The idea of reading Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help sounded faintly ridiculous — could I, too, learn the art of asking, just like Palmer, and maybe reach $1 million for my Kickstarter project? But as it turns out, Palmer’s book, an offshoot of her popular TED talk, “The Art of Asking,” isn’t really a how-to; it’s more along the lines of a memoir. Palmer figured out a strategy that works for her as an artist, and despite the fact that she’s undeniably divisive as a public persona, there is some wisdom in her ideas for artists and, arguably, women.
For the uninitiated, Palmer is a musician who first broke nationally as the keyboard-basher and singer of “Weimar punk cabaret” group The Dresden Dolls, then spinning off into a solo act, marrying much-loved author Neil Gaiman, and becoming the first musician to hit the $1 million dollar mark on Kickstarter. While all this was happening, she established herself as one of those Twitter personalities, constantly online and in touch, which has its pros — lovely guerrilla performances around the world — just as much as it has cons, namely screechingly tone-deaf antics that often cross the line into offensive. (“A Poem for Dzhokhar,” anyone?)
As a writer, Palmer’s staccato style would be familiar to anyone who reads her blog — but what’s sort of funny about it in long form (you know, as a book) is that its emotions-first prose actually would lend itself to a decent young adult novel. (I mean this sincerely, and I’ve read young adult books where the writing is strikingly similar to Palmer’s voice.) The story of how Palmer felt like an outsider, graduated school, moved to Boston, and started working at an ice cream shop until she lit upon the freedom of street performance, eventually and surprisingly becoming a major label musician, works on its own, and it could also be really interesting as a fictionalized coming-of-age book.
As a street performer, Palmer would put on a wedding dress, powder her face, hide her hair under a wig, and stand on a mikcrate on the streets of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts as “The Eight-Foot Bride.” She would stand as still as a statue until somebody would put money in her coffers, and then she’d come to life and give someone a flower. It was an exercise in seeing and being seen: “What I loved as much as, possibly even more than, being seen was sharing the gaze. Feeling connected.”
She describes the Bride as a bootcamp for what she’d do as an artist, and it’s undeniably where she worked out some of the witchy alchemy you need to commune and communicate with people. It’s legitimately interesting, and it’s the basis of Palmer’s argument that artists, who are offering something beautiful to the world, should be able to ask — for help, for renumeration, for something in exchange for this communion. This story of becoming is tied together with Palmer’s burgeoning relationship with the author Neil Gaiman, where the two opposites — where Palmer demands and hides, Gaiman is quiet and solicitous — figure out how asking and communicating can be part of their relationship.
As Palmer admits in the acknowledgements, Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, based on her TED talks and academic work about the art of vulnerability, shares a lot of similarities with Palmer’s ideas, and Brown ended up writing the foreword for the book. And Palmer does have a point. Artists who aren’t treated well by the mainstream system could benefit from figuring out how to directly communicate with their fan base. When The Dresden Dolls were signed to a major label as outlier weirdos, they disappointed the corporation by selling about 20,000 copies. When Palmer ran her Kickstarter, it ended up numbering about 20,000 donations.
That’s all very well and good, and it’s a method that works for Palmer. She has an admirable work ethic and hustle, and she’s willing to put herself out there in a manner that I admire, particularly as a woman. Sometimes that brassy here I am! gets squashed out for girls at an early age. It’s not encouraged, and there is something to Palmer’s ability to ask, to demand to be here, to cultivate a career as a working musician for over ten years (I was around Boston when The Dresden Dolls were starting, trust me, my money wasn’t on them as the breakout band at that time, it seemed like theater-kid stuff and I didn’t get it; but for those who do, she’s a lifesaver). It’s respectable.
However, despite Palmer’s ethos that all you have to do is ask, it’s not that easy or simple for all artists. It’s a start, I think, and I don’t think the concept should be discounted, yet it shouldn’t make Palmer the Queen of Kickstarting, by any means. Whatever Palmer has to say about her time on a label, they still did a job of expanding the group’s fanbase around the world, which put her in a great position to utilize Kickstarter brilliantly. Additionally, Palmer does an amazing and downright Herculean job of putting her fans first — Twitter is nearly a character in this book, she talks about how she uses the tool to say hello to people in the morning, and to say goodnight to them, but she doesn’t give the numbers: I genuinely want to know how much time Palmer spends online, and how and why that affects her life. Does she wear glasses? Is she pale from not seeing the sun? I suspect that it could be the case.
A lot of artists who benefit from the Internet and crowdfunding like to preach, publicly, that the Internet is freedom — but they never quite admit the price that they pay, the relationships that they have to cultivate in return. In The Art of Asking, we get an idea of that price when Palmer details her various, well-noted Twitter PR disasters, from offering to pay volunteer musicians in beer and hugs to, again, the poem for one of the men who bombed the Boston Marathon. But we don’t know what that price is, fully, as it’s filtered through Palmer’s perspective, it’s a mistake she’s making in nearly real-time. The honesty is alternately estimable and sometimes self-serving, depending on the moment.
As someone who’s generally rather agnostic on Palmer’s work, I was pleasantly surprised by the value within The Art of Asking. She’s a hustler, able to make people listen to her even when she proves divisive, her ideas regarding art and artists and how to adapt to the internet are certainly part of the ecosystem that you need to cultivate in this modern, ever-changing world. That said, a TED talk does not a guru make — even though it’s often the first step — and a book written in four months (as she mentions repeatedly) has passion behind it, but not necessarily a fertile and comprehensive vision for the average reader. That said, did Palmer inspire me to do some scary reaching out to bookstores that I’ve been putting off? Certainly. So thanks for that.