by Perrin Blackman
Sometimes you notice something that catches your attention. Your attention. Other people keep walking, tuned in to their lunch plans or their iPod. They part like a cold mountain stream around you: the rock in their way.
So it was when my eyes landed on this headline from the San Francisco Bay Guardian: Alt-folk singer Michelle Shocked goes on homophobic rant, Yoshi’s says she won’t be back.
My radar went off. My heart sank. I know who Michelle Shocked is – I’d seen her in concert back in the 90’s. I loved her song “Anchorage,” and every so often I’d search out the video from “Come a Long Way.” I knew that the juxtaposition of her name with the words “homophobic rant” was most likely just designed to get my attention.
But I did what everyone else did. I clicked.
Somebody sold another ad for I don’t know what… but I didn’t care. I just wanted to know.
The article included a bootleg audio of the encore of her March 17, 2013 show at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. I listened and heard her struggling within a framework she called Truth vs. Reality.
I heard the beginnings of a dialogue, but soon the conversation went south – something about a prayer meeting and Prop 8 and whether or not she was saying that God hated faggots. It wasn’t pretty.
I heard a female heckler becoming more and more vociferous during the 23-minute audio. I found out later that she had actually shoved a woman who asked her to be quiet. I heard audience members gather closer to Michelle as Yoshi’s management took her microphone away.
Audience: [referring to the heckler] Get her out of here –
Yoshi: Yeah, we’re…I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for joining us tonight at Yoshi’s.
Michelle: You’re pulling the plug? They’re giving me the hook, y’all.
Audience: Hell no! No! Hell no!
Michelle: I still got game. I still got game.
Audience: You don’t need no amplifier –
Michelle: Shall we lose the mic?
Michelle: Alright. I will (scattered applause, stage sounds). Let’s move closer. When they take away the microphone, you wanna stay close…
And that’s exactly what I did. Incensed, I drew closer. I wanted to hear her side of the story, but due to the media spin, there was now a thick layer of digital dross to scrape away. And unfortunately, she wasn’t answering any questions. At least not yet.
She went on Nicole Sandler’s podcast via Twitter.
She covered her mouth with tape and played her guitar outside Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz.
She sent out an “apology” written by her buddy Roger.
Now I was really listening. Now, I was the rock in the stream. The only reliable source became the primary source, and it was surprisingly simple to access. I just tuned into Twitter every day from 8-11 PST.
That’s right: Twitter.
The medium WAS the message.
God did not hate faggots.
Jesus and Basquiat both died for your sins.
Marshall MacLuhan wrote the eulogy.
On Twitter, her words were truly confounding, but as the days and weeks went by, a layering process occurred. While I was still struck by the shiny distraction of gay rights Vs. Christian dogma, Michelle treated these concerns as a joke, instead posting layer after layer of information about artists’ rights, internet piracy, and the insidious role of Big Data.
She repeatedly drew attention to a seemingly innocuous YouTube video taken at her November 2012 concert in Tampa, FL as an illustration of the problem. A ‘fan’ had recorded her chat with the audience at the beginning of the show and uploaded it on YouTube, saying, “This is all I got before she asked us not to record.” The user refused to take the video down. Michelle filed a DMCA notice, but YouTube refused to remove the unauthorized content.
Why such a big deal about a little video?
Because this video represents a process that is eating art alive. The artist creates. The content produced is distributed, bought, loved and – immediately uploaded onto Internet sites that act as ad farms. Many of those sites steal the content they provide. Some servers, like Google, give lip-service to copyright, but end up defining the nature of art by making a judgment call regarding intellectual property and, subsequently, the ownership of that property.
According to Google, if you’re a performer who ‘talks’ during your show, your ‘talk’ is not art. So the video remained up even though Michelle filed a DMCA notification. Even though she owns all rights to all her own content.
Let’s get back to that night at Yoshi’s. Michelle set the stage for an explosion of sorts, or perhaps an implosion. Trapped by the reality of piracy that prevents her from recording new material and angry with the fact that she could not have an authentic conversation about it with her audience without a bootlegger swiping the process away from her, she chose to give the audience a dose of Truth.
You steal my stuff, you get no value-added content. I sing but I don’t talk. This is Truth. Face the music. It’s like those times when the teacher made the whole class write lines because one kid was talking out of turn.
If you know Michelle Shocked’s history, this shouldn’t surprise you. She is the Bootleg Poster Child. Her debut, the Texas Campfire Tapes, was released without her knowledge or permission in 1986. She’s also a punk activist, mouthy and unrepentant, scrappy and ready to take on a challenge at the drop of a hat. She also can sing your baby to sleep or turn your tears into liquid prayers. The audience perhaps expected the latter, but they got the former. Only this time, the finger was pointed at them.
The stage was set. Three portraits created by David Willardson faced the audience: Frida Kahlo, Michelle Shocked, and Georgia O’Keefe. On Michelle’s portrait were the words “@MShocked” and “Join the conversation.” When Michelle came out, she turned each portrait around, and with the women’s faces turned away, the audience saw only the words Truth (on the left), Vs. (in the middle) and Reality (on the right). The performance had begun.
Michelle gave the audience a choice, Truth or Reality. They could vote by Twitter, no F2F interaction. They voted for Truth. In response, she sang all 10 songs from Short Sharp Shocked with little discussion. She did not explain what “Truth” meant, but she realized that by demonstration it would become evident that she was not delivering her trademark conversational performance style with the music.
