Michelle Shocked: Amid a Meltdown, Jesus Is Her Crisis PR Consultant
Sandler said that even before the latest development, which found Shocked showing up at a canceled gig. She’d threatened to do a “speaking appearance” outside a darkened club in Santa Monica but changed plans on that one at the last minute and sang gospel for homeless people at a rescue mission in downtown L.A. instead. But Saturday, she made good on her vow to drive up to Moe’s in Santa Cruz. She entered the club through a side door during a sound check for one of the LGBT-centric bands booked to replace her. The club owner eventually ushered her outside, where their confrontation was filmed and put up on YouTube.
That YouTube footage is essentially a silent movie, since Shocked was communicating only via writing, having taken a three-day vow of silence to protest her First Amendment rights supposedly being revoked. She was obscured head to toe by a white jumpsuit, full-facial ski mask with tape reading “Silenced By Fear” over the mouth hole, and sunglasses. Most of the audience entering the club didn’t even recognize the controversial figure as she strummed her guitar outside the front door or notice the handwritten signs she’s put up bearing messages including: "Does speech scare you that much?" “Is it possible Michelle Shocked was a target of fear-mongering in the name of a protection racket?” “Is Michelle Shocked obligated to publicly state her personal view about Prop 8?” And the one sign the owner of Moe’s made her take down: “Scabs at work.”
Despite having had Shocked wave a “scabs” sign in his face inside the club, Vnes, a member of the band Frootie Flavors, came away with respect for Shocked. “I really thought her protest was great art. … I can’t relate to her views, but her stance was impressive. As a band that’s all about including everyone, it was sad that she was sitting all alone outside, excluded from the fantastic party within. A sweet moment was when Stu from Frootie Flavors brought her a bottle of water. And we all felt very protective of her and kept an eye out for anyone who might try to harass her [no one did]. You can’t fight hate with hate.”
Her guerrilla sit-in at Moe’s convinced plenty more people that she “needs help,” to use the two-word phrase most often invoked in opinions about Shocked right now. But the Santa Cruz stunt could just as easily be said to prove she’s really crazy like a fox -- for redirecting focus from her far-right religious beliefs toward performance-art-style antics, perhaps with the goal of rehabilitating her image as a self-described “radical skateboard punk-rock anarchist.”
Shocked’s views on homosexuality and Christianity have been a source of intrigue and confusion among fans for years. In the week after the San Francisco show, amid all the non-answers, Shocked did respond to one fan with a surprising bit of clarification: “I'm neither against a woman's right to choose nor gay marriage. Am a fundamentalist tho.”
Among her other telling and/or confounding tweets over the last week (most of them since deleted): “I really really really really really really really really really really really love fags, so help me God.”… “I spoke my true feelings about gays and God. No amount of oppression will silence me!”… “My support for the gay community has never wavered.”… “Are you asking me to publicly declaim my personal, private decisions?”… “God loves gay people because Jesus did. God is Holy, but Jesus offered to atone for our sins.”… “I meant that I was marketed and sold to an audience that was too narrow to contain my artistic ambitions.”… “Wish I understood better who I was marketed to and why. I wasn't included in those decisions.”… “The truth'll set you free. Can't remember him saying he hated anyone, certainly not fags.”…“I don't make it easy. Thanks for trying to understand.”… “I want my old job back!!!”
Understanding what Shocked meant to convey in San Francisco is next to impossible from these bon mots. The charitable view among some of her liberal fans is that Shocked hoped to preach a message of tolerance for her fellow evangelicals to largely gay audience… and that, as the audience began to bristle and rebel during her incendiary set-up, she became too confused to realize she never got to the peaceful punchline.
The less charitable view among former fans is that the embrace of old-time religion has driven one of their favorite singers batty. And however much she “loves fags,” Shocked has gone on record for years as saying homosexuality is sinful in the eyes of her urban Pentecostal church -- the predominantly black West Angeles Church of Christ in God, famous as a “church to the stars” like Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson, Stevie Wonder, and Angela Bassett. Last week, a fellow parishioner tweeted a message to Shocked encouraging her to keep focused on what their pastor said about, “Don't hate the homosexual, hate the sin.”
Her views have proven controversial in mainline and progressive Christian communities. A liberally oriented Christian website, Religion Dispatches, was on the scene when Shocked appeared in 2011 at North Carolina’s Wild Goose Festival, described as “an LGBT-friendly Christian cultural event.” The reporter described Shocked as “incensed” when an audience member asked for her stance on homosexuality. “Who drafted me as a gay icon? You are looking at the world’s greatest homophobe. Ask God what He thinks,” she reportedly said, before adding, off-microphone, “There is always someone who wants to catch me.”
