Creativity vs Virtuosity
In today’s modern age of the Internet and instantaneous media updates, it is possible for anybody to achieve their Andy Warhol dream of having 15 minutes of fame. This also means there is higher percentage of competition to vie for the general public’s attention. For musicians, this presents a new challenge. An artist does not have to be of virtuosic talent to conquer, captivate and hold an audience; a thriving performing artist must be able to compellingly portray their stagecraft, creativity and talents in the live arena to convert, engage and inspire a crowd. Amanda Palmer is an example of such a performing artist that has created a rapport with her admiring audience through her work with the Dresden Dolls and her own solo efforts. This essay will detail methods and techniques that Palmer initiates to charm and captivate crowds worldwide to argue that it is not a necessity to be of virtuosic skill to be engaging. The three engagement approaches of Amanda Palmer’s that are being analysed within this essay are her presentation in performance; her efforts to collaborate with fellow performance artists and the interactivity she shares with her appreciative audience.
Amanda Palmer is the pianist and songwriter of the two-piece Boston based punk-cabaret act, The Dresden Dolls with whom she shares the stage with drummer Brian Viglione. She also performs as an individual artist under her birth name. Influenced by musical theatre and new-wave rock whilst admitting to cheating through piano lessons as a teenager, Palmer prides herself on her work ethic to produce a “tear down the curtain, rip holes in the veneer” styled performance to demonstrate the pairs match of musical wit. (Palmer and Viglione, 2011) It is also with this industrial effort that Palmer aims to ignite and inspire her audience with the Dresden Doll’s onstage performance and their unique visual approach. The layout of their instrumentation shows Palmer’s keyboard taking stage right and Viglione’s drumkit placed stage left, allowing a full view for both performers to engage and interact with each other as well as their audience. The onstage interactivity between the drummer and pianist is a talking point of the Dresden Dolls as the two play off each other on both a musical and personal level, leaving the audience to feed off the dramatic sexual tension being fashioned before them. (dresdendolls, 2007) This tension in the audience’s atmosphere interplays seamlessly with Palmer’s amorous and arousing lyrics. The Dresden Dolls have not been a band to take an occasion lightly and will present themselves accordingly. The Dolls’ (as they are affectionately known by their fans and the press) usual uniform follows a vaudevillian black and white approach combined with the mime’s pancake make up complete with eyeliner and lip colour. Palmer’s lack of eyebrows presents her with the opportunity to draw on her own everyday, allowing her to scribble unique, interesting eyeliner patterns or words in their stead. It is through Palmer’s productive presentation consciousness that The Dresden Dolls are able to stage a visually appealing performance. (Palmer and Viglione, 2011) From their pre-empted placement of their instruments to provide a performance of both musical conquest and baring human emotion to their shady, characteristic, cabaret costumes, The Dresden Dolls have created an image and stage presence that is visually appealing and emotionally engaging for any audience to appreciate and be affected by. Although, there is only so much a Joy Division inspired songstress accompanied by a gangly metal-head can provide onstage.
Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione are renowned for their live performances as a duo and have become subjected to rave reviews but to avoid the perils of predictability, The Dresden Dolls use the methods of collaboration as an engagement strategy to intrigue their fans and to entice audiences that would otherwise overlook the Boston group if it were not for their collaborators. Amanda Palmer has musically associated and performed with many an artist though the most interesting and prominent of these are, Zen Zen Zo, Panic! At the Disco and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Amanda Palmer’s collaboration with Zen Zen Zo was born out of her fandom for the Brisbane based theatre group who specialise in Japanese Butoh Theatre. (Palmer, 2008) Palmer first approached the troupe to perform a routine amongst the crowd at the Dresden Dolls Brisbane show in 2006 that sparked a both professional and personal relationship between the two creative groups. The intriguing, alien affect that the performance group had on the bewildered audience can be seen on The Dresden Dolls dvd : Live at The Roundhouse. (dresdenmeister, 2008) Another collaboration that has seen Palmer connect with audiences of a younger ‘tween’ audience is her onstage cover of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” with Brendon Urie of the American alternative rock group, Panic! At the Disco. The two bands embarked on a tour together as they share similar the similar sound of combing musical theatre with punk sound, style and ethic. Whilst performing the popular cover, Urie and The Dresden Dolls would interact with each other in a sensual fashion to create a resounding, raucous reaction from the teenage