Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Bank of Boston Beauty Queen

Above: Amanda Palmer (second from right) with Tegan & Sara and Amy Cook (photo: Roger Erickson)

Thanks to the people at Feministing and The F Word, I recently became aware of the controversy currently surrounding Amanda Palmer, one half of "Brechtian Punk Cabaret" duo The Dresden Dolls as well as an acclaimed solo artist. Amanda has supposedly been effectively sacked by her record label for being "too fat."

I was actually lucky enough to have been at an Amanda Palmer gig a few weeks ago. Palmer is one of those extraordinarily talented and charismatic people who just seems to attract other talented and interesting, like-minded people to her side. On the night, for example, she actually had award-winning author Neil Gaiman accompanying her on the tambourine!

She brought up this issue at the time: that her record company had taken one look at the music video for her single "Leeds United" and basically declared it unmarketable because it featured her supposedly unattractive belly. However, back then it wasn't obvious that this would ultimately lead to her leaving her label, Roadrunner Records.

Above: Amanda Palmer performing (with a broken foot) in London (photo: me).

Now, some commentators have noted that the rift between Palmer and Roadrunner may not ultimately be one about her body, and that it is instead to do with more general issues to do with her marketability and also her open criticism of Alaskan governor and anti-feminist, perpetual foot-in-mouther and over-promoted dunderhead Sarah Palin (I'm not a huge fan of that woman either, to be honest with you). I concede that this is more likely than not, but at the same time I think it's unwise to simply ignore the underlying issues here, or to write-off the outrage that fans and others are experiencing as some sort of mindless, knee-jerk reaction. Whether or not it was ultimately the primary reason for her split with Roadrunner, the fact remains that Amanda Palmer is an extremely talented woman who was rather incredibly and shallowly criticised by her record label for not following strict industry codes on how to market women and women's bodies.

[I could easily do a whole series of posts on the packaging and marketing of women within the music industry, especially when it comes to issues of the representation of race, but I'm going to stick predominantly to the Amanda Palmer story for now.]

It's almost immaterial to note that, by any sane or reasonable definition of the phrase, Amanda Palmer is actually not fat at all! The point remains that she is apparently "too fat" to be a successfully marketed artist, because things like how much you look like some poorly photoshopped, navel-less waif are more important than anything else in an industry that is primarily based on aural media anyway, apparently.

Let's not forget the inherent sexism at the heart of this, shall we? Try to recall that Roadrunner Records is a label where "you can count the number of women on the fingers of one hand and most of the people on the label are decidedly chunky hairy dudes." It's almost redundant for me to point out that RR would quite simply not have this issue with Ms Palmer where she in fact, a man.

But no, Amanda Palmer is a woman, and one who routinely challenges and queers acceptable and traditional gender roles and presentation (one of my favourite photo sets of her is the "John/Yoko" set featuring her and bandmate Brian Viglione; naturally, Amanda is the "John"), this apparently means that she is wicked and must be punished, or at least, must be criticised by her own damn label. Unfortunately, I also hear a fair bit of criticism of her body and the choices that she makes regarding it from her own fans. A common criticism is of the fact that Palmer typically is not completely shaved, meaning that an unsuspecting fan might (gasp!) catch an unwitting glimpse of Amanda Palmer's underarm hair during a gig(!). Oh woe is them! I simply cannot play a violin small enough for these people. This MSpaint image, cribbed from the Dolls' own "hatemail" page, is a pretty typical example of the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Luckily enough though,  this is going to be one of those rare posts where, rather than just bitching and moaning and griping, I actually suggest something positive and productive. One of the neat things about the Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer is an incredibly creative and active fanbase. This fanbase, upon hearing about the shameful treatment of Ms Palmer by her record label, decided to set up a "Rebellyon" of sorts: a protest of Roadrunner records that primarily involves fans taking photographs of their bellies, big or small, and posting them on the web, all in solidarity to Amanda/protest of Roadrunner. It's one of those wonderful bits of fan activism that is simultaneously very sweet and all a bit tongue in cheek and silly, but at the same time carrying an important message to Roadrunner; a message written in permanent marker on the bellies of dozens of fans.

Yes, my belly is going up on the Rebellyon site soon. I'm not going to post it up here because I'm sure my readers would not appreciate it. But still, as I was taking a photo of myself, I was again struck by the double standard of it all, the fact that I, as a male, was enjoying some invisible male privelege that meant that I was not as likely to receive outright and candid criticism of my "non-standard" body as a woman in the same situation. I'm slightly bigger than most, so there's the fact that most people out there on the internet probably don't want to see my exposed flesh, but then again, that's partly what the Rebellyon is about: the fact that some things are more important than the size of one's midriff. Anyway, if you feel you'd like to get involved, please feel free to add your belly to the group.

Now, again, "Rebellyon" is all slightly silly in nature, but try not to forget the real issues that underlie the problem at hand here. Amanda Palmer is a serious musician and should be judged according to her talent, not her (much smaller than all this furore might lead you to believe) waist size.

Also, enormous kudos to Amanda Palmer for writing so frequently about her own body and sexuality in ways that, yet again, challenge the typical presentation of female bodies and female desire. I have never heard so many songs about female masturbation before (oh wait, maybe I have. Thanks, Jezebel).

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