Why Was Michelle Shocked Shell-Shocked?
"Please do not understand me too quickly." -Andre Gide
Which of the following ten denials are true and which are false? Richard Nixon: “I’m not a crook.” Vladimir Putin: “I’m not a thief.” Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Edward Snowden: “I’m not a traitor.” Paula Deen: “I’m not a racist.” George Zimmerman: “I’m not a murderer.” The New York Times (In a crossword puzzle, “Shylock” was a clue, and “Jew” was the answer): “We’re not anti-Semitic.” Lance Armstrong: “I’m not a doper.” Donald Trump: “I’m not a total asshole.” And Michelle Shocked: “I’m not a homophobe.”
In March, singer-songwriter Michelle had spouted between musical numbers what appeared to be a fanatical Christian anti-gay rant at Yoshi’s in San Francisco:
“But I was in a prayer meeting yesterday, and you gotta appreciate how scared, how scared, folks on that side of the equation are. I mean, from their vantage point—and I really shouldn’t say ‘their,’ because it’s mine, too—we are nearly at the end of time, 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?”
“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]
Disappointed fans walked out. Yoshi’s gay manager shut off her microphone, insisted that she leave the stage, and banned her from performing there for life. At least fourteen gigs at other venues were annulled, and her career swirled its way down the drain. So she decided to issue this statement:
I believe in a God who loves everyone, and my faith tells me to do my best to also love everyone. Everyone: gay or straight, stridently gay, self-righteously faithful; left or right, far left, far right; good, bad, or indifferent. That’s the law: everyone. I may disagree with someone’s most fervently held belief, but I will not hate them. And in this controversy, that means speaking for Christians with opinions I in no way share about homosexuality. Will I endorse them? Never. Will I disavow them? Never. I stand accused of forsaking the LGBT community for a Christianity which is—hear me now—anathema to my understanding of faith. I will no doubt take future flack for saying so. I’m accused of believing that “God hates fags