Great Moments in Badass Rock History: Amanda Palmer Gets a Letter in the Mail

Abortion? No big deal. An autographed picture of Oasis? OH MY GOD.
Publish date:
December 1, 2011
rape, offensive humor, backing vocals, M

Amanda Palmer is a woman who inspires strong opinions.

She’s definitely a unique personality. She originally rose to fame (?) as one half of the now-defunct Dresden Dolls, a self-described “Brechtian punk cabaret” act that she formed with Brian Viglione in 2000. While the duo was on hiatus in 2007, Palmer recorded a solo album, co-produced with the inimitable Ben Folds, which was released in 2008 under the Twin-Peaks-referencing title “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?”

There’s a lot more to Amanda Palmer the performer and person, like being married to Neil Gaiman and trying to make a go of life as a professional performer without being signed to a record label. You can get all of that on her blog, a source of chronic oversharing that is both wonderful (from an authenticity standpoint) and occasionally terrible (from a whoa-think-before-you-post perspective).

I enjoy Amanda Palmer both as an artist and a public figure because she so doggedly keeps on doing her thing even when it seems half the world is against her; there is something I find admirable about a person who is willing to do crazy shit in front of lots of people, and to survive even when things don’t turn out as planned.

But this post isn’t about me. It’s about “Oasis”.

“Oasis” is the tenth track on Palmer’s debut solo album, following a cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “What's the Use of Wond'rin?" It’s a ridiculously upbeat little pop song about a young woman who is mailing a letter to her favorite band (the titular “Oasis”) in hopes of a reply. Also, she’s been raped at a party and is going to have an abortion.

The first time I heard “Oasis” I had the most sublime feeling of cognitive dissonance, because I listened without any knowledge of what the song was about. It begins,

When I got to the party They gave me a forty And I must've been thirsty 'Cause I drank it so quickly

When I got to the bedroom There was somebody waiting And it isn't my fault That the barbarian raped me

The song goes on to chronicle the protagonist’s trip to get a pregnancy test, and then eventually to get an abortion, all sung to a cheery tune with plenty of Beach-Boys-esque backing vocals, reminding us at each chorus, “I’ve seen better days, but I don’t care / I just sent a letter in the mail.” Soon there followed an extremely literal (and brutally funny) video interpretation:

I loved the song immediately because of the unnamed internal conflict it addressed, and its refusal to treat the experience of abortion with the sadness and gravitas with which reputable women are culturally expected to manage their birth control, and the flippant attitude of the teenaged narrator, which accurately reflected some of the absurdly bizarre priorities we focus on when we’re young. Abortion? No big deal. An autographed picture of Oasis? OH MY GOD.

Unfortunately, the UK did not appreciate Palmer’s skewed sense of humor, and when her record label at the time tried to promote the song as a single there, they met with resistance from virtually every media outlet they approached. The reason? They were concerned the song was ““making light of rape, religion and abortion”. Palmer blogged her rage:

as i was walking over to the bbc the other day and my label rep mentioned that they might not let me play “oasis” on the air, i suggested that i might be allowed to play it if i just slowed it way down and played it in a minor key.

think about it. if they heard the same lyrics against the backdrop of a very sad and lilting piano, maybe with some tear-jerking strings thrown in for good measure, would they take issue?


would this make people happy?

maybe. it would be within a context they could rely on, feel safe in, write off.

“she’s sad! of course she’s sad! she had an abortion! abortion is sad! abortion is personal and emotional! look, she is expressing directly the way she should feel about this! and we don’t joke about things that are personal and emotional and sad!”

wait, what?

don’t we?

i do.

i have to.

I believe that whether or not you or I or anyone else likes the song is not the issue here; the issue is whether individual women get to decide how they experience and describe and relate to events like rape and abortion. Culturally, we are invested in the idea that these ideas must be treated in a certain specific way, lest they fail to be taken seriously.

This is a valid concern. However, it ceases to be a workable approach when it strangles individual women’s ability to handle their own shit in their own way, in whatever manner is real and effective for them.

Joking about abortion may seem unacceptable or even unthinkable in a world in which we are all supposed to agree that abortion is at least unpleasant, if not immoral. Joking about it may seem to give ammunition to pro-life opponents to our freedom of choice. But if choice is about self-determination, then how we tell our stories, and how we relate to our decisions, is about self-determination too.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about my conviction that someday the “real” feminists will come and beat me up for saying things wrong or telling the story incorrectly, and she cracked a joke about the man who had recently assaulted her, a joke she admitted feeling uncomfortable sharing with many other people for fear of their response. “Oasis” is important because it perfectly hits on the way some of us rely on humor and levity to get us through dark times; it creates space where the rapist-jokes and the abortion-hilarity can be shared without the usual shame and fear.

Also, with backing vocals. Everything is better with backing vocals, I think.