Truth never changes. Within this frame, the show could then be repeated over and over with little variety and no complications with takedown notices for the inevitable bootlegs.
She was relieved that the audience chose Truth because if they had asked for Reality, she had planned to do the whole show from behind her portrait until they complained and then come out to explain that they were at the epicenter of the problem, that these Silicon Valley denizens had sold their collective creative souls for a few Bitcoins in exchange for an abuser-generated, content theft convenience economy.
After singing the 10 songs, she told the audience that she was done, but if they were still there when she returned, she would sing a few more songs. It was during this encore that Reality hit the fan.
Again, turning to Twitter as her platform, she asked what they wanted.
The tweet, “Reality could include some Gospel,” sent a now-very-authentic conversation in that direction. Michelle was ready to talk about anything, but she knew that this portion of the show was not considered copyright protected. Regardless, she allowed the conversation to turn to a topic that has been a red herring for many years: God Vs. Gays.
She mentioned that she had been at a prayer meeting the night before and asked the audience to understand how scared people on that side of the fence were. She corrected herself at one point to add that “they” included her, but didn’t clarify that their political opinions were not her own.
This is when the sound bites hit the fan:
Michelle: “…and from our vantage point, we’re gonna be, uh [facetiously], I think maybe Chinese water torture is gonna be the means, the method—[off-handed, flippantly] once Prop 8 gets instated, and once preachers are held at gunpoint, and forced to marry [in a character voice] the homosexuals. I’m pretty sure that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back.”
Audience: (laughter) Whaaat?
Michelle: You just said you wanted reality (laughs). If someone would be so gracious as to please tweet out, “Michelle Shocked just said, from stage, ‘God hates faggots’” (laughter). Would you do it now? (laughter)
Woman’s Voice: You can have your [muffled], Michelle! I think some people got it [undetermined]
Michelle: (adjusting strap) Just adjusting my bra strap. Nothing worth getting in a froth about.
Michelle: You’re confounded! Matt, you might need to get back up here.
Matt (@TheGuapo): There’s gonna be aloooot of talkin’ about that.
Michelle: I ain’t scared. I ain’t scared. This is not a tribunal. This is one woman’s opinion. And…it’s fun. It’s a lotta fun. I am so committed to loving each and every soul in this room tonight, that I could not come here and ignore you. I could not come here and pretend that I was above the conversation, and I couldn’t pretend that I was beneath it either. I had to join it. Thank you for that one handclap – I do that all the time. Matter of fact, I was in church a couple of…you know it’s come to a bad point when the white girl is sitting in a Black church, I’m clappin’ (claps) and the man in front of me turns around and goes, ‘That’s irritatin’.’ (audience laughter) Hallelujah. I’d like to play you some songs, but –
Woman: I hope you get wise, Michelle, and realize that there’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing to fear. Everybody is deserving of your, whoever your God is, His love.
Michelle: Can I respond to that, off the microphone?
Woman: You can respond to that ON the microphone.
Stepping away from the microphone, Michelle shouted, “I AM SICK OF CHRISTIANS, FILLED WITH HYPOCRISY, HIDING BEHIND THE SYMBOL OF A CROSS!”
There is a moment of quiet just after a demolition artist presses the plunger. If you’ve ever watched an implosion you know this; you wait, everyone waits, and you think for a minute that nothing is going to happen, and then from within the building you hear heavy explosions laden with brick and stone, you see dust starting to puff out of windows, walls begin to crumble, and if you’re the little jackrabbit who hutches in that condemned building, you feel the ground shake under your paws and you high-tail it out of there as fast as you can.
If you know her music, now is the time to think “Jump Little Rabbit.”
But she didn’t jump. In an attempt to work the conversation around to content theft (and the audience’s role in the process via user-generated content), Michelle ignored the 3 or 4 hecklers and continued conversing with the audience. She recited John 3:16 in Spanish. She played another song. The emotions wound down a bit, but there was no getting back to an explanation now.
Did she intend to blow up not only her fans’ complacency but her own celebrity status? Did she expect such fallout? Did she come to San Francisco with a message of hate?
She said she loved everyone in the room.
But somehow these words were lost.
The show ended sadly, and there were tears of frustration on all sides. Michelle drove home, relieved that she had begun the conversation, thanking God for giving her the courage to challenge their hypocrisy, heading back to LA with her sweetheart, David, not yet aware of how much fallout there would be.
Within 48 hours Michelle had lost all her bookings.
Within 48 hours, Yahoo! Entertainment had picked up the story and respun the headlines from the Bay Guardian.
Within 48 hours, Michelle Shocked, 25-year social justice activist and punk provocateur for the Occupy Movement, was now the pariah of the PC community.
Six months and one heartbreak later, the conversation that Michelle has been longing to have has begun, but many questions remain. Why such a roundabout approach? What does she hope will come of all this? You decide.
The badass says, “If I’d just told them they were fascists, they never would have believed me.”
The poet says:
I truly believe, with all my heart, that when Truth wills out on all of
this that the terrible revelation will be thus:
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only
they knew they were slaves” – Harriet Tubman
In other words, this ‘celebrity,’ ‘fame,’ ‘verified blue tic status,’ etc. …is simply
a status update on how thickly the chains of our collective bondage have
When the Great Deceiver is never again, and the bandages removed from our
blinded eyes, we will see that freedom was just a wade across the water to
Canaan Land; although desert wandering was all we ever imagined this life