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BREAKING: Amanda Palmer's "Poem for Dzhokhar" was really about . . . Amanda Palmer

Posted by Carly Carioli  April 23, 2013 04:47 AM

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Amanda Palmer is one of the Boston music scene's biggest brands: she began her career as an 8-foot-bride in Harvard Square, won the WBCN Rock N Roll Rumble with her duo the Dresden Dolls, teamed up with her Lexington High School drama teacher to stage a production of Cabaret at the A.R.T., and raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter for her latest solo album. Her 2013 Ted Talk has been watched 2 million times.

She's also, not coincidentally, a compulsive over-sharer: her incessant tweets and intimate blog posts helped draw a passionate, creative community of theater geeks, music fans, social-media addicts, goth kids, and art nerds into her orbit.

That community has sustained her artistic career -- literally, in the case of her now-legendary Kickstarter campaign -- but there are times when the warm embrace of that community has functioned more like a cocoon. Her circle of well-wishers can seal her off from the outside world and render her tone-deaf to criticism -- as when she asked supporting musicians around the country to accompany her band for free (or for free beer), prompting a flood of hate-mail and blogosphere hand-wringing.

In Palmer's twitter feed, almost nothing is valued as highly as spontaneous creativity -- she often rebroadcasts her fans' art, and her own muse can be wildly impulsive. Many good things have come from that impulsiveness: from unannounced late-night web-video hangouts to IRL pop-up shows on far-flung street corners and concert stages.

All of which is an attempt to contextualize the disaster ("world-historically horrific," Gawker called it) that is Amanda Palmer's latest artistic endeavor: "A Poem for Dzhokhar."

On Sunday -- while Boston was still reeling from the week-long trauma of the Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt that left four dead and more than 200 injured and maimed -- Palmer posted 35 lines of verse with a title referencing the most volatile name in America: the one belonging to the still-living bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.


We can argue about the poem's artistic merit. Palmer often makes a point of championing DIY art for art's sake, embracing the nursery-school idea that self-expression is never bad. This is a poem that includes the lines, "you don’t know how precious your iphone battery time was until you’re hiding in the bottom of the boat," and "you don’t know why you let that guy go without shooting him dead and stuffing him in some bushes between cambridge and watertown." The best thing you can say about lines like these is that they are insipid, wooden, and tactless.

But what really enraged the internet -- as best expressed in a pair of blog posts published the following day by Salon and Gawker -- was that the poem seemed less an attempt to wrestle with the aftermath of a tragedy than an attempt to insert the Amanda Palmer brand into the middle of the discussion. Whether or not that was the intention, it's exactly what happened. The poem provoked an outpouring of support, followed quickly by a backlash of recrimination, all playing out on Palmer's home turf of Twitter.

After Palmer tweeted that the poem was being misinterpreted, Gawker lowered the boom, painting a picture of an artist who was "elbowing her way in to the conversation, insisting on her right to speak for a teenager she never met and to whose thoughts and feelings she has no access, demanding that we recognize her bravery for doing so, and then later telling us all that it's our fault we misunderstood."

Opined Salon: "It’s not wrong to be inspired by something horrible, or to tell a fictionalized tale from an unpopular perspective. It is, however, not automatically a great work of art or a daring feat of bravery, either. And in the space of just a few hours, Palmer deftly managed to redirect the conversation from the bombing suspect and her own poem itself to – and there’s a recurring theme developing here — Miss Amanda Palmer, and her defensive sense of self-righteousness."

In light of those critiques, it's strange to read the new blog post that Palmer published Tuesday.

Perhaps getting off on the wrong foot, she begins her blog post responding to the controversy by linking off to her latest single. Someone might have told her this would not help her case.

The rest of the blog finds Palmer backing away from the seriousness of the poem ("a poem that took me – no exaggeration – about 9 minutes to write"), her choice of title ("i could have called it 'the past 48 hours'. or 'everything in my brain right now'), and even her decision to write it at all: "if my phone had rang at 11:34 and i had spent between 11:34 and 11:43 talking to a friend instead of writing this poem…i never would have written anything.")

She then spends many words regaling us with the details of her personal life in the 48 hours leading up to her writing of the poem -- a narrative that gives much more physical and emotional space to her personal inconveniences than to anything remotely related to the events in Boston which she was so savvy to co-opt by dramatically SEO-ing the title of her poem. In the process of this explanation, she makes an almost line-by-line case that the poem wasn't about the alleged bomber, but in fact about herself and her smaller troubles.

Which, minus the vitriol, is essentially equivalent to Gawker's critique of her effort: "'A Poem for Dzhokhar' is not, really, "for" Dzhokhar Tsarnaev," the site wrote. "It's for Palmer, a deluded and opportunistic narcissist who sells rhetorical snake oil to people too full of unearned self-regard to join an actual cult."

I can't support Gawker's thumbnail diss of Palmer's audience. But as someone who has often defended Palmer from her often-overzealous critics, it's painful to see her so profoundly missing the boat here. Her poem and her follow-up post read like the work of someone who has lost the ability to distinguish between making a mess and making a difference.

In her zeal to make some sense of this particular artistic failure, her blog post then tries to rationalize the public's outpouring of disgust as a symptom of something wrong with the culture: she takes the even more brazen stance of implying that the audience hates her because the audience has no empathy:

so….people are afraid to say, in public, that they feel empathy?

this scared me so much.

think about what it means for us, and what it means for our culture and our world if people are too afraid to speak up about how they feel, if people are too afraid to share their reflections, if people take one step backwards and think…”better not rock the boat”.

I'm not sure what planet Palmer has been living on this past week, the one without empathy, but the name of that planet is not Boston.

At one point, describing the outrage she's engendered, she writes: "and i thought: this is amazing. when was the last time a thousand people argued about a stupid poem?"

Well: now Palmer and her critics can agree on two things. The poem isn't about the bomber. And it's a stupid poem.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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