At first glance, the lyrics to Amanda Palmer’s “Judy Blume” seem like those of a standard love ballad: “You were in bed with me, safe, before anyone else/ You opened beside me and held me when I needed help.” It’s not until more than two minutes into the song, when Palmer finally says the beloved YA author’s name, that it becomes clear that she has not been addressing a lover but a literary giant, going on to name-check characters from Blume’s books, including Forever and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
On Monday, Palmer released her new music video for “Judy Blume,” which she created in honor of Blume’s 80th birthday celebration at Symphony Space earlier this month. Palmer has also penned an essay for the Huffington Post about the significance of Blume’s work in her life and career. Slate spoke to the singer-songwriter by phone about why it took so long for her to recognize Blume as a creative influence, how the new video finally came together, and why we still need books like Tiger Eyes in 2018.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Marissa Martinelli: You’ve been performing this song, “Judy Blume,” for quite some time, but you just got around to making the video for it this year. How did that happen?
Amanda Palmer: I wrote the song around seven years ago. It’s not the sort of song that fits well on an album, and I wasn’t working on an album at the time anyway, so I just sort of tucked it in the shoebox with the weird, random songs that didn’t fit anywhere. Then, when I started my Patreon about three years ago, I found myself thinking that it was a really perfect song for a music video.
The problem with being a musician nowadays is there’s very little point to spending a lot of money to make a video for music that you can’t sell anyway, because we all know generally people aren’t buying a ton of music. The music video, you know, used to be the very expensive advertisement for the very expensive music. The wonderful thing about Patreon is you can finally make music videos that will never make any money. I have this magical budget for ideas that are completely commercially nonviable, including something weird like this, which is awesome.
Symphony Space got in touch with both me and Neil and invited us to [Judy Blumesday], and we were very sad that we couldn’t come because we’d be in South Africa, where we are now. They asked us to record little birthday greetings and I thought, oh man, if there was ever a time to kick my own ass into making a Judy Blume video, it’s right now.
So how did the video finally come together?
I was in New Orleans with my friend Jason Webley, with whom I have collaborated a lot, when I got the call. He and I had set aside a couple of days to work on some songwriting, and I turned to him and I said, “I only have a week to put this thing together before I leave for South Africa, but do you wanna help me make a video for Judy Blume? All we need is a bunch of people and a room and some books.”
Jason, who’s never directed a video before, said yes. Within 24 hours we had roped in all of ours friends in New Orleans, someone had volunteered their house, people volunteered their kids, I went out to social media and in three days we had a cast and crew of 70 people, because the internet is amazing and New Orleans is also a really special city that way. Their specialty is putting together an event.
What about all the books in the video, where did those come from?
If I’d been at home, I would have brought my own personal collection of Judy Blume books—I have a ton—but we went to pretty much every used bookstore in New Orleans and bought out their allotment of Judy Blume books. Plus, some librarians helped us out. So you’re looking at the sum total of all used Judy Blume books in the greater New Orleans area.
How many were there?
I think there were like 60. Every actor and volunteer got to take a book away with them. We’ve literally spread the gospel of Judy Blume further than we ever expected.
What has the response to the song been like over the years? Do you get a lot of feedback from other Judy Blume fans?
Well, the great thing about playing this song live is that the subject doesn’t reveal itself until well into the song when I say her name. Then there’s this moment where everyone in the audience, if they’re American, wildly applauds because they didn’t see it coming.
But when I play that song in Europe, you know, to a bunch of French people or Germans, they don’t get the joke, because they don’t know Judy Blume or they don’t know Judy Blume in quite the same way that my generation of American feminist females know Judy Blume. She was so much a part of growing up that you forget how uniquely important and challenging and influential she was because she was just there, her books were just there on your shelf and there in the library, and you took it for granted.
It is pretty amazing to look back and think “Oh wait, there weren’t a lot of books like that. It was her.” I find myself thinking back about the other books I was reading when I was 10, 11, 12 years old and they weren’t like that. I mean there were really wonderful books, but they weren’t dealing with the weird scary insecure stuff that Judy Blume’s books were dealing with, and it was so critical to have a voice like that in your ear telling you that you weren’t weird.
Can you remember the first Judy Blume book you ever read?
I’m almost positive that it was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Superfudge and Freckle Juice also probably came earlier, because they were more age-appropriate, but then, you know, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, Just As Long As We’re Together, and Tiger Eyes, which I read and reread and reread and reread.
