Still the star attraction: Amanda Palmer performs at the Village Underground in London. Image: Elliott Franks/Eyeveine
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Amanda Palmer: How to drink with your fans

The internet has ushered in a new era of intimacy between artists and their audience.

Shortly after my crowd-funding effort last year, when I used the Kickstarter website to fund my first album, I found myself doing a phone interview with Forbes. The guy asked – like every business journalist I’d talked to that day who wanted to crack the da Vinci code of successful crowd-funding – the question that I had already started getting sick of.

“So,” he said, “could you briefly explain this relationship you have with your fans?”

I rambled on clumsily about how the relationship was a long-term symbiosis, about how a lot of these Kickstarter backers were folks I’d actually crashed with, drank with and communed with over countless years of blogging, Twitter and emails. I tried to explain how the fan base and I sort of . . . well, took care of each other. Did that make sense?

There was a pause and the Forbes guy said: “Er, can you please give me a concrete example of that?”

The publicist interrupted the call to inform us that we had three minutes left. “It’s kind of complicated,” I apologised, “but it’s beautiful. And real. You know?” He didn’t. “Lemme ask you a question,” I said. “Are you married? Yes? OK. We have two minutes. Could you briefly explain this relationship you have with your wife?” At least I made him laugh.

People are quick nowadays to denigrate the new wave of kickstarting, small-business-running, self-promoting artists. They call us shameless. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails recently commented on the crowdfunding culture: “I’m not super-comfortable with the idea of Ziggy Stardust shaking his cup for scraps,” he said. Ziggy, the fictional icon? Clearly not. But early Bowie, the tech pioneer? Quite likely.

This conundrum is fascinating a new generation of art-makers: do you have to trade your “other-worldly” mystique for your ability to make a living? If so, is that classic brand of mystique going to die a Darwinian death, now that artists are visibly manning their own storefronts?

Not at all. It’s just that the artists most fit to survive today no longer equate mystique with artistic credibility. They’re not shaking their cups for scraps; they’re busy drinking with their fans, like the old-school travelling musicians.

My Kickstarter, which took in over a million dollars in album pre-orders from about 25,000 backers, started at $1 for a digital download; $50 bought the limited-edition vinyl; $5,000 bought a house party, 34 of which were sold in locations including South Africa, Israel, Canada, Norway and Sydney. In each of these places, 50 fans created a city-specific online group with a volunteer organiser who banked their pooled contributions, an innovation in collectivist fandom that I found inspiring.

Two people bought the $10,000 “art sitting and dinner”, for which I promised to “draw your portrait or vice versa . . . or whatever (clothing optional)”. I delivered the first one in Washington, DC, and brought along my husband, Neil (who is luckily quite sociable), to keep me company.

Nobody got naked. Instead, Neil and I painted a mural on a bedroom wall belonging to the unborn baby incubating in the belly of the Kickstarter backer, Chanie. We created a surreal scene featuring a moon man playing the piano and a killer rabbit in a hot-air balloon, while Chanie and her husband sat on the floor of the empty nursery, chatting with us about bad films, sibling feuds and how family can be impossible. Then we all went for Indian food. The “shameless” connection that exists between new-school crowd-funding artists and our fans lies within the wider context of social media, which has led to an increasing level of intimacy. Once you’ve been in a relationship for years (hopefully) shame disintegrates. There’s a difference between asking a stranger for a handout, a friend for a favour and a customer for a down payment. Crowdfunding artists are generally working in the third category, in the spirit of the second. It’s the blurry line between the two latter categories that makes crowd-funding difficult to explain to the Forbes guy.

I delivered the second art sitting last month in Perth, while touring with my band in Australia. The backer’s name was Yana and it wasn’t until I met her at the show the night before that I realised I knew her from Twitter; we’d been casually communicating for years.

Yana’s hard to miss. She was born with achondroplasia. She’s in her late twenties, she’s four foot six inches tall and she’s undergone ten operations to lengthen her arm and leg bones. After she gave me a tour of her folks’ cosy suburban house, we sat down for a home-cooked feast, during which I chatted happily with her younger brother, who is six foot three inches, and her parents (her mum is from France; her dad is from England) about everything from homesickness to the new Australian prime minister (nobody was a fan).

Then Yana bundled up a canvas, blankets and brushes into boxes that I helped carry across a street and a football pitch. She had it all planned out: she wanted to pose nude in the park where she’d played as a child. I was impressed. I told her that if we got arrested, it would probably be the most cred-building event to have happened to me since getting jailed in Amsterdam for playing a spontaneous ukulele gig in Dam Square.

Yana wasn’t a natural exhibitionist but as soon we settled into a shady gazebo near the playground and nobody was watching, she took a deep breath and shed her clothes. I picked up a paintbrush.

Her body was a beautiful landscape of voluptuous, snow-white skin, her legs and arms covered in constellations of scars (there were 35, she told me later) from her ten operations. As I focused on sketching her outline, I felt a quiet, profound sense of honour. I’m a shit painter and completing a passable likeness took two hours and included a couple of close calls in the indecent exposure department. One old man wandered over to us and asked us what we were doing, as Yana dived under the blanket. “Art students,” I explained earnestly, winking at Yana, who stifled a laugh.