In a 2007 interview with a Canadian Christian site, Shocked went into depth with her life story and current views. ““I’m a songwriter’s songwriter, but I’m not really a Christian’s Christian. And so to have stands, or points of view, or politics…it’s really not wise on my part,” she said, prophetically. The article described a recent “change of heart” when it came to her former criticism of traditional Christian views on homosexuality.
“When I first went to this church I heard [a visiting Evangelist] literally stand up there in the pulpit and say ‘In the Bible it says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ And no one laughed,” she told Canadianchristianity.com in 2008. “And I was like, ‘You’re joking, right? This is like a comedy sketch. You’re trying to show us how narrow-minded and bigoted people can be. You’re an African-American church. You know how people can be.’ And at that moment I had to make a decision; is this kind of thinking going to drive me away from my salvation… And so, eventually I approached my own Pastor with the question; ‘So, what about the gays?’ As a Pastor he said that he was obligated to preach what God says about it...
“That same Pastor did not shy away from pointing out my sin… The comfort that I have found now is that, as I’ve read the scriptures, it’s no greater of a sin to be a homosexual than to be a fornicator. It’s pretty clear that they’re both pretty much violations of what God’s vision for our lives are. So, what I do now is, I continue to fornicate, and pray feverishly.” Ultimately, Shocked said then, she would have to eventually marry her boyfriend to get right with God. “I don’t know where that leaves homosexuals, but I know for us fornicators, I’m working it out.”
If this sounds like a recipe for Shocked to go into Christian music, where these views wouldn’t be out of place, keep in mind that she’s the kind of Pete Seeger-worshipping activist who got arrested at an Occupy rally not long ago. As a self-described anarchist whose sexual politics lean toward celibacy outside of marriage, Shocked may feel that all her convictions are of one piece, but she might have trouble finding any one constituency willing to accept all of them.
Some fellow performers believe that trying to reconcile these secular and religious beliefs finally drove Shocked to have a breakdown on stage. At the same time, the neck-craning curiosity is hard to deny.
“I have to say, with horror, that it’s fascinating to watch,” Sobule confesses. “You have to give it up that it’s a little entertaining! But in the end, beyond our fascination and entertainment, I hope she gets well.”
Brian Koppelman discovered Tracy Chapman when he did A&R for Elektra Records in the ‘80s; now he’s a writer-director whose screenplay credits include Ocean’s Eleven. After Shocked issued her open letter, he tweeted support for her. But because of what she’s said and done since, he wants to take back that forgiving statement.
“When I read her (initial) apology,” says Koppelman, “it echoed the artist who was always on the side of the disenfranchised, and as somebody who loved her music 20 years ago, I was hopeful the apology was genuine and she was misunderstood. I don’t feel that way now. I don’t think any of it was genuine. I think she’s mentally unstable and it’s very sad. All I am is a disillusioned and disheartened fan. I guess people forget crazy and brilliant are not mutually exclusive.”
Anyone thinking that Shocked needs to merely get on medication for mental health issues may have a long wait -- even though a representative for MusiCares was looking for contacts for the singer in the midst of all this to see if she needed the “help” some are suggesting. In the past Shocked has been an activist for NARPA, an organization dedicated to exposing abuses in psychiatry. She even wrote a lengthy autobiographical piece for their newsletter in 2004 about how she’d been institutionalized in her early 20s and misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. That experience, she wrote, left scars that she tried to deal with via alcohol before finding God in the late ‘90s.
Neubauer, her best friend until two weeks ago, thinks Shocked is troubled and in denial about what’s happening to her career but is not actually mentally ill. “She's an open tinfoil hat wearer. She will completely admit that, with glee,” she says. “People have crazy phobias and odd thoughts and dark sides. I mean, I have another friend who has a phobia about being in a room with melted cheese. So I'm past judging. She has some serious paranoia, and I've spent much time ‘talking her out off tree,’ which is what she and I have always called it. My husband calls me the Shocked Whisperer.”
Still, Neubauer defends her friend’s ultimate sanity. “[Michelle] has image control issues and distrust that resulted from her view of what happened with her first release. That clearly has overshadowed how she proceeded with her entire career… Paranoid? Yes. Denial? Yes. And desperate? She's just publicly lost her job in a way she thinks was completely unjust. Wouldn't you be? But she's not crazy. She's eccentric. She's spontaneous. She sees the world through her own glasses. But crazy? No. I do not like folks jumping to the mentally ill conclusion. It seems to try to absolve her of responsibility.”
Typically when artists get called “nuts,” it’s outsiders to the musical community making that judgment call, but in Shocked’s case, there are some fellow singer-songwriters willing to make it.
“I think she’s mentally ill,” says Laura Love, another folk singer-songwriter. “I’ve run into her a few times over the years, and every time she seems a little bit more lightly tethered to this earth. … I think of her as I would a sick friend or relative. You just love them and hope that they can find the light.”