girl audience that forms the majority of Panic! At the Disco’s fan base. This frantic feedback from the crowd climaxed when Dresden Dolls drummer, Viglione would rise from his drum kit to perform a camp show of affection for the Panic! At the Disco vocalist. (BillH, 2006) Although this is quite visually appealing for an innocent, young audience who were most likely in attendance with their parents, the on stage behaviour displayed would be deemed inappropriate in the classical realm; an environment that Palmer has previously performed in. In 2009, Amanda Palmer arranged a New Years Eve performance in her hometown with the prestigious Boston Pops Orchestra. (Guha, 2009) To mark the special occasion, Palmer chose to study “Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto” despite her lack of serious classical training and regular practice. Her tantrums and torments whilst learning the piece were documented on her online blog. (Palmer, 2010) It was Palmer’s “fake it til you make it” attitude that helped her endure the challenging concerto and her creative performance consciousness that allowed her to execute a manoeuvre that prevented her from playing the entire piece. A mobile phone was planted in the audience to be dialled halfway through the piece only for Amanda Palmer to stop playing, berate the phone’s owner and ask the windbreaker attired man to play the remainder of the concerto; a set up unbeknownst to the paying audience. The phone belonged to Lance Horne, a professional pianist and long time friend of Palmer’s. (Palmer, 2010) It is through these collaborations that Palmer is able to engage and intrigue her own audience whilst also being an enticing prospect to curious, new crowds. Be it by collaborating with a theatre group to add a different element to her show, inviting a popular teen music icon onstage to perform a nostalgic cover or reinventing the Boston Pops orchestra usual repertoire and breaking the traditional classical concerto codes, Amanda Palmer is able to employ engaging methods and manoeuvres to incite an audience’s enjoyment. The only way for an audience to engage with Amanda Palmer on a closer level is by actually performing with her.
Amanda Palmer is ultimately famous for her rapport with her thousands of fans worldwide by using the social media site, Twitter. Through this interface, the artistic vocalist is able to “tweet” what she is doing or thinking at that moment in time to inform her list of “followers”. (Heath, 2010) What was revolutionary about Palmer’s use of Twitter was her ingenuity to alert her followers of any shows or “ninja gigs” she performs outside of her usual tour schedule, usually in parks, alleyways or indie record stores. At these ninja gigs, she encourages her fans to bring any instruments that they feel so they are able to connect musically with her by playing along to her songs or to showcase their own songs to the singing Dresden Doll. When quizzed on her constant interactivity with her fans online, Palmer replies that it makes her feel a lot safer whilst on tour as if she already knows her audience on a personal level. (Heath, 2010) Whilst performing in the Dresden Dolls, she would frequently send out a message for volunteers before a performance to participate in the show to dress up and sing backing vocals only to receive a resounding response of hundreds of enthusiastic replies. It is through Palmer’s use of social media and interactivity with her fans that forms an integral part of her performance. Amanda Palmer’s “oversharing” of her personal experiences and feelings has resonated strongly with an audience that now feel compelled to her music, experiences and performance.
In the 21st century, the idea of striving to be a virtuoso has now been overlooked; artists can now look to performance techniques as opposed to autonomous instrumental skill to differentiate themselves and to engage the general public’s attention. Her presentation and performance with the Dresden Dolls sees Palmer and Viglione undertake a vaudevillian mime act whilst causing both musical and amorous tension onstage providing their crowd with a visually and emotionally sensitising performance; her vast resume of collaborations displays performances ranging from an Australian Butoh theatre group, a popular teenage icon in the eyes of teenage girls and a well established and respected ensemble with the Boston Pops Orchestra allowing her to engage with audiences that wouldn’t know her music otherwise; and her intimate relationship she shares with a fanbase that possess a compassion for her live performances and her personal life that become an integral component of Palmer’s shows. Amanda Palmer is a thriving example of how autonomous, instrumental virtuosity is not necessary to become an engaging prospect for an audience’s attention and admiration.
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dresdendolls. 2007. “The Dresden Dolls “Half Jack” Live at the Paradise 2005” Youtube video posted December 5. Accessed April 5th 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3barCgWQpxA
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Heath, Ian. “Amanda Palmer on Interacting with Fans” Date Accessed April 2nd, 2011. http://intrsctn.com/2010/03/amanda-palmer-on-interacting-with-fans-my-pre-sxsw-interview/
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