what one thinks of the situation in the Middle East/South Asia, nobody should have a problem defending these people (unless there's some knee-jerk defense of anything Buddhist or support for anything anti-Muslim out there that I'm unaware of...)

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  8. Neil, what's with the garage or basement shelf pics on the top?

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    1. Notice an instrument in the picture. Think hard about it, and ask yourself if it somehow echoes anything in today's story.

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    2. I found the picture quite apt, but wondered what role the monkey wrench might play in repairing the guitar.

      john

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    3. okay, I get it now

      but that guitar needs a trip to the good will store

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    4. no need to be condescending

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  9. Mr. S, Do you really like her lyrics or it just because it was your assignment?

    What kind of music do you usually listen to?

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    1. Gosh, you caught me. The publisher said, "Puff Palmer" and I pretended to...sheesh, no, of course not. "Your assignment?" You think this is junior high?

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    2. meant your editorial newspaper assignment

      I'm sure they give you assignment topics at times

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    3. lol, love the sarcasm, NS

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  10. i guess i'm even more utterly uncooler than you. i've never heard of her.

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  11. I'm going to try to police the blog a little more rigorously today. So no stupid shit, no half-sly anti-Semitic shit, no off-point shit. It's my asylum, and we need a few standards.

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  12. Asking questions about interesting groups isn't anti Sem.

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  13. I admire Amanda Palmer's determination and originality;her singing, not so much. But she does have a certain charismatic appeal, and after listening to more of her work I'd even say she's quite talented.

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    1. hope she's not taking drugs while pregnant like some of those wild singers too a la

      Courtney Love style

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    2. meant do not too

      same with not drinking

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  14. Amanda looks part Italian to me. Maybe the guy she married is part Italian on his mom's side. Hope it's okay to say that.

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  15. Hey, I think the above comment is a sly comment against Italians. That should be deleted.

    Buon giorno.

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    Replies
    1. Neil, I hope you dated some Italian girls before you married.

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    2. If she's Aussie maybe she belongs to the High Anglican church then. Hope it's okay to say that.

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  16. Be nice to your elders, Mr. S. I'm about a year older than you.

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  17. I wonder if Ms. Palmer is realistic about touring in her last month of pregnancy. I wish her well though.

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  18. hey, at least we add to the blog post count

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  19. I don't think Mr. S has time to check his blog much, unfort.

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  20. Mr. S, you should have some trusted ass't who can monitor it for you.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, and a pony for the children. If taking shit down becomes too much of a pain in the ass, I'll just turn off the comments and lose the 20 people who care about it.

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    2. Maybe you need an alternate title for the blog: doesnotsufferfoolsgladly.

      John

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  21. Count me as an out-of-touch loser who's never head of Amanda Palmer. She could have a drink named after her, like Arnold's, but substituting grain alcohol for the iced tea! After reading this, dutifully, I figured I wouldn't like the video at all. In fact, it was pretty enjoyable. Not enough that I'm encouraged to seek out any more, but her voice doesn't bother me and as far as the song is concerned, "works for me" seems like a succinct and accurate evaluation.

    As for the rest of it, the thing that seems the most remarkable is that she was able to get folks to give her $1.2 million. Now THAT's a talent, though it's one that's shared with a string of TV preachers, unfortunately. "You want this thing...", indeed. Uh, no. In my case, being far afield from her target demographic, of course, I don't. If I can say that without having engaged in too much online snark.

    All in all, today's post reminds me of the old "Bobwatch" motto. "We read him so you don't have to", or something to that effect. If we're all gonna be finding out about Ms. Palmer eventually, we might as well be guided by our host, the Beatrice of the Bizarre, who provides a very thorough and insightful introduction, as usual. Of course, I'd put this in the puppets and voodoo dolls section of the Steinberg Library, but that's just me...

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  22. Don't let the wingnuts win. Mr. Steinberg.

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  23. One of your more trusted bloggers, would probably monitor it for you for free.

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  24. I looked at the video and to say I enjoyed it, which I didn't, would be pandering, To detail my objections would only expose me as an old fogey. However, I was impressed with the smart little girl who raised the question of imperfection, a subject that has been addressed by philosophers and poets over the years. Francis Bacon wrote "There is no excellent beauty which hath not strangeness in its proportions." And a century or two later Immanuel Kant observed that "out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made."

    Of the poets, Robert Herrick wrote a nice little lyric that begins,

    "A sweet disorder in the dress
    Kindles in clothes a wantonness"

    and concludes, after itemizing a number of them, that such slight imperfections

    "Do more bewitch me than when art
    Is too precise in every part,"

    And then there was Ira Gershwin:

    "The way you wear your hat.
    The way you sing off key.
    The memory of all that.
    " No, no. they can't take that away from me."

    And then there's that old bit of folk wisdom beloved of craftsmen in all fields: "The perfect is the enemy of the good.?

