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Michelle Shocked: ‘Hatemonger’ Or Misunderstood Provocateur?

Stop The Presses!

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Michelle Shocked

The most vilified musician of the month, Michelle Shocked, has emerged from her silence to tweet a couple of declarations that may or may not console anyone looking for an explanation of her alleged anti-gay tirade at a disastrous San Francisco show Sunday night.

First: "I'm abiding, letting everyone's true colors show before I undertake a personal response to each & every tweet." Which is a novel and relaxed twist on crisis management, when seemingly your entire fan base is turning against you, but Shocked has certainly always done things her way.

But, more to the point amid all the abiding, there was this statement of where Shocked really stands on religious and social issues: "Am neither against a woman's right to choose nor gay marriage. Am a fundamentalist tho" (sic).

Needless to say, this intriguing but not altogether clear declaration did not cause all the venues that'd canceled her gigs in the preceding 48 hours to suddenly rush to re-book her.

You've heard of of those rare flop Broadway shows that open and close the same night? That seems to be the status of the folk-rock singer's current tour, which was in its opening hours on Sunday night when Shocked launched into a rambling speech about homosexuality and the Bible that led most of the audience to walk out and the venue operator to literally pull the plug. The firestorm grew so quickly that, less than 24 hours after the debacle, nearly every club that had her booked in the coming weeks had canceled her appearance.

The road trek is beyond salvaging. But how about the rest of her career?

Shocked has certainly been more into abiding than doing explanatory interviews. She did use her Twitter account to promise her first post-fracas chat to progressive talk show host Nicole Sandler, this coming Thursday morning. When Yahoo! publicly and privately offered her a platform to explain what really went down, however, she mocked the request: "Well thank God, a hack for hire at Yahoo News is here to save the day," she tweeted. (We took that as a no.)

Club bookers weren't having any better luck getting Shocked to offer her side of the story, and so had to rely on the first-hand accounts from Yoshi's and its attendees, which were almost uniformly damning. Left with the possibility that Shocked might be planning to use the entire tour as a platform for what many San Francisco concertgoers had characterized as hate speech, without any contrary assurances from the MIA artist, venues across the country pulled the plug, one after another, in short order Monday.

McCabe's in L.A. was one of the last to officially un-book Shocked, after concert manager Lincoln Myerson arrived back in town after flying back from South by Southwest. At a stop along the way, he'd opened his phone to hundreds of emails and phone messages demanding that the show not go on.

"We are always an advocate for the artist. That's why I held out this long," Myerson said sadly, by phone from the airport. "As a friend, I would like to hear whatever she has to say. But I don't want to charge an admission price for that"—meaning, the kind of contentious talk that drove nearly an entire audience out of a club the night before. He didn't want to be seen as caving in to all the calls and even threats that had been coming in from gay rights supporters all day, but neither did he want to provide a platform if Shocked planned to make anti-gay sermons the centerpiece of her entire tour. After spending the day waiting in vain to hear something, anything, from Shocked herself, he reluctantly issued the cancel order and, like bookers around the country, was looking at the painful process of refunding money for a sold-out show.

Tuesday, one of the two remaining venues that hadn't canceled her Monday, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, went ahead and axed her, which left only one date left on the tour. That show was in Madison, Wisconsin, but it doesn't mean she still has friends there; Billboard reported that a man answering the phone there said, "I won't know a damn thing until the boss comes back in eight days."

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Shocked

The Telluride cancellation capped a bizarre 48-hour frame in which Shocked, a long-time role model for musicians leaning to the left, had suddenly become a pariah among progressives and was being embraced as a newfound hero by some on the far right. Those anti-gay-marriage conservatives who delighted in the tale of her free speech being violated might welcome her less, though, when they hear that she still describes herself as an anarchist and was proudly arrested at a recent Occupy protest.

Which, if this goes on, could leave Shocked as an artist without a country.

So: did she really mean to leave the audience believing that she believes overturning California's Proposition 8, which would legitimize gay marriage, would lead to the end times prophesied in the Bible? Why was she quoting Old Testament scriptures about homosexuality being an abomination before God? And when a good number of audience members reported that she told them "you all can go on Twitter and say that Michelle Shocked said God hates f---s," invoking the favorite hate slogan of the Westboro Baptist Church, how did an artist with a significant gay and lesbian fan base expect that to go over in San Francisco?

