Better Than: Drinking with old people and steampunks in any other possible setting.
At some point during her show Friday night, Amanda Palmer sang a song called “Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic.” It lumps her in with those other two female pop giants because they’re all “frequently naked” and “make pop art.” That’s not bad reasoning, as it goes, but it ignores the fact that Lady Gaga and Madonna are both fantastic performers, canny musical consumers who can pick a hit song from across the room, and both are absolutely tireless self-promoters (well, okay, maybe Palmer shares that with them, too). They’re both superstars, who’ve managed their careers near flawlessly as some of the most famous people in the world. The fact that Amanda Palmer thinks the main thing Lady Gaga and Madonna do is take their clothes off tells you pretty much everything you need to know about her safely sexual, completely surface, not-super-compelling music and performance.
See also: A Serious Conversation With Amanda Fucking Palmer
I’m sure if Palmer were to read that, she would have a good answer. A prolific blogger and interview subject, she’s better at arguing why you shouldn’t judge her harshly than she is at making music that wouldn’t be judged harshly. The insufferably titled “Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic” is itself basically an argument about why you shouldn’t judge her harshly. “I’m just a 32-and-a-half-year-old girl,” she sings, “Trying to make art and pay my rent and not get a job I hate.” Well, fine. I guess let’s just shut this whole cultural criticism thing down, guys, Amanda Palmer is just trying to have a good time, let’s stop being dicks about it.
Songs about being misunderstood are fertile pop star ground (just look at Prince or Taylor Swift), but there’s something so on-the-nose about it when Palmer does the same, something so much like complaining after class at art school, that the listener can’t make that leap to putting herself in the artist’s shoes and thinking about all the times she wishes that she hadn’t been judged, either. It’s impossible to listen to that song and think about anything but Amanda Palmer.
In the abstract, it seemed like the show Friday was the most appropriate possible environment in which to encounter the tech-world darling, neo-noir singer, and divisive public figure Amanda Palmer. It was the opening night of the 10th anniversary celebration of something called Steampunk Weekend. Held in the Damrosh Park Bandshell as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, it promised a “pagan lounge ensemble,” “avant-cabaret circus troupe,” and “gypsy punk accordion vagabonds.” The setting perfectly embodied the spirit of carefully planned chaos, family-friendly debauchery, and honestly genuine artifice that is Amanda Palmer.
The crowd seemed roughly split between the steampunk set (corsets, frilly nautical officer hats, striped pants, and home-made dresses) and the blue-blooded and white-haired members of the cultural aristocracy that make up the audience for most Lincoln Center events. Steampunks are nothing if not polite, but the blue bloods were causing some problems, and seemed generally displeased at the assembled crowd.
The crowd’s largest cheers of the night were conceptual. They erupted in a roar when Palmer walked on stage. They reacted violently when Lady Gaga was mentioned. They applauded loudly when Palmer called them “intellectual.” After the first song, however, their reactions to the actual music was fairly muted. This seemed to be bothering Palmer, a performer who is usually able to lead a crowd if nothing else.
“You seem sleepy!” She yelled near the beginning of the show. “I know it’s humid and gross, but try to wake up!” A few minutes later: “Make a sound like it’s Friday night!” A few minutes later: “Maybe it’s the chairs? Is it because you’re sitting down?”
These were all good guesses. However, there’s something in Palmer’s music that doesn’t exactly invite thrashing. Many songs bounce along in sort of modified polka rhythm waiting for something to happen. Others explode into a sort of unearned musical crescendo that leaves you a bit puzzled about what’s supposed to be going on. At its base, music by lots of groups with charismatic figures at the helm isn’t super revolutionary. Jarvis Cocker, Morrissey, and Joan Jett all had their moments as musical revolutionaries, but have been coasting for many years on the strength of their personality. It’s their electric presence that draws their fans to shows, the chance of seeing, in person, some of the feeling they pour into their records.
On one level, the show was perfectly fine. The toddlers dancing next to me were definitely enjoying themselves. A saw a very smartly-dressed African American man in his late 60s with a gigantic grin on his face. A lot of the crowd, however, seemed to be waiting for something that never happened. Even when, at the end of the show, a marching band and circus troupe joined the band on stage, it seemed more like it was signifying a good time than actually being one.
Critical Bias: I’ve seen Justin Bond. I’ve been to Weimar cabarets. I’ve put in my time at The Box. But this. . . I dunno, man.
Overheard: “I’m gonna play you some songs on the ukulele!” [THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE]
Random Notebook Dump: She played a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which, omg.