Yana shared the stories of her life: about how she was constantly ill as a result of her condition and about Jeff, her best friend, who had turned her on to my music years ago. “We were both hospital babies,” she told me. “We never had to justify ourselves to each other.”

The month Jeff died was the month I launched my Kickstarter. Yana bought the art sitting as a sort of parting gift to his memory. I didn’t ask where she got the money. “Everybody always stares at me,” she mused, as another passer-by wandered too close and she grabbed the blanket. “But never for the reasons I want.”

I kept messing up her eyebrow. I erased and redrew, thinking about how we judge one another. Was I trying to make her more beautiful? I shook the thought off and kept trying to get her left eyebrow right.

We felt like we knew each other but that’s because . . . we did. One of the things I’ve noticed lately about these flash-relationships I make with fans is the immediate comfort we have with one another. Fan/artist intimacy was once a one-way street: Patti Smith fans in the 1970s may have felt like they knew her through her lyrics but how well could Patti know them back?

I learn about my fans’ lives at my leisure, through Twitter and Tumblr, while on the couch at home, in airport lounges, riding the subway. The rules of true friendship really do seem to apply: we check in with each other frequently, we respond to each other truthfully, we help in emergencies, we tweet each other’s projects, we write comforting words. And occasionally, like in any friendship, we bicker about Miley Cyrus.

As human creatures, we’re much more likely to help those we know intimately. This is why crowd-funding works far better for the artists who are in committed relationships with their fans. The artist who never communicates anything online and then suddenly launches a crowd-funding campaign is like the friend who doesn’t call for six months, then suddenly asks if she can borrow your van to move her shit to a new apartment.

The next time I saw Yana was at the house party in Melbourne. It’d been over a week since our nudist park escapade and she looked a little ragged. I’d seen her in the front row the night before, her chest pressed against the barricade. The party’s hostess was a drummer named Rachel and her grunge band was playing for the backyard crowd. I bumped into Yana outside the bathroom. “How are you doing?” I asked. “Kinda sick,” she answered, in a voice that didn’t want to elicit any pity. I hugged her.

A handful of friends dropped by unexpectedly to play music, including Tom, a songwriter from Melbourne who’d just successfully crowd-funded his own record. We exchanged Kickstarter horror stories about international postage. Someone showed up through the back door with vegan lasagne and a box of home-brewed beer. Tom and I clinked glasses and I told him about my recent house party in Portland, the one on the day of the death threat.

I had been in a coffee shop in Seattle that morning, readying myself for the drive up the coast to the house of a fan named Susan, when I got the call from my manager, Eric. I’d recently blogged a poem that mashed up my emotional experiences with those of one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects – and someone had sent an email through my website suggesting that they were going to locate and kill me. Grand.

“It’s probably just a crazy,” Eric said. “We’re trying to track down the email ISP. Can you get to a police station?”

I refused. It just seemed too silly. But as I washed my hands in the café bathroom a few minutes later, I noticed that they were shaking.

The three-hour drive to Portland took seven because of traffic and somewhere around the Columbia River crossing, I started weeping. A John Lennon song came on the radio and I started weeping harder.

When I finally arrived at Susan’s house, everybody was already drinking and carousing on her porch and, as I walked over the dark lawn, they gathered around me and applauded. Someone thrust a beer in my hand. Susan, who crafts weird headwear for a living, crowned me with an antler headdress. I cleared my throat and said, “Hey, guys. Thanks for coming. My day’s been fucked. I may start crying now.”

And I did. I didn’t tell them about the death threat until much later, while I was playing in Susan’s shag-carpeted basement. A neck rub circle had started. We collapsed in uncontrollable laughter singing Nine Inch Nails songs with misheard and alternative lyrics about cats, then I played some sad ukulele songs in the pitch dark and a quiet, tall boy with a moustache leaned into my ear and whispered that he’d just lost somebody.

The party raged into the night but I headed upstairs to bed. I kissed and hugged people goodnight and Susan tucked me into bed and made sure I had a clean towel.

“This is my daughter’s room,” she said. “She’s off at college now. But she’ll be so, so happy you slept in her bed.” She blew me a kiss and closed the door. I shut my eyes, feeling entirely safe.

Tom and I were due to play a song together in the garden, so the Kickstarter horror story hour came to an end and I ducked back into the hostess-drummer’s bedroom, where I’d left my make-up case. I sat myself down in front of a cracked mirror. As I tossed my ukulele on to the bed, I saw something move in the corner of the room. It looked like a pile of clothes. I went closer. The pile of clothes was Yana. She was lying on the floor, wrapped in a blanket.

“You OK?” I asked. “Don’t you want to lie on the bed instead of the floor?” I felt helpless.

“No . . . I’m good,” she said.

I put my hand on her cheek and looked down at her. I knew those eyebrows so well by then. I wished I hadn’t fucked them up so much. I pulled the blanket over her shoulders.

“Feel better,” I whispered. She shut her eyes and I grabbed my ukulele and went back to the party.

Like I said to the Forbes guy, we take care of each other. It’s complicated. And beautiful. But very real.

 

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.