There’s a large and growing number of people who know Amanda Palmer only nominally as a musician and recognize her instead as a small-scale media personality, Internet character, or frequent object of derision. This situation might be slightly unfair, but it’s also perfectly natural, and I suspect there are things about social relationships and art and the web that can be learned from it.
From the beginning of her career, Palmer’s fit a divisive archetype, one you might picture in a late-eighties teen movie or college novel: the extroverted drama-club kid whose classmates view her as weird, pretentious, and obnoxiously attention-seeking. This is not a bad type to be; the eye-rolls of strangers are easily shrugged off, and if you make successful art, there are those who’ll receive you as a hero. I’d argue that Palmer’s first act, the “cabaret punk” duo Dresden Dolls, made very successful art: There’s a brave high melodrama to the music that can only come from a songwriter who’s congenitally theatrical and totally unworried about seeming (or being!) pretentious, grandiose, uncool. By their second album, Yes, Virginia, Palmer was conjuring some of the same wit and emotional specificity that marked the melodramatic weirdos and drama-club heroes of yesteryear — including, say, Morrissey, whose vocal inflections echo neatly through tracks like “Backstabber.” Fans can connect to that sort of thing with alarming intensity — especially now, in an era when Internet fandom for solo artists can quickly become a creepy overheated cult of personality worship. Palmer’s put admirable time and work into nurturing those connections.
So, how does a cult musician like that become a figure of popular sport? A lot of circumstances conspired to introduce her to the larger public, from a heavy online presence to her relationship with popular writer Neil Gaiman. But the turning point came when she broke from her label, took to Kickstarter to crowd-source funding for her next project, and raised — remarkably, unexpectedly — more than a million dollars.
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