You might’ve read singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer’s “Poem for Dzhokhar,” a tribute to the Boston bomber that won immediate and inevitable controversy and backlash.
Written in second person, with lines like “you don’t know how many vietnamese soft rolls to order” and “you don’t know how to get away from your fucking parents,” it inspired a fair amount of mockery, both from casual readers and from the media. Salon labelled it “trollish.” Gawker announced that it was “the worst poem of all time.” Vulture simply tagged it with “bad ideas.”
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Palmer’s husband, Neil Gaiman, mused, “[it’s been] a long time since I’ve seen incoherent obscene tweets telling me how evil my slut wife is. It makes me feel young again.” Something about “A Poem for Dzhokhar” was seriously pissing people off. But what?
Well, part of it is because as poetry, it isn’t very good. Many people found it deeply annoying that she had the temerity to post bad writing on the Internet. The main criticism, however, seems to be that Palmer was using the Boston bombings to draw attention to herself.
As someone who has been following her career for a while, I would admit that “attention-seeking” does often apply to Palmer—but not in this particular case. Upset and confused by a recent tragedy in her hometown, she decided to express herself. The quality of her writing is debatable, but like much of her art, it was flung out into the world without much forethought. And that’s OK. Not everything has to be a masterpiece. As Palmer tweeted last night, “if poetry is not a way to deal with things, i want out of this fucking joint for good man.”
Over the years I’ve heard many criticisms of Amanda Palmer, some of them more valid than others. But the most popular criticism by far is that she’s a “famewhore,” which I find endlessly frustrating because it’s actually the least valid criticism you could possibly make.
Yes, Amanda Palmer is a self-publicist. She enjoys an intense relationship with her ever-increasing fanbase. But I’ve never understood why people feel the need to penalize her for that. She wanted to be a rock star; she toured and campaigned and performed for years and years to become a rock star; and now she’s a rock star, and she’s enjoying it. Calling her “attention-seeking” is like running up to someone with a 9-to-5 office job and shouting, “You money-seeking bastard!”
And then there’s the term “famewhore.” What a ridiculously, obviously gendered insult. It’s used to describe everyone from Lindsay Lohan to 12-year-old girls who post selfies on Instagram, but the only time you ever hear it applied to a man is when it’s someone like Perez Hilton, or a truly representative reality TV star. If wanting your audience to listen to you makes you a famewhore, then the only musicians in the history of the planet don’t qualify are the kind of Jeff Mangum–style recluses who quietly vanish into the woods after their first hit album.
As soon as you start thinking about “famewhore,” the whole concept becomes transparently ridiculous. How dare a famous woman have an ego, or express herself through bad poetry! She must be doing it for attention, because that’s what famewhores do!
“A Poem for Dzhokhar” may be embarrassing, and it may be bad poetry. But the idea that she wrote it “for attention” rather than to express a real emotional reaction is unlikely. At worst, that assumption plays into some very sexist stereotypes.
When “Accidental Racist” came out, people were quick to make fun of its embarrassing lyrics and misguided choice of topic. Sound familiar? Here’s the thing: While “Accidental Racist” was a hell of a lot more offensive than Amanda Palmer’s incomprehensible blog poetry, you can be sure that no one ever accused Brad Paisley of being an attention whore.
Photo via Flickr/meganwest