Michelle Shocked's Short Rise and Long, Confounding Fall
"She's all heart and no brains."
By LORI SELKE
In the wake of folk singer Michelle Shocked's anti-gay tirade at Yoshi's on Sunday, many of her old fans were stunned and dismayed, in large part because many were convinced she was a lesbian. And not without reason, although Michelle Shocked had been cagey about her sexual identity right from the start. But if she didn't say she wasn't a lesbian, then the possibility remained that she was. Look at her androgynous fashion sense and her Mohawk; didn't they speak louder than words? In 1990 she admitted to the Chicago gay paper Outlines that she'd had at least one woman lover, but insisted "I felt like I was put in a position where I was damned if I did come out and I was damned if I didn't. So for my part, I just leave the question open."
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Shocked began her career in the late 1980s, when the AIDS crisis was in full swing and mainstream America didn't look too kindly on outspoken, radical, same-sex-loving folk. At about the same time, k.d. lang was ducking interview questions and still wearing skirts. Even Melissa Etheridge didn't declare "Yes I Am" until 1993 -- and by then Michelle Shocked was embroiled in another sort of controversy entirely.
Michelle Shocked took her stage name, it was rumored, due to the fact that she had been committed as a teen by her Mormon mother to a mental institution, where she underwent a course of electroshock therapy. In 1986, Shocked became an underground phenomenon thanks to the release of The Texas Campfire Tapes. A man named Pete Lawrence had recorded on his Walkman a set Shocked performed while sitting around a campfire at a folk festival in Texas. The sound was tinny and strange, but the singer's talent was undeniable. Texas Campfire Tapes was released without Shocked's permission, but it helped land her a record deal with Mercury, and in 1988 she released her true debut, Short Sharp Shocked. She appeared in a photo on the cover being arrested by police at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. The single "Anchorage" made it into the Billboard Top 100 and cemented her lesbionic image. The song was widely interpreted as a bittersweet ode to an old girlfriend gone straight and now married and stuck in isolated Alaska.
The singer followed up in 1989 with Captain Swing, where she piled on the horns and traipsed through jump blues, bebop, and other jazzy genres. The album's single, "On the Greener Side," was nominated for a MTV Video Music Award -- though it lost to Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." (Ironically, O'Connor would have her own coming-out-and-taking-it-back moment many years later.) Alternative comic artist Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame did the artwork for the cover of Captain Swing, with a cartoon of Shocked winking at the viewer. Shocked's star was clearly rising. Little did anyone know it had hit its peak. From here on out it was downhill all the way -- a slow 20-year slide.
The first sign of trouble was in 1992. Shocked was preparing to release her third album, Arkansas Traveler, when she announced that she would be appearing on the cover of the album in blackface.
In the course of doing her musical research on the subject, Shocked apparently became fascinated by the minstrelsy tradition. Minstrel music was hugely popular for decades in America, from about 1840 until well into the 20th Century. It was also, of course, viciously and profoundly racist - exemplified by the act of blackface, of white artists darkening their skin and enacting exaggerated stereotypes of black country people.
Shocked apparently wanted to say something about the mongrel roots of American folk music -- how all that pretty bluegrass fiddling wasn't as lily-white as it had been portrayed over the years. She told the Chicago Tribune, "The way I'm trying to tell the story is that this music was as much a black invention as a white one, but that the black part of the history has been written out." She wanted black and white musicians playing together. She wanted to acknowledge the hidden history of beloved songs such as "Cotton-Eyed Joe." She wanted to bring it all into the open, in a provocative and cheeky manner. Thus, blackface.
To this day, there is dispute over whether her announcement was just a publicity stunt or whether it was sincere. It didn't help that Shocked's own statements on the subject were incoherent to say the least -- and not for the last time when it came to Shocked's choices both artistic and personal.
The final cover art for Arkansas Traveler situated Michelle Shocked, sans blackface, holding a hobo bag and soaking her feet in a wash basin outside a rickety wooden shack. But the damage had been done. Whether it was because of the blackface discussion or, simply, the overly quaint sound of the tunes themselves, Arkansas Traveler tanked.
In 1993 Shocked started announcing from onstage that her label was in breach of contract because it refused to let her record an album of gospel tunes. She eventually sued Mercury and the label settled by releasing her while giving her control over her old catalog. For a long time, that was the last time anyone heard of Michelle Shocked.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, Michelle Shocked joined an evangelical church -- one with a predominantly black congregation. She told Canadian Christianity that it was her pursuit of gospel music that led her through its doors: "I came for the singing and stayed for the song." She became born again and joined the church choir. And meanwhile, she kept touring and releasing self-published albums to little fanfare -- including one titled "Don't Ask Don't Tell."
And she began discussing her spiritual views onstage.
Believe it or not, compared to some evangelical Christians, Michelle Shocked maintains a nuanced view on the issue of homosexuality. Homosexual activity is a sin, but we are all sinners, in one way or another, in her eyes. And God tells us to love each other anyway. "I judge not," she stated in an apology issued three days after her show at Yoshi's. She seems to be aware of the fact that her stance alienates -- or, to use one of her favorite words, "confounds" -- both gays and lesbians and more doctrinaire Christians.
But despite speculation that the rant at Yoshi's was a publicity stunt of some sort, she shows no real sign of courting evangelical music fans. She maintains that she tries to speak to both sides. "I know the fear many in the evangelical community feel about homosexual marriage, as I understand the fear many in the gay community feel toward the self-appointed faithful," she wrote. "I have and will continue speaking to both."
That's at least her version of what she was trying to say when she spoke the phrase "God hates fags" onstage March 17. In return, the audience walked out and Yoshi's cut off her show.
"I don't always express myself as clearly as I should," Shocked's apology said with unintentional understatement. The singer seems honestly bewildered and hurt -- if not entirely surprised -- at being misunderstood as a homophobe after all these years. But her rambling post-concert statement underscores something important about Shocked. To be blunt, she's all heart and no brains. She has big ideas about musical tradition and activism and God -- and nearly zero ability to put them forth in anything resembling a coherent manner. In music, she can be oblique, use metaphor and allusion, let the emotional color of the notes speak for her. When she tries to speak for herself, however, the results can shut down a show. Or a career.