Yahoo! previously spoke with some audience members who contended that there was no way to take her remarks as anything other than sincere—which instantly turned them into former fans. A couple of attendees have said that the "God hates f--s" remark might have been intended ironically, as an expression of exasperation with how her remarks were being received, but everything else she said about gay marriage and the end times was inescapably in earnest.

But we have also spoken with one audience member who thinks Shocked's real intentions, whatever they might have been, got lost amid the shouting. He knows his is very much a minority opinion among those who were at the club Sunday night, but he saw a situation that turned uglier faster and more needlessly than it needed to.

"I don't know why I'm going to bat for a woman I don't know," says Colin Epstein. "And if it turns out her church has convinced her that gays need fixing, I'll be damned sad. But I hate lynch mobs of any sort. And everything I've previously seen or heard from her always seemed to be coming from a caring soul, even if its fervor could seem a bit much."

Here is Epstein's take, excerpted: "It's hard to describe what went down at Yoshi's because it was so odd and disjointed. I think some of the statements in [Yahoo's previous] story about Ms. Shocked having emotional issues last night may not be far off." At the beginning of the night, "Shocked's fear, whether bad stage fright or something else, seemed quite genuine. The initial attempt to kickstart the show via Twitter didn't come off, and the choice we were offered, 'truth or reality,' was extremely puzzling. I was definitely worried about how the evening was going to go." But once the music began in earnest, he, like everyone else queried, thought her first set turned out to be terrific.

It's when things began to go horribly right after intermission that he saw something different than much of the rest of the crowd did. Shocked's faith is "something that clearly means a lot to her, and she was trying to introduce her Christianity into the show. I've seen her do this before with no problem. But... she seemed disjointed, and unsure of where things were going. One thing I haven't seen reported is when Shocked said that she was tired of 'Christians that hide their hypocrisy behind a cross.' It was that statement that led me to believe the some of her others were ironic. But while I've read plenty today on her attitude towards gays, this criticism of certain Christians seems to have slipped by. She said some things that didn't seem connected, and even didn't make sense, including something like 'when Prop 8. passes and priests are forced at gunpoint to marry gays.' Since Prop. 8 bans gay marriage, that thought hardly holds together." But, Epstein says, "I took this statement as ironically mocking the extremist stances some liberals expect from Christians. Obviously, though, that went over like a sack of bricks, and the tone got ugly." Before long, "she said something about 'now y'all can tweet that Michelle Shocked said God hates f--s,' but I heard that as resignation to how things were being misread, as opposed to an actual boast or opinion, as it's been reported elsewhere. At some point Shocked broke into a long speech in Spanish, which I don't speak. So for all I know, that could have been full of vitriol worthy of the Westboro Baptist nutcases."

By now, in Epstein's view, reconciliation between audience and performer was impossible. "As she tried to move past this hole she'd dug for herself and start into a song, certain members of the crowd wouldn't let her. They were obnoxiously heckling her, and shouting out all sorts of stuff about homophobia and what a terrible person she was. I thought their mood and tone was far uglier and more judgmental than anything I'd heard from the stage." His companion and he "were both looking around, watching people leave in a huff while flipping Shocked the bird... When my friend politely asked a woman heckler to either stop it or quietly leave, the woman tried to pick a physical fight with my friend and insulted her. It really didn't seem like the voices of compassion and tolerance were at work there. Just knee-jerk self-righteousness giving way to a mob mentality. We were both upset with Yoshi's management when they cut the lights and sound on Shocked in mid-song."

Epstein's conclusion? "I understand that gay rights are a huge deal in San Francisco, and as far as I'm concerned they should be a huge deal everywhere. But off-kilter, somewhat random comments of an apparently troubled woman don't make a rant. There wasn't near enough focus, momentum, or cohesion for Shocked's statements to qualify as a rant. Should Shocked have perhaps slowed things down and explained herself more clearly? Yes, she damn well should have. But I'm not sure she could at that point, between her agitation and the crowd's ugly mood, which seemed largely driven by an initial few, but very vocal, over-reactions. I can't pretend to understand everything that happened that night. But I was willing to cut a woman some slack who had talked of nothing but compassion and helping the less fortunate since I first saw her play 25 years ago."

Shocked's most recent album

So was Shocked merely throwing out some cliched attitudes that some other Christians have as the set-up for explaining why she doesn't really believe them? You may remember the scene in the '70s movie Lenny where Dustin Hoffman, as Lenny Bruce, confronts a black man in the audience with the N-word and almost seems to trigger a fight before it turns out he's (whew) really leading into a riff on the power of language. Maybe Shocked is a Lenny Bruce figure who, in her disjointed fashion, just never got the chance to turn the corner on her pro-tolerance monologue. That would make the mass demonization she's facing from her fan base this week a thing of personal tragedy.

But plenty of the people who walked out believe the "ironic" defense is malarkey. Casey Caston was willing to give Shocked the benefit of the doubt on the "God hates f--s" remark, tweeting, "That one line... reminded me of 'shock humor'—hyperbole to be outrageous. But yes, it failed HARD and felt callous. The rest of her rant was still confusing, offensive... The fearing end times seemed very real... BF and I kissed in protest and walked out."

Rashomon, anyone?

Clearly homosexuality is an issue Shocked has struggled with since she started attending a black Pentecostal church in the 1990s—first, solely for the gospel music, before becoming "born again" caused her to stay for the preaching.

In 2011, Shocked was reported to have said, "Who drafted me as a gay icon? You are looking at the world’s greatest homophobe. Ask God what He thinks"—when asked her "position on homosexuality" at a Christian festival that was billing itself as gay-friendly and geared toward social progressives. After shutting off her mike, according to Religion Dispatches, Shocked added, "There is always someone who wants to catch me."

Shocked in the late '80s

Shocked once said "I've been avoiding interviews with gay press—I'm going to kill my publicist," to a gay periodical, the Dallas Voice, that was mistakenly granted an audience with her. Some of her reticence may stem from the ongoing belief among many that Shocked identified herself as a lesbian or bisexual early in her career, which she has denied, although an interview did surface from 1990 where Shocked said she had recently slept with a woman for the first time. Now on her second long-term (straight) marriage, the singer has sometimes seemed defensive on the issue out of a desire to stop having her sexual orientation misidentified. But when the Voice asked if she'd consider being cited as "an honorary lesbian," she said, "I'd be honored."

But theology clearly enters into it, too. Shocked told the Voice in 2008 that she'd struggled to reconcile her accepting views of homosexuality with her pastor's biblical convictions. "At the time I wasn’t satisfied with the way he parsed it," she said then. "He said he preaches the word of God—not his word, the word of God. And the word of God says that homosexuality is a sin. So I went away, and I made a decision. I could be turned off—driven away once again by narrow-minded bigots from the one hope that I have in my life for salvation. Or I could take what’s good—what I can use—and leave the rest. And that was a decision I made... There are some inconvenient truths now that I'm a born again, sanctified, saved-in-the-blood Christian. So much of what’s said and done in the name of that Christianity is appalling. According to my Bible, which I didn’t write, homosexuality is immoral. But homosexuality is no more or less a sin than fornication. And I’m a fornicator with a capital F."

At the San Francisco show, Shocked told attendees that she'd just driven up from a prayer meeting in L.A. where the talk centered around how legalizing gay marriage would force pastors to perform homosexual weddings with a gun to their heads, thus hastening the end times. So... did Shocked mean to get around to telling the audience there that she disagreed with the consensus of her church group? Or that they'd convinced her to go preach the truth in the heart of the gay community?

There will be some truth, and possibly spin, when the singer finally gets around to explaining herself. But for now, at least, only her church ladies know for sure.

Shocked's state of mind? Cocky, from the evidence of her Twitter posts, where she boasts of taking down names in anticipation of future vindication.

But things were different after the Yoshi's show. "When I approached Shocked after the show," says Epstein, "she just hugged this perfect stranger and sobbed. That didn't strike me as a woman who'd come with a clear directive to preach hate. She just seemed lost and sad and vulnerable."

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