When people in Austin throw around the phrase “social media rock star,” it’s most likely said admiringly (or pejoratively) to emphasize that someone’s particularly adept at using the Facebook/Twitter/et al series of tubes to connect with people in magnetic fashion.
But the closest your typical social media rock star ever gets to rocking a real audience in the flesh is at SXSW Interactive's annual TechKaraoke.
Amanda Palmer, on the other hand, is a social media rock star in the most literal double-meaning of the phrase.
Since debuting as half of the Dresden Dolls in 2000, Palmer’s been a risk-taking, provocative genre-bender, blending cabaret, punk, and piano balladry into a formula that’s found a cult following of fans that skews steampunk but is decidedly more diverse than that.
In addition to her wide array of original material, she’s delved into eclectic cover version territory through the years that is fiercely post-modern. These include haunting versions of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy,” archly comic renderings of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” and the literal video version of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” as well as an entire EP of Radiohead covers played on ukelele.
She’s amassed a Twitter network of more than 662,000 followers, built over the past few years by particularly direct engagement with followers, including, for a time, a series weekly Friday computer chat sessions hashtagged #LOFNOTC – standing for "Losers Of Friday Night On Their Computers."
After her escape from her contract with Roadrunner Records in 2010, where she characterized herself as an unappreciated outlier inadequately understood or promoted by the label, she took to the artist fundraiser site Kickstarter and raised a staggering $1.2 million to fund the just-released Theater Is Evil album and the subsequent tour (which makes its Austin stop at Stubb’s tonight.)
The album debuted at #10 on the Billboard charts this week; of course, the charts are increasingly confusing in this multi-channeled promotional landscape. Billboard noted, deep into an article on this week's Top 10 (in which the Dave Matthews Band still, depressingly, has the power to debut at #1), that Palmer's high placement had a lot to do with the Kickstarter campaign, and its donors receiving copies of the album for helping fund its creation.
But as Palmer herself is fond of Tweeting, #wearethemedia, and Theater Is Evil adds an intriguing new facet to the continuing narrative in which we’re pretty much all both consumers and producers.
But for all the positives that social media has brought Palmer, she’s also borne the special brand of public scorn that comes from living so publicly online. At the outset of this tour, she went online to offer local horn and string players the chance to join the band on stage at various tour stop cities, to be paid in beer and joy.
This attracted the attention of media outlets (including the New York Times) and critics (including the irascible Steve Albini, the indie rock celebrity most likely to say “Get Off My Lawn”) wondering why Palmer couldn’t afford to pay musicians in actual money when she’d tapped into so much Internet booty.
Palmer, to her credit, addressed the criticisms head on via Twitter, even retweeting some Twitticisms directed her way in the interest of transparency (or, perhaps, following the maxim that all press is good press). She also clarified that members of The Grand Theft Orchestra, her touring band, are indeed receiving salaries and not just subsisting on the joy of playing live.
It’s made for an interesting debate, to say the least, among the Pay All Artists camp and the Haters Gonna Hate camp.
Perhaps more importantly, Theater Is Evil is a genuinely phenomenal album, worthy of the investment all those fans made. Those familiar with her work will undoubtedly recognize throughlines on this album from previous ones: some plaintive songs heavy on piano and emoting, some campy pomp, and some style-conscious indie pop. But there’s also some textures on the new album owing to first-generation new wave, replete with herky-jerky guitars and vocal bravado, that Palmer wears especially well.
Placing herself firmly in 2012 Internet lexicography, the album’s first song is titled, “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)” and mentions Instagram. Another song references playing Van Halen and Slayer on a ukelele, which might be a sort of cryptic shout-out to herself and the Radiohead project. It's arguably the best album to put into a 2012 time capsule, if the Mayans are inspiring anyone out there to do that.
Palmer’s also an arresting live performer, as those Austinites who saw the November 2010 Dresden Dolls reunion show at La Zona Rosa can attest. It was — if it's even possible to sum up that night in a single phrase — a marathon of a show full of emotional oscillation and awesome costuming.
Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchesta perform Wednesday night at Stubb's at 9 p.m. Tickets are still available via Stubb’s website.