I don’t always ask for help. Sometimes this stubbornness gets me into trouble and so the title of Amanda Palmer’s book grabbed me. Palmer is a singer, songwriter and musician, performing at first in her punk rock/cabaret act, The Dresden Dolls and later on her own with different musicians. She is married to English author Neil Gaiman, well-known for his short fiction, novels, comic books and graphic novels.
Palmer has a large fan base, but her music is different from what you might hear on the radio. (Check out her website, amandapalmer.net.) Even she describes her music as “not for everyone.” But she entered the mainstream after her March 2013 TED Talk and I was impressed with her understanding of the tricky dynamic of asking for and receiving help. While on tour, she learned through social media how to ask her fans for a place to stay, extra hands, food and how to organize flash events. And after breaking from her label, she made Kickstarter history by raising $1.2 million to fund her next CD and tour. She works hard to maintain a close and trusting relationship with her fans, stressing how important it is to make a personal and human connection.
But even with her professional fundraising success and loyal fan base, Palmer’s independent streak has made it hard for her to accept help from the people close to her, especially when she really needs it. The inside book jacket describes this struggle:
…she finds that there are important things she cannot ask for — as a musician, as a friend and as a wife. She learns that she isn’t alone in this, that so many people are afraid to ask for help, and it paralyzes their lives and relationships.
Despite this description, The Art of Asking is mostly a memoir about Palmer’s performance and music career. It begins after she graduates from Wesleyan College and she wonders what she will do with her liberal arts degree. She begins by scooping ice cream in Boston and performing in Harvard Square as the “Eight Foot Bride”, a living statue, and earning more money as a street performer than at her real job. At night she performs at small venues, building a following, fan by fan.
It’s a nice day in this picture from flickr.com, but Palmer stood in all kinds of weather.
While Palmer’s rise is very interesting, her discussions of how to ask for help are mostly about money and the book jacket is misleading in this way. Her biggest problem is how to say yes to a loan from her husband, drawing a thin parallel to her marriage dynamic in which she and Gaiman lead largely separate lives.
Her success story is not without controversy. Because she thrives on making people uncomfortable, she alienates many, something she finds unfair, saying her efforts are largely misunderstood. After her Kickstarter victory, she was highly criticized for lining up musicians to perform with her – without pay. Others wondered why she continued to ask for money after marrying Gaiman, who was ready with his checkbook. And after the Boston Marathon bombings, she was berated for immediately posting, “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, viewed as sympathetic to the bombers. Many questioned why she felt it was necessary to write about the bombings. Her response to this criticism was that art must look at all things, whether or not they are painful or evil.
I enjoyed reading The Art of Asking, but it’s definitely not a self-help book and I felt a little duped by the cover, the book description and the endorsements on the back. Nevertheless, Amanda Palmer is an interesting figure, if not a little egocentric. As a new mother and as she approaches forty, it will be interesting to see if anything shifts and where she takes her career and her fans.
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