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Michelle Shocked Gives Good Hugs

On 17 March, Karen Michelle Johnston had a horrific breakdown. Unfortunately for Karen, this collapse occurred in a public appearance in a San Francisco club with her onstage persona where she is known as Michelle Shocked. Referring to teachings from her church, Shocked made a reference to preachers being “held at gunpoint and forced to marry the homosexuals.” She also used a gay slur, commenting, “Please Tweet out, Michelle Shocked just said from stage ‘God hates faggots’.” There are conflicting reports as to whether that comment was intended as an ironic joke or a serious statement. (It does not sound like a joke on the tape of the performance). In a press release, she provided the following clarification, “I was predicting the absurd way my description of, my apology for, the intolerant would no doubt be misinterpreted.” She further stated, “If I could repeat the evening, I would make a clearer distinction between a set of beliefs I abhor, and my human sympathy for the folks who hold them.”

Of course, Ted Nugent says seventeen things as offensive as Schocked’s poorly expressed or intentionally abrasive statements before breakfast, but Shocked has always had a leftie/folk persona and at one time even talked about being in a lesbian relationship. If the Black Panther Party had burned an American flag on the floor of last year’s Republican National Convention, I don’t think they would have sparked as much visceral outrage. In the aftermath of her purging and the subsequent backlash, almost all of her subsequent bookings have been cancelled.

At this point, I’m going to come out of the closet and admit to my history with Shocked. I’m a fan. Have been for a long time. Like most of her followers, I first heard her in 1988 when she released the Short Sharp Shocked album (the cover of which is an action shot of Shocked being strangled by a policeman), which contained her biggest “hit”, the oh yeah life goes on after the thrill of living is gone “Anchorage.” In the early 1990s, I saw her perform at the Rose Gardens in Portland, Oregon and with good girl gone bad material like “Prodigal Daughter” and the travel as growing experience “Come a Long Way,” I found her to be a charming and engaging performer. However, she didn’t seem to have the sea legs for a sustained career. Every article about Shocked contained the same adjective – “difficult.”

She was dropped by Mercury Records after 1992’s Arkansas Traveler album and has been a fringe performer in terms commercial viability and critical acclaim ever since. There have been consistent claims of erratic behavior over the years and she had a twelve year marriage to music journalist turned husband/business manager Bart Bull, who reportedly almost always spoke on Shocked’s behalf during their relationship. Perhaps signaling a change in her life’s direction, Schocked, who was raised in a Mormon household, released a gospel album in 2007, titled ToHeavenURide.

In December of last year, I saw Shocked when she played as an unannounced opener at a gig in Dallas. In an intimate setting, she seemed happy and grounded. She discussed her current relationship with a male artist (“I’m hoping he puts a ring on it”) and also described the pain she felt when she was dumped after having a date set for her high school prom. As she explained, her potential East Texas suitor found her less than traditional feminine appearance too socially daunting. After the show, I purchased a CD from her and received a nice hug in return. She seemed to be in a good place artistically and emotionally.

So, what are we to make of her recently bizarre behavior? I doubt that Shocked is a savvy enough media presence to have purposely orchestrated the event. If one were in the diabolical public sentiment manipulation business, there are better end states than career suicide. It’s almost too easy to play armchair psychiatrist with Shocked. She seems to be having an internal loser leaves town cognitive dissonance cage match between her fundamentalist upbringing and her “I kissed a girl and I liked it” life experience. Or, she may just be a high strung malcontent that continuously needs new windmills for tilting. Who knows?

I have read suggestions that the backlash has been too severe, since Shocked was simply engaging in the time honored tradition of freedom of expression. Please. Nobody has imprisoned or fined Shocked for her offensive comments. Artists do not exist in neatly constructed ideological paradigm, they perform work in a marketplace. Will a club owner make money by booking Shocked now? No. Will the club receive negative publicity if they do not cancel a scheduled show? Yes. This is no brainer capitalism, not half baked idealism.

At the end of the day, Shocked remains a talented, minor artist with major emotional baggage. I’m not an apologist for anyone that uses racist or homophobic slurs – they cause too much pain. I hope Shocked gets the counseling and emotional support she needs to develop peace with her purportedly non-homophobic self (after the implosion, she stated that her support for the LBGT community has “never wavered.”) If this truly was a case of grossly inarticulate speech of the heart, she’ll need a huge gift from a small audience to survive artistically. She’ll need forgiveness.

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