Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Evelyn Evelyn: Trampling on minorities or subtly criticising exploitation?

Amanda Palmer has for a long time been one of my favourite song writers, though she has picked up various criticisms - attention seeking, OTT, inciting or celebrating self-harm (in The Dresden Dolls song, 'Bad Habit', which she has explained as being about biting the skin around and her nails) and such. Oh, she got criticised for wearing a sheer dress with absolutely nothing on it at some awards ceremony or other - but in fairness, the papparazzi begged her to do so again - she'd worn it briefly for the catwalk or something, but had changed into a different dress once inside.

Her solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, I enjoyed very much. The songs aren't greatly linked to each other, and I guess I'd have to own the concept art book to get it or something, but each song has its individual merit. Her latest album, co-produced with Jason Webley has received criticism, particularly on a feminist magazine site, Jezebel.com. 

Evelyn Evelyn is apparently an album by a set of Siamese twins 'discovered by' Amanda and Jason - a facade I can't quite bring myself to endorse. I'm sorry Amanda Palmer; I love you, but I think this is a step too far into your strangeness. Maybe I've sold out on this point to your Jezebel haters, but I felt they had a point. I don't really see the need to dress as Siamese Twins, but then perhaps I'm being too sensitive? Personal taste, I guess.

Another criticism on a blog discusses this campaign, and whilst to some extent I agree with him, and do feel a bit uncomfortable that Amanda hasn't in anyway reversed the general stereotype of being conjoined as a ''condition'', I also have to agree with some of the commenters - I had not realised until I read about it properly that Evelyn Evelyn was a fictitious duo - in fact, I hadn't really heard that they'd been performing. I think at first I treated it as an album title, as much as Who Killed Amanda Palmer. But the 'twins' have a large twitter fan base, and many albums are sold 'regardless of their disability', so perhaps they have been successful ''despite able-ism''? It's really down to personal interpretation, again.

However, I do not agree with the view that the album and its concept is at all trampling on the 'minority' community of Siamese Twins. If anything, it is a chilling, gothic saga (with dark humour in some songs) about exploitation (and it's in no way celebrating it) and estrangement from the 'norm'.

I'll admit I have not listened to all of the three tracks entitled 'The Tragic Events Part...', because I was put off by the start of the first part, and also because they were spoken tracks. The first, detailing their birth, was a bit gorgy and I've not been in the mood to persevere with those three. So I'll go through the other tracks and give the low down of each that I listened to or think is worth mentioning - as an individual piece, not as part of an entire compilation. I'll use the titles of the songs to link you to their lyrics, too. In the context of the album, quite a few songs could be throw-away titles that can be played quite well out of context of the album, on some obscure late night cabaret radio station, with no real offence intended, or easily discerned, at all.

Song 1: Evelyn Evelyn is the introducing song. The girls are discussing their thirst for fame, but also that 'they're watching us anyway'. As much as our parents have told us not to, as well as common courtesy, people do look at disabled people. It might be a fleeting glance before averting the gaze so that they 'are not staring', but only a deluded self-righteous person would argue that they never notice the more severely disabled, any more than they notice the hair colour of 'normal' people. The twins want to run away from being just side-show attractions and to be famous for their own merit. The music is haunting and sad, and has a nostalgic, yet creepy, circus-music style, with an explosion of anger and resentment at the end as the two girls argue, fading back into their own circus background. One person has suggested that the most haunting joke of all out of the entire album is that any sympathetic listener is actually as much of a freak in his own private circus as the twins are, underneath their otherwise sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes even cute song disguises.

Song 2: Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn? is sung and played in that wonderful jaunty Vaudeville genre, with a list of all the men that Evelyn sees. If you just take the song at literal value, the song can apply to any floozy out there - it has no mention of their being Siamese Twins, but then, that's the dark joke of the song. The speed and fluidity of the list, alternated sentences between Amanda and Jason is delightful and you can't help but want to jaunt along to the rhythm. As a single song of its own, it's a light-hearted parody of those golden days of Saloon music, with dancer performers and a cabaret style dress.

