Thoughts on "The Art of Asking" by Amanda Palmer



Once during a conversation about punk cabaret band the Dresden Dolls, my friend Sylvia mentioned that she went to the same high school as lead singer Amanda Palmer. There was a brief period where the Dolls' song "Coin-Operated Boy" was getting a fair amount of airplay on the radio and I had been impressed with their music. "Were you friends with her?" I asked. 

"No," said Sylvia. "With Amanda Palmer, there was always the 'yuck' factor."

Amanda Palmer is a polarizing character in the world of music and performance. Brash, frank, emotionally vulnerable, obsessed with artistic expression in a way that you imagine the neediest theater kid you knew in high school would still find over the top, it's hard not to have strong feelings about her one way or the other. You are either impressed with her openness about herself, her nudity as self-determinism, and her fierce love of the marginalized and alienated or you hate her apparent constant need for attention, her insistence on life as artistic expression and the in-your-face unvarnished and unwashed presentation of herself (ie. the "yuck" factor). 

To make matters more interesting, she fell in love and married beloved writer Neil Gaiman in 2011. While her band and solo efforts had a vibrant but small indie following, her relationship with Gaiman thrust her in an international spotlight which led many to believe that she was a fraud and freeloader hanging onto Gaiman's brighter star. Then came the Kickstarter success (at the time, the largest financial backing to an album creation ever) followed by the backlash when she asked others to tour with her on a volunteer basis. The success and controversy led to a TED talk on asking, which then led to her book The Art of Asking in 2014. 

As a life-long Neil Gaiman fan, I was aware that Palmer's book came out but I didn't have any interest in reading it until two weeks ago...

And, then, I couldn't put it down.

Yes, Amanda Palmer is one giant mess of contradictions: intelligence, neediness, insight, provocation, fearless, reckless, etc. However, over the course of the book, it becomes apparent that she earned her place within the artistic community that she inspires. She tells the story of her years as a living statue, her early years touring and developing a fan base, and then her subsequent shaping, encouraging and cultivation of ever larger community. It is clear that when Palmer created her Kickstarter campaign, the huge response had come from years and years of fan parties, community events, "ninja shows", meet-n-greets, and Twitter exchanges. Her connection with her fans and community of artists is built on trust, cooperation, and constant communication. She is not a removed artist who distances herself from those that support her, but rather someone who revels in their experiences, encourages their successes, and offers solace to their losses. 

Much of The Art of Asking is framed around Palmer's introduction, courtship, and marriage to Neil Gaiman between anecdotes of her ascent from face-painted street performer to indie rockstar. However, the true story is in the relationships she develops with the thousands that were inspired by her and her music. Though Amanda Palmer can be easy to dislike, no one can fault her on the ability to create a community.