What kept bringing you back to Tiger Eyes?
Something about the honesty of the emotion. I was a goth and even when I was 12 or 13 I was really drawn to honest tragedy. I really wanted to be allowed to see inside the heads of other people experiencing suffering. Tiger Eyes is about a girl whose father was shot and killed in a gas-station holdup—she’s at the funeral on page 1! Then it’s an entire book about grief and moving and vulnerability and poverty. Her mother has to move in with her aunt and uncle because they have no money. This story just felt so real. I couldn’t remember another book that felt so relatable, because none of this was being done for dramatic effect. It was just Judy Blume really trying to get inside the head of this 15-year-old girl and explain how she was feeling. That kind of writing moved me the most deeply.
In your essay for HuffPost, you write that you were well into your 30s before you realized that Judy Blume had been such a major creative influence on you. What prompted that revelation?
It was gradual. When you’re 25 and people are asking you about your influences, your brain doesn’t go there. Your brain just assumes that you’re being asked about your record collection, until one day you realize that you’re caught in this ridiculous musical bubble and that your influences as a musician, as a person, as a writer, as a woman, as a feminist, as a lover, as an everything are completely cross-collateralized with the cartoons you were watching and the teachers you had and the cereal you ate and everything that found its way into some crevice of your brain and made you the sum total that is you. Some really massive things can go without being noticed because they’re so giant and so up close that you don’t see them. I feel like Judy Blume is one of those.
What’s the difference between how Judy Blume has influenced you as a musician as opposed to how, say, the Cure has influenced you?
I think the Cure probably influenced me more obviously when I was 15, while Judy Blume’s influence was this latent, silent killer waiting to emerge until I was brave enough to stop costuming all of my work in metaphor and say things directly. I was very, very, very, very afraid to say things directly when I was 15, mostly because I was listening to music like the Cure and like Nick Cave and like the Legendary Pink Dots where it was totally forbidden to just come out in a song and say: “I had a really shitty day” and “I got my period.”
That was not the style of music that I was into, and it took me until I was in my early 30s to really peel back all of that metaphor and start experimenting with being really direct and really frank in songs, because it was frightening. But, you know, that was all Judy Blume’s style.
Judy Blume turns 80 years old on Monday. What should we make of her legacy?
I feel like if you’re going to talk about Judy Blume in 2018 and not talk about the influence that she has had on my generation of women—many of whom are coming into their own and finding their voices in a kind of feminist camaraderie for the first time in their lives—you’re missing the main story. Even though Judy Blume wasn’t standing at a giant feminist podium with a vagina on it, pumping her fist, she may have had one of the most profound feminist influences on my generation, just by virtue of the fact that she gave us the truth, and the truth is more powerful than anything.
Meanwhile, her books were being banned and censored and burned left and right, but none of that was on the radar of a seventh-grader in Lexington, Massachusetts, who just assumed that these were your basic library books. And of course, you talk about sex and of course you talk about menstruation, and of course you talk about boobs and of course you talk about semen and all of the weird things that you’re kind of figuring out when you’re 15 years old, but our ability to take that for granted is Judy Blume’s greatest gift to an entire generation of women, because that that shaped our ability to be empowered.
Do you think she’s still having that impact on young women today?
I wish I knew. I don’t know because I’m not 15 anymore, and I don’t know really what’s out there. 15-year-olds today have the internet. We didn’t. If we were going to get information as 15-year- olds, it was either going to be from our friends, from our siblings, from magazines, or from our parents and teachers, who told us nothing. And so a book that was packed with information about menstruation and wet dreams and sex and boobs was a really valuable commodity, because there wasn’t a whole lot of other media floating around to tell us and teach us, whereas 15-year-olds today with an Instagram feed can pretty much pick up anything.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, because when I look at the average teen magazine, it isn’t that much more advanced than I remember it being in 1983. There’s also the horror that feminism and media have backslid and gotten more conservative and less daring and less truthful and more fear-based and more commercial-based and more capitalist-based. I know that the stuff that [Blume] talks about in her books has not gone out of style. I know that she’s updating new additions of her books to take out the jargon that really dates the stuff to 1978, but the feelings don’t change, they’re pretty much the same.
So what you’re saying is, we still need Judy Blume in 2018.
We absolutely still need Judy Blume in 2018.