“So play your favorite cover song, especially if the words are wrong
‘Cause even if your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing”
After a mysterious week or so of trying to guess exactly what this Humanity Festival was all about— between the unexplained promotions, the flyers, and the recruitment — the one constant was the promised presence of Amanda Palmer ’98. And, combined with the excellent organizing efforts of Raechel Rosen ’15, that was more than enough to draw a huge crowd onto Foss Hill this past Saturday afternoon for the “one-day musical celebration in solidarity against bigotry, racism, and social divisions within a community.”
After performances by Don Minott, a group comprised of Jess Best ’14, Mel Hsu ’13, and Sam Friedman ’13, Siren, and Oz Rhys Langston & Izzy, Palmer finally arrived, unaccompanied except for her ukulele. After releasing Theatre is Evil this past year, Palmer booked herself for a large slew of international shows with her new backing band, The Grand Theft Orchestra. Here, though, was more like a large scale, heavily-planned ninja gig. Like her impromptu performance in 2011 at Eclectic, her appearance at the Humanity Festival was an intimate affair, despite the large crowd. Her stage was just a few carpets on the grass, a monitor, some speakers, and a stool. Her orchestra was that beaten-up ukulele.
Some commentary, some more photographs, and a high-quality recording of the entire performance (!) after the jump.
What was most memorable about the performance was precisely how… non-performance it was. Palmer didn’t come to sell merchandise (there’s plenty on her website) or promote her new album (with almost 20 new songs to choose from). In fact, the only tune she played off of Theatre is Evil was the bonus track “Ukulele Anthem,” a fitting set closer (but I’ll get to that later).
Instead, Palmer, who notoriously has a bit of a love-hate relationship with Wesleyan, came because of Rosen’s request. She came to participate in the dialogue about social divisions within the community, add her voice to the purposely inclusive event— indirectly, though. Between sets on Saturday afternoon, the stage opened up as a Soap Box, for members of the school, members of the Middletown community, and even people who didn’t naturally belong to either to speak up about what was on their mind, amplified, before the crowd. A decent amount of Palmer fans had driven in from out of town simply to see Palmer, but they then participated in the afternoon’s events— when in Rome, eh? But it was nice to see the Wesleyan bubble stretch a little bit.
Palmer’s contribution to the festival, however, was more than just a familiar face. For her, inclusiveness is a default, and bringing people to participate in creating a new, global community is nothing new— she’s somewhat used to crowd-sourcing things. Even the young children running across the grass, usually in front of the stage, received an invitation to join her. And when Palmer launched into some of her classics, such as “Oasis” (making a joke about how appropriate it was for all the kids to be around) or “The Truth” (preceded by a cover of NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” sounding particularly menacing on that ukulele) occasionally she forgot her own lyrics. But her fans simply shouted them out to her— not jeeringly, not condescendingly, because heaven knows we’ve all been there— she took them as a compliment and continued on. The crowd was not just her support system, but also part of the performance itself— asking for help and receiving it.
The audience-performer line blurred even further when Palmer sang what was at least a half-dozen cover songs, and the back-and-forth morphed into more of a singalong. Because this is also supposed to be a slight commentary on the music itself, I’ll mention that she also performed Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two Headed Boy,” and a rocking performance of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” accompanied by a loud group of Wesleyan student musicians and inciting a full-on punk mosh pit up near the stage. It got rowdy.
Probably the most captivating song of Palmer’s set was when she brought out “In My Mind,” a song from her 2011 album Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under. It’s a reflection on how her expectations for her own future went unfulfilled, but perhaps for the better: “And it’s funny how I imagined / that I would be that person now / But it does not seem to have happened / Maybe I’ve just forgotten how to see / That I’m not exactly the person that I thought I’d be.”
In the end, however, Palmer realizes that “I am exactly the person that I want to be.” It’s a personal reminder that the intentions of our past may not lead us where we thought we’d end up, but the important part is becoming comfortable with where we are now. It may not have a whole lot to do with inclusiveness and the campus climate about race, but I think it certainly is relevant to the college experience in general and becoming comfortable in your own skin.
Fitting, then, that after the confident world-changing declarations of “Ukulele Anthem” (which brought about a laugh during the above lines about forgetting the words to cover songs), Palmer stepped off the stage and walked up into the crowd on Foss Hill to perform Radiohead’s “Creep,” as she did at 2011’s ninja gig. With a circle forming around her, she lead the oddest singalong I’ve ever witnessed, but one that brought everyone to the level of performer. It was a little ironic, a large group of people chanting, “I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here.” But I’ll posit that the goal of inclusive discourse should not be to boil every single person down to the same, but rather to agree that everybody, including yourself, is bizarre and weird, and we should become comfortable with that. Acknowledging weirdness is not a form of shaming, but rather a form of widening the circle of inclusiveness for the community. As Judith Butler might say, we should create a society that allows the greatest amount of freedom and improvisation of identity.
Enough of lumping Amanda Palmer into a greater narrative of postmodernism. The Humanity Festival was a popular success, and it lead to not only excellent discussion but also excellent music. *Below, watch the entirety of Palmer’s performance, courtesy of Youtuber Shinny Gauss, and consider buying your own ukulele. Also included are a few more photographs of the festival, all taken by myself.
*UPDATED: Edited to include the performance video. Enjoy!