Song 3: Chicken Man's lyrics are really not that complicated. For me, it's the music that made the song enjoyable. As a piece of music, I thought it was nicely done. It's 'circus' style, with an essence of advertisement and pre-performance act of the other stage members of a circus before the Chicken Man is to perform or do whatever he's supposed to do at a circus.

Song 4: Sandy Fishnets. As with The Dresden Dolls song, 'Sex Changes', the image the title alone created in my head was not what the song turned out to be about. 'Sex Changes' is not about the operation of having one, but of how having sex can change a person's life, feelings and outlook. Sandy Fishnets is ultimately a sad song. I hadn't really listened to it properly before today, but it clicked in my head. Sandy Fishnets was a person - a suicide? It's as though the twins/narrators don't quite realise what's going on - they ask what she's 'catching' and 'whether she'll be sore', once they've found her 'washed up on the shore'. This song is about the sad exploitation of a girl - beloved by her friends, to whom she told stories of adventures and pirates - but was, by implication, a prostitute, having 'a queue of uncles' and being 'always tired'. To make things worse, Sandy was not a fully grown woman - when she was all grown up, the 'lines of uncles dwindled', and she was replaced by 'Melissa May', and forced to share a bed with the twins. The tune and style of the song is haunting and chilling, the full meaning always implied, but never explicit; the facts where there, but not understood by the childlike viewpoint of the twins, who were ''discovered by Amander and Jason at 19''. If they were the same age as Sandy, they were 13 when she was sent away by 'Mrs Bulgar'.

Song 5: Elephant Elephant is, if taken in context of the album, probably a parody about the only Siamese elephants we know about (in captivity). Taken out of context, it's a childish celebration and delight at having an elephant as a pet, whilst 'other kids have horses, other kids have frogs' and the like. Again, out of context, the song is a jaunty, fun tune that could quite easily be on a strange radio station.

Song 6: You Only Want Me 'Cause You Want My Sister can, on the one hand, be listened to and sympathised by all women out there. Even if it's not a sister you've been used to get close to, and it was a best friend, the message is still there:

You pulled up at the house at half past seven,
In your ‘69 Impala, shook hands with my father.
And we stopped off at the drug store by the drive-in,
For some Trojans and a six-pack,
Still your eyes kept wandering back to her,
It’s always her. 

The song is country-song styled, with a seemingly normal theme, but with the twist - she is not just a twin, she is attached to her twin. Perhaps it is here, chiefly, that the song-writers can be accused of failing to be properly transgressive. But one could also point out the line 'this is not a two-for-one deal', and the fact that it doesn't have to be Siamese twins that are victim to the whole ''twin sex'' fantasy, which could just as easily result in an assumption that the persuit of one twin will automatically result in a threesome.
However it is only the odd line that reminds you of their conjoined status, subtly, whilst the rest is just that of a "normal" set of sisters/twins' situation, with one wondering how to test the lovers' purity of love, and realising that the only way was to kill and bury the sister, no matter how much she might miss her. The line comparing the sister to herself, with hair the same and eyes just as blue, but with "one heart beating for" him under all of that is the only subtle reminder to the listener of the album that it is a set of Siamese twins. Taken out of context and played on a random radio station, lyrically it could be as much of a sister-likeness ballad as a non-Amanda Palmer song.

The other two songs, My Space and Love Will Tear Us Apart are also singular style songs - the former is almost power-ballad, whilst the latter is a ukulele-based slow song, both with an air of sadness.

Overall, I like the album, even if I sometimes have some reservations for the general live performance format, or I'm not overly taken by the Tragic Events trilogy tracks, though it could be I just need a good listen to them all the way through. I find I enjoy the songs for their individual messages rather than the album entirely as a concept - to me, I consider it a similar compilation format to that of her other solo work, with the only connecting tracks being the Tragic Events saga.

I can't help but wish that Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione would get back together and reform The Dresden Dolls, for it was that music that made me fall in love with her music in the first place, but it would seem to be a vain hope. Not that they'd regroup and play anywhere conveniently local to me anyway!

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