    Tom Evans

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    1. Oh, I like that Gershwin song, Mr. Evans. Thanks for the reminder.

      Lady

      I wonder what that means in the column about the WXRT guy saying she's unconventional in life.

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    2. check out Wikipedia and you'll find out

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  25. Oh, this forum is quiet today.

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  26. I see , the settings changed to must be approved. Can't say I blame the host.

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    1. Just a time out. There are very few rules, in fact, I can roll them into one: Don't be stupid. There's enough stupid everywhere else. So no one's confused, if it seems the thing is getting out of control, I switch the comments to "moderate" until they settle back again. I write these hoping for a space that isn't stupid. This is a fun thing I do for free, and I plan to keep it that way. I shouldn't wince checking the comments to see what dunderhead is acting out. This isn't the place for that. Comments are a privilege, not a right.

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    2. None of my business, but 2 questions, if you don't mind.

      Have you axed any comments today?

      Seems to be nobody but the usual suspects chiming in here. I thought maybe some of Amanda's Army of Kickstarter fans or members of her modern "Medici mob" might be replying, especially since this was in the S-T. Are you getting lots of emails today, supportive or otherwise, instead?

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    3. Yes, some of these posters lately needed a time out. They were acting like 3 yr. olds
      and ruining the ambience, so to speak.

      I wonder if this singer will ever get truly famous.

      Mrs. A

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    4. J. - yes, he has axed comments (the second time I can recall him axing one of mine - oddly he left the responses to it...). As he says, it's his asylum.

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    5. No, nothing from her fans at all. Nothing about the column at all. Had I been insensitive regarding her looks or voice, I'd have gotten stomped on, but I knew that, and tried to tread carefully. The numbers are strong though, but that's been a trend lately.

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    6. Thanks, A-n-a, I wondered what was going on at 8:49 a.m.

      Thanks for the reply, Neil. Interesting, but not surprising, I suppose. Most of her fans are probably not big on reading newspapers, per se, nor e-mailing journalists. Perhaps there's been a lot of re-tweeting of the column going on, though...

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  27. No disrespect intended but her wrappings in that video remind me of the ones on Mummy, when they get loose.

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  28. Her timing of the pregnancy isn't great but oh well.

    Oh, love XRT-you've prob spoken with Terry Hemmer sometime too.

    Be careful you don't get hit on your bike from some car.

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    1. oops, Terri not Terry

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  29. Most males would probably blush if she said that to them after a book signing. Well described.

    Perhaps you like the alternative, avante garde music but I must agree with your spouse on this one. Though the singer does have chutzpah.

    And I think you have more than 20 blog followers.

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  30. thanks for the postscript

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  31. Did anyone see in the SunTimes today the article on the FBI can't keep up with the ISIL recruiting in this nation-yet some worry about if the NSA might hear them talking about their mother in law on the phone. I say security comes first.

    Mr. S, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

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  32. Anyone see that pic of Lindsey Graham in the paper today? What a weak chin.

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  33. A-N-A, I can't recall you ever saying anything so shocking on the blog that it should be removed.

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  34. Neil:

    Good form. You get Amanda.

    -lentower

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  35. Hi Neil.
    I'm one of Amanda's fans - one of those 35 000 on Kickstarter and those over 6 500 on Patreon. I live in central Europe and make less money an hour than the minimal wage of the state of New York. The exchange rate to USD is not as bad as to EUR or GBP, but it's still pretty bad. And yet I willingly pay for every "thing" she releases on Patreon. If you're looking from the outside, then I'm on the inside. And I have to say, I really enjoyed your post here about Amanda. It was healthy. A lot of people out there seem determined to criticize Amanda's fanbase for... well, liking her. Like, I get that her music or overall artistry might not be your cup of tea; but to go out and say that people who support her are gullible and stupid for giving her money for her art is just.... well, stupid. And heartless. And you approached the topic - and her - with an open mind, and an open heart, and it's so cool. Also, you were spot-on in your conclusion. Thanks for that.

    Oh, and also? ""And yet we're talking," I said, in a crushed little whisper that she ignored. I'm proud of my art too." - that part was really great. Moving, even. Yes, sir, be proud of your art.

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    1. Thanks, that really means a lot to me. I try to bring a fair eye to my subject matter, to balance enthusiasm and skepticism. In the end, as an opera fan, I discovered that the bottom line, the key, is the music...if the music works, then everything is okay, and if the music doesn't work, no staging, no vocals, no costumes, are enough to make up for it. With Amanda Palmer, the music works. I think she's a good song writer. Her music has been running through my head this week. The rest, I believe, enhances it. She's smart and sincere. She has a lot of presence.

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    2. Amanda fan, you said central Europe, is that Hungary by any chance, if I may ask?

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  36. Maybe she liked you, Neil.

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.