Even if the Words Are Wrong: Amanda Palmer at the Humanity Festival

 “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”

amanda palmer 1

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.

amanda palmer 7What 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.

amanda palmer 10Probably 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 UnderIt’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!

  • Pingback: Here’s the Poem by Amanda Palmer ’98 that Everyone on the Internet Is Yelling About | Wesleying()

  • Jake

    Amanda Palmer surfs the publicity wave of every tragedy. Now she’s writing crap poetry for terrorists who bomb children so she can get in the search engines.

    Amanda Palmer has a background in S.C.I.E.N.T.O.L.O.G.Y and is benefiting from the cult, which is one of the largest bullying organizations in the WORLD.

    • Not to get into an argument about the Boston bombing poem, but Scientology? Really?

      • Jack in the box

        Yeah, really. Scientologists have arranged marriages and Neil Gaiman owns the vitamin company G&G Vitamins that supplies all the cult members with their purification rundown vitamins. Amanda Palmer comes from a Sea Org family.

        The Kickstarter campaign is just another Scientology scam. Amanda Palmer’s Uncle Doug sells fixtures under contract to the Sea Orgs. Neil Gaiman’s entire family are high ranking Scientologists. Gaiman gave the cult half a million in 2010 through his company, The Blank Corp.

        Billboard indicates that over 90% of (Amanda Palmer’s) 23,000+ units “sold” (which propelled her to #10 on their chart for about a day) came from digital downloads.EVERY person who ordered ANYTHING from her Kickstarter – 24,883 people — received a download code which, when you really look at it, indicates that not even all of the Kickstarter contributors bothered with downloading her album — and that in effect, for all of her controversy and promotion (by her and her husband), she actually didn’t
        get all of her fans to gin up her pre-ordered estimate and only sold some 1,700 ‘new” albums she and her team hadn’t already factored into her unit movement.

        80% of Palmer’s followers are fake. Palmer’s following is an illusion, an empty illusion.

        80% of Palmer’s followers are
        fake. Palmer’s following is an illusion, an empty illusion..

  • raerae

    Hey Gabe- it’s Raechel. Great article thank you so much! Could you maybe send me any other pictures you took? My email is rrosen@wesleyan.edu

  • Herco

    You know, maybe I’m totally off-base, but I couldn’t help feeling that the N.W.A. cover was actually one of the most offensive things I’ve witnessed. We as a campus have had a pretty rough year as far as racial tension goes, and this festival, I believe, was intended to bring everyone together. Watching her perform that song just struck me as perfectly exemplifying the disconnect that seems to exist with race issues here.

    First, let’s look at the song. It’s not just a jolly good “oh, yes, everyone hatres the police, screw authority” ditty, it’s discussing serious problems. It’s addressing institutionalized racism against the Black community that was prevalent in the LAPD, the stereotype of young black men as criminals, and the virulent atmosphere that would erupt only a few years later with the Rodney King case and subsequent L.A. Riots.

    And now to why I found it offensive: this song was being performed by a, let’s be honest, pretty privileged White person, who really has no way of conceiving the circumstances from which the songs originates, to a crowd of predominately privileged white people, again, people who really can’t grasp the situation from which it comes (beyond the “oh yes, nobody likes the Police, fuck them!”). Does that not strike anyone else as offensive? It’s like if a Rockefeller performing Working Class Hero to crowd of Coal Miners. I mean, I’m a white person, and I just found it…I guess disrespectful. It’s not that I don’t enjoy listening to the song, I do, as a document of a regrettable situation, and a way of people facing intense adversity to express themselves. The performance just seemed to trivialize the song. Especially because, as she explained, the only connection between it and the song she was medleying it with was the phrase “Black Ass”.

    I understand it’s just a song, and people can cover whatever song they so choose, but it just seems rather inappropriate in the circumstances, given the race issues this year, the goal of the festival, and who she is as a performer. I apologize if anyone is upset by my thoughts on it, but I just felt like sharing how I felt watching it, and am interested if anyone else felt the same way.

    • urboiblue

      I did not find it offensive. She wasn’t presenting the lyrics as her own, she was giving voice to a perspective that was very relevant to the issues of the festival.

  • Gabe – great article! If you’re interested, I posted the entire show in HD on youtube – perhaps you can pass it along to the Wesleyan students OR if you have Raechel’s email I can contact her directly – thanks! Here’s a link to the channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2xMCCrMSXMJlD5kIjV65jQ?feature=mhee

    • Gabe

      Thanks! Want to put those videos into a playlist for easy viewing? That would be immensely helpful.

  • nice

    Best Wesleying post I’ve read in a while.