Michelle Shocked: Amid a Meltdown, Jesus Is Her Crisis PR Consultant
Howard Stern says she's "whacked out of her skull." Friends and fellow musicians insist she's sick. Observers muse it's only art. As the born again, formerly gay singer-songwriter puzzles all with a homophobic rant, will the real Michelle Shocked please stand up?
It was Piers Morgan who landed Michelle Shocked for a broadcast interview (set to take place live tonight at 9 p.m. ET). But it was Howard Stern who might have wanted her most.
“Sounds like someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” Stern said March 25 as he played bizarre excerpts from a recording of the embattled folk-rock singer’s gay-themed meltdown on a San Francisco stage. “She’s a weirdo. Imagine being filled with that much hate? ... Let’s have her on the show. She sounds whacked out of her skull! She’d be a great guest.”
That, in a nutshell, is Shocked’s paradoxical lot at the moment. Shocked so effectively Dixie Chick-ed herself when she delivered a rambling, risible speech about God and gays on March 17 that virtually all her tour dates were canceled within 24 hours. But she can get a booking on a CNN talk show that reaches millions, though there may not be a 150-seat club in the country that would touch her right now.
It's a lesson in how, in the social media age, you no longer need to be a huge star to have your meltdown make national headlines. Shocked's career had never been a model of commercial glory, but she broke through in a sizable enough way with the Short Sharp Shocked album in 1988, accompanied by a sweet ballad, "Anchorage," that was an alt-rock radio hit. She was popular enough to once be invited to give the keynote address at South by Southwest in 1992 -- although its unusual theme, a defense of blackface, left the SXSW audience legendarily puzzled, in a harbinger of things to come. Even given her reputation for sometimes inexplicable quirks, Shocked's smart material, depth of stylistic prowess and emotionally rich politics made her a favorite among singer/songwriter aficionados for a solid quarter-century.
So how did Shocked go from beloved leftist heroine to hated “homophobe” in the span of a few minutes on stage, when she asked the crowd to tweet that she’d said “God hates faggots”… and got her wish? Is she the misunderstood victim of a mob’s rush to judgment, truly anti-gay, or perhaps, as many would suggest, just anti-meds?
Jill Sobule, a fellow singer-songwriter, seems to be leaning toward the latter view. “I know that she’s had mental challenges. And listening to the tape of that evening, more than anything, it strikes me as strangely incoherent and crazy. You’re hoping that it’s some sort of Andy Kaufman performance-art piece, but it isn’t. Still, I save the anger for people that can actually have an effect on other people, like a Rick Santorum or a Focus On Your Own Damn Family. Michelle Shocked fans are old lesbians like me.”
Sobule feels Shocked fans’ pain, anyway. “I have a song called ‘Heroes’ that’s about being disappointed by your heroes. I was such a Dylan fan, but every time I watch ‘Don’t Look Back’ and he’s mean to Donovan, I think, what a big dick. But I mostly feel bad for her. We are such a forgiving people, so when people are saying she’s through -- who knows? If she got the right medication. I’d be certainly open to hearing new Michelle Shocked stuff.”
But Shocked has musician friends who insist -- or hope -- that her meltdown at Yoshi’s in San Francisco was only a momentary lapse in logic. “I've always known her to have poor impulse control, which is usually a good thing for an artist,” says pal Bryson Jones. “But this flies in the face of her usual political and moral positions, so I don't give it much weight as far as representing her truth.”
Whatever the case may be, almost everyone could agree she’s been making it worse with a series of defiant statements and actions ever since she issued an apologetic open letter that might’ve soothed a few nerves. The first thing she did the day after her S.F. debacle was call one of her best friends, Austin-based film producer Elizabeth Neubauer (“Bush’s Brain”), to handle her PR. A little over 48 hours later, both the old friendship and new professional relationship had been put on pause.
“My sister runs PR for a $4 billion corporation,” Neubauer tells The Hollywood Reporter, “and she was my first phone call. Her response was, ‘You’ve got three choices: You can claim she was taken over by aliens, you can claim she got a big bump on her head right before went on stage, or you can come out with an apology that is so unbelievably sincere that it may get 25 percent of her fans back.’ I opted for the last one. I told Michelle, ‘Lay off Twitter for 24 hours and let the statement do its work.’ And she didn’t. She’s tweeting things that I, as one of her best friends, don’t understand, starting with a ‘truth vs. reality’ countdown, and I’m sitting there banging my head, going, ‘I’m pretty smart, and I know you really well, and I don’t get this.’”
"She's mentally ill. That's what they don't tell you about so many of your heroes, the rock stars of yore, their hold on reality is very tenuous." — Bob Lefsetz
A couple hundred patrons at Yoshi’s were pretty sure they got it when Shocked suddenly blurted, “If someone would be so gracious to tweet out, “’Michelle Shocked just said from stage, ‘God hates faggots’,’ would you do it now?” -- a request the stunned crowd inevitably fulfilled. The statement can be understood as bitterly ironic, in a clueless-as-to-impact way. But what Shocked hasn’t bothered to address in the two weeks since the show is some of the equally provocative quotes that led into that. She’d just finished characterizing her fellow churchgoers as being alarmed that a court decision allowing marriage between “ho-mo-sexuals” would lead to pastors having to perform gay weddings at gunpoint, helping bring on biblically prophesied end times. Not only did she never distance herself from those beliefs, but she even prefaced the apocalyptic paranoia by saying, “I really shouldn’t say ‘their’ (vantage point), because it’s mine.”
In the backlash that followed, fellow artists lined up, not with support but chagrin. “F--- Michelle Shocked,” Garbage’s Shirley Manson said onstage in New York not long after the initial news broke. “F--- her!”
Americana singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet tweeted, “What do people expect from Michelle Shocked? She's always been crazy.” And this joke: “Somewhere someone is developing a software to remove Michelle Shocked’s ‘Anchorage’ from their 1989 dorm room cassette mix tapes.”
Fellow folk singer Erin McKeown wrote, “As a fan, mentee & having worked intimately w/ #MichelleShocked, this is no surprise and not the 1st time. There is no excuse for hate. NONE. But I have compassion for another person’s obvious inner pain and self-hate.” (Reached by THR, McKeown declined to elaborate about her encounters with Shocked on the record.)
Comedian Margaret Cho wrote about the betrayal she felt in essays for Huffington Post and Jane.com. “I cried again when I heard that Michelle Shocked hates gays,” she wrote. “I thought I was safe with her. ‘Anchorage’ really got to me, as I took it to be a song about a gay girl and a straight girl who were once in love and then went their own ways… There are girls I dreamed about singing that song to, and now I can’t, and I never will. Of course I am projecting, and maybe that song is not about that, but she still made me feel safe, and now she doesn’t. That is a lot to lose.”
Losing the support of her peers so visibly might’ve made a lesser soul quake, but if anything, Shocked grew cockier as the backlash went global. She negated the effects of a semi-apologetic open letter with scores of sarcastic and defiant tweets, in which she kept a running “truth vs. reality” scorecard that few comprehended. “I regret teaching Michelle how to use Twitter,” wrote Cheryl Renee, who quit as Shocked’s publicist in February due to a rift she declines to go into. “How does Michelle expect people to decode her cryptic way of communicating?”
Maybe it wasn’t meant to be decrypted. In an interview with Spin.com the day after the S.F. concert, in which Shocked rebuffed a sympathetic interviewer’s repeated attempts to have her state plainly what her comments really meant, she at least cleared up some of the reasons for her obfuscation. Namely making it plain that, by refusing to give straight answers, she was taking her cues in crisis PR from no less a figure than Christ.
“Pilate tried putting Him in the hot seat, and He refused to say anything,” Shocked told writer Rob Trucks. Elizabeth Neubauer, her publicist at that moment, says she read that quote and did a mental face-palm. “There’s a difference between following Jesus Christ and deciding you’re going to behave like he behaved at trial,” Neubauer says.
More alarming was how the Spin.com interview wrapped with a moment of apparent paranoia. At her request, the Q&A was being conducted on iPhones via FaceTime, until she told Trucks that she could no longer hear his end of the conversation. “Mysteriously, your FaceTime has just gone silent,” Shocked informed him, “but I'm likely to believe that that's not an accident… I see your lips moving, but I know that they can easily dub in anything that they want.” (Trucks sounded shaken by the interview experience and would not discuss it on the record.)
The suspicion that technology could and would be used against her didn’t end there. Shocked agreed to be interviewed by old friend and progressive talk show host Nicole Sandler, but when the appointed hour arrived, Shocked said she wanted to listen to Sandler ask the questions over the air and she would tweet the answers back. With no one to talk with, Sandler began playing excerpts from the S.F. show, which enraged the singer. Eventually, Shocked tweeted that she would only do the interview if there were no delay -- and called up and counted to 20 seconds before she heard her voice returning over her computer, as if to prove the dialogue could be censored or manipulated in the interim. At the end of the hour, she called in again, briefly, to accuse her old pal of being a traitor. “You are exposed,” she sputtered.
The online radio personality is still trying to make sense of it all. “I feel sorry for her because I don’t think she meant the things she said, but she’s making it worse,” Sandler tells THR. “I tried to give her the opportunity, and instead she says, ‘I’m very busy. I’m creating content on Twitter.’ Seriously? No, you’re showing that there’s something off in your brain on Twitter. It’s hard to sit by and watch this because this woman is unraveling. I really think we’re seeing a complete mental breakdown.”
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