Musician Amanda Palmer is gifted at many things: She’s a thoughtful writer, a mesmerizing storyteller, an innovative businesswoman and an expert (if unintentional) stoker of Internet controversy. So, does it matter that she’s a lousy singer?
Palmer stumbled into infamy in 2012, when the former member of cabaret-rock duo Dresden Dolls raised $1.2 million in a Kickstarter campaign to pay for her artistic endeavors, then asked her fans to play with her onstage for free. Journalists and musicians assailed her online for months. Yet Palmer managed to turn her concept of fan-driven patronage into a popular TED talk and a book that critics called well intentioned but a little tone-deaf. In such an unequal society, some asked, why should white ladies married to wealthy celebrities — Palmer wed author Neil Gaiman in 2011 — be entitled to ask regular folks for anything?
Palmer is entitled to nothing, of course, but her supporters seem giddy to help her anyway. The truth is, she could bottle her urine and sell it to her fans for airfare, so enamored they are of her work. But are they rubes or allies?
Saturday at the District’s Lincoln Theatre, on the first stop of Palmer’s wryly named “Barefoot in the Kitchen” solo tour (she’s pregnant), it didn’t seem as if Palmer was fleecing anyone. No, she can’t sing. She never could. She made two studio albums with Dresden Dolls and two solid, albeit self-indulgent, solo records without singing well.
Palmer’s fans probably hit more potholes on their way to the show than Palmer hit notes all night — and few cared. What they love is Palmer’s frank and witty self, and she gave them hours of it in a show so intimate that I wondered if tickets had been released to the public or slipped under her fans’ doors in hand-stamped envelopes.
To an outsider, a haircut by tweezers would have been more enjoyable than many of Palmer’s songs Saturday. They sounded lyrically overwritten and musically unfinished, more like essays set to piano battery — or worse, ukulele strumming. But the audience members awarded the songs with whoops and hollers. They’re not suckers. They’re just like anybody in love: a little crazy.
If Palmer is going to win over her critics, it will be with her personality, not her ukulele. She took requests and slung zingers, usually making herself the punch line: She called her one-woman routine a harbinger of the “next boring phase” of her career and ’fessed up to her mistakes on stage (“I had all these plans to practice, but then I didn’t”). She delivered her best lyrics with chuckles that seemed unscripted, even if she has played those numbers a zillion times before.
Palmer’s detractors might call her act overpraised, and they’re not completely wrong; many of her songs need more time in the oven. But for a few hours on Saturday, she didn’t force anyone in the room to listen to her. They sat there, smiling, waiting to soak up the work of art they paid to see: Palmer herself.
Schweitzer is a freelance writer.