Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For Evelyn Evelyn, Life is a Cabaret

Cabaret rocker Amanda Palmer and accordianist Jason Webley have teamed up to produce a forthcoming album of oddball songs by "Evelyn Evelyn", a musical act featuring conjoined twin sisters and former circus performers Eva and Lynn Neville who were "discovered" by Palmer and Webley. The twins don't appear much in public, so it is said, but their songs, featuring musings from many angles on the nature of duality in the universe, would be suitable for the old Dr. Demento radio show.

Perhaps predictably, the twins -- more accurately, their producers -- have their detractors. In particular, Disabled Feminists airs a thoughtful protest that, paraphrasing, Evelyn Evelyn is part of a tired, stereotype-laden treatment of Persons With Disabilities (PWD) by the Abled, as it treats them as freakish, and is therefore objectionable on the face of it. Less admirably, Disabled Feminists goes on to warn prospective commenters against posting any counterarguments on its site that would be "derailing" its apparently unimpeachable criticism of the project.

So, I'll do it here. I would respond: Palmer's and Webley's art lies squarely within the cabaret tradition and is entirely appropriate in that context.

Cabaret as a genre provides a safe space for exploring touchy, edgy, even taboo subjects by treating them humorously, satirically, or entertainingly, for the sake of illuminating the humanity at their core. Like gossip, cabaret art is, at least in part, a communal conversation to discuss essential truths and morals, including where the boundaries are.

Consider the satirical show-within-a-show at the Kit-Kat Klub in the movie Cabaret. The stage show and its songs depict poverty, hunger, greed, promiscuity, bisexuality, antiSemitism, Naziism, etc. We gasp when the "bride" is revealed to be an ape, and then Jewish. Is that depiction in the 1970's movie unacceptable on the face of it, due to its vile antiSemitism -- i.e. should the piece never have been written, performed, and filmed at all -- or does it serve an illuminating purpose by laying bare the antiSemitism of 1930's Germany (and elsewhere, and elsewhen) through satirical mockery?

Consider the subjects of Amanda Palmer's songs "Mandy Goes to Med School", "Missed Me", and "Oasis", to name just a few. "Oasis" alone treats alcohol abuse, date rape, teen pregnancy, abortion, manipulation, betrayal, and denial (all in under two minutes). Those are hardly the only examples of difficult subjects in her repertoire. When in "Guitar Hero" the narrator says "Tie them up and feed them the sand -- ha! Nigga!", is her use of the n-word variant vile and unacceptable on the face of it -- i.e. should the song have never been written and performed -- or does it serve a greater satirical purpose by illuminating the vulgar slang used, by videogamers and soldiers alike, to dehumanize one's virtual and real enemies?

The critics are welcome to say, they don't like this or that or that something is bad or wrong. That's part of the conversation. And granted, the original conception of Evelyn Evelyn seemed more screwball than purposeful or satirical, though the more recently published Evelyn Evelyn background story can be seen as a kind of a text-based cabaret number. My point is, if you're the kind of person who sees Tom Lehrer's "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" as a political statement against animal rights, you're unlikely to find much of value in Palmer's and Webley's songs -- or indeed, in the entire cabaret tradition.


  1. Thank you. I'm amazed by how many EE detractors, while claiming to be Palmer/Webley fans just don't get this aspect of their music performance. Amanda Palmer alone has her tongue permanently stuck in her cheek.

  2. Thanks for posting this! I'm writing a review of the album for a publication, and have been clicking around on links all night trying to get a sense of the debate. I've never understood why so many people believe the mere mention of a touchy subject=instant approval of said subject. In that case, I think it's time we tear down all those pesky Holocaust museums.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I don't know your level of familiarity with Ms. Palmer's cabaret art, but your dark-on-wry last sentence ("pesky"?) brings her Dresden Dolls song "Mrs. O" to mind.



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