Michelle Shocked's Short Rise and Long, Confounding Fall

Categories: Guest Opinion

Michelle_Shocked-BW.jpg
Michelle Shocked
"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."

See also:
* Michelle Shocked Concerts Canceled Nationwide After Anti-Gay Tirade in SF
* Here Are the Best Michelle Shocked Anti-Gay Tweets
* Michelle Shocked's Wikipedia Page Was Briefly Updated to Call Her a "Bigot"

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.




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21 comments
warrenlain
warrenlain

I heard the audio and was not convinced she meant "God hates fags"... that tweet was taken out of context.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYm4teuAcm0

The lady in the audience who asked her to show her "true colors" put the rest of the crowd in defensive mode, indicating with her emotion how much she mistrusted Michelle. The atmosphere immediately changed when her rant started with "reality" and suddenly became perceived as hate and homophobia. Michelle's response off the mic was understandably received then in terms of a black-and-white interpretation of the issue. The "nuance" this article writer admits Michelle has in her view on the issue was lost. What she said off the mic was anger-fueled... which made it all worse. But it was actually directed at Christians who hide their view of "inconvenient truth" and don't own up to it, wrestle with it, process it. There are moderate Christians who choose not to speak on the issue but promote love... yes, they exist... and all the while they never grapple with the heart of the issue, avoiding it simply to appease either God (Michelle's "hiding behind the Cross" comment) or to placate the surrounding culture. The thing is... she wasn't directing it at homosexuals or people who sympathize with the LGBTQ movement at all. I believe she meant that she was really just sick and tired of people denying what they truly think and feel on both ends of the debate, but especially on the Christian side who seem to have a painfully shallow intellectual grasp on the issue. Immediately misinterpreted, she was deemed a homophobe by the audience, which to me is confusing... her words were twisted in my understanding. In the context of her life, which is an interesting one that went from Mormon to bi-sexual to "born again" and now to a more "apocalyptic" born-again, those words meant something very different to me.

Hermesacat
Hermesacat

I recall reading an interview years ago where Michelle Shocked explained she became interested the minstrel tradition after meeting a man very knowledgeable about it, a musicologist, I think. She said she fell in love with this man & entered into a relationship with him. At the time, she said something along the lines of she hadn't expected to find herself falling in love with a man, suggesting it came as a surprise. So, along with the lesbian affair she admitted to, she's also admitted to at least one heterosexual relationship. It's too bad she converted to a brand of religion that considers gayness sinful.

Cottonwood
Cottonwood

Seems like mental health issues.

visitor
visitor

Note to Lori Selke:

I’ve roughly followed Michelle Shocked’s career from the start and was so dumbfounded by her rant that I’ve been scouring the internet ever since, trying to get any shred of information that might make some sense of it. The story has so many elements that I’m completely fascinated.

Fortunately I came across your story here, which is without a doubt the best thing I’ve read so far. Lori Selke, you’re a good writer and a clear thinker. Thanks for contributing something for us folks trolling through all the tidbits, disinformation, ignorant commentary and general freak show of cyberspace for something that’s sober, mature and enlightening. Good for you.

rhondafeatherston
rhondafeatherston

Yeah Maybe she came from a screwed up childhood,  yes maybe she is descending into some of the Racism and Homophobia she was taught growing up Mormon.  But when you are a public entity, (and apparently are one which has courted and flirted with the LGBT Community just for sales purposes), You are held to a higher standard for what comes out of your mouth and what consequences it will have.  I think she is a spoiled brat who uses whatever means she needs to  and plays to whatever audience that will make her money. 

elvagotrago
elvagotrago

If you consider the chaos and trauma she experienced growing up, it's really not a stretch to see why she turned to pentacostalism.  If you consider that she has diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, her most recent behavior is a textbook example of a paranoid episode.  If you estimate the number of times emotional young women made passes at her under the impression she was lesbian, her weariness with gender politics is completely understandable.  She deserves out pity not our scorn.

marcos
marcos

She's from east Texas, I mean seriously.

shockedbyshocked
shockedbyshocked

The sad truth of the matter is that I believe Michelle has lost touch with reality. After reading an article about her past troubles with mental illness and a trip to the psychiatric ward, it seems to me that Michelle has once again gone into a state of great paranoia and illusions. I hope she has people in her life that will help her and show her the compassion she didn't show the gay community.

pete224
pete224

I am the person mentioned in the above article as the person who recorded the Texas Campfire Tapes but I have to correct your mistaken view that the album "was released without Shocked's permission"  This is a gross untruth and distortion of reality put around in recent years by Michelle herself for whatever reason. 

There are many things I could say, from first hand experience especially about her re-writing the history around her Cooking Vinyl years, the supposed 'bootleg' we were meant to have released "without her knowledge" - an untruth that permeated across Wikipedia, Amazon and beyond to this day. The 'Texas Campfire Tapes' was an album release that she endorsed at the time and fully supported by moving over to the UK to and performing numerous gigs, TV and Radio appearances all over Europe where she actively endorsed and promoted it.

Anyone who was involved her her in any way at the time will know that it is impossible to believe that it was released without her permission.

shockedbyshocked
shockedbyshocked

I don't fall for the "all heart" statement either. If she was all heart she would have said something along the lines that she is battling with the acceptance of gays and her religion. People might have said WTF, but they probably wouldn't have walked out. In stead she shared a message of hate (literally using the word!). You can't have a heart and spread untrue statements about God hating fags when our gay youth is in such a struggle right now. More and more young gays are committing suicide yearly. They're killing themselves because people like Michelle tell them God hates them and they're unlovable. Sorry, I don't believe she has a heart. She needs to join Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and go look for a heart, maybe a brain too.

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

Not sure I buy the premise that someone who joined an Evangelical hate group is "all heart."

nbctjon
nbctjon

@elvagotrago Ever been to a Shawn Colvin concert? I have seen dozens of women make passes at Shawn believing that she is gay, I've never seen her freak out about it, just a simple" you ladies know I'm not gay don't you?"

mightyrosebud
mightyrosebud

If you estimate the number of times emotional young women made passes at her under the impression she was lesbian, her weariness with gender politics is completely understandable."  - You have to be joking. I don't care if you're gay, straight, bi, poly, what have you... people will make passes. Be a grown up; either decline or accept the advance and move on. Also, I don't know how anyone could spend and carve out a career courting the gay demo, blurring gender lines and refusing to come out one way or the other and then complain when same gender fans gush or make passes. Can't have it both ways. 

selk
selk

@pete224 Hi Pete,


I accept the correction. -- Lori

goldbugs
goldbugs

@selk @pete224 Your article still says " Texas Campfire Tapes was released without Shocked's permission"

pete224
pete224

@goldbugs @selk @pete224 Thanks Lori. But the article is still uncorrected. It would be great if you could change it. This is an example of how disinformation spreads, especially at a time like this when many people are accessing certain news stories. Many thanks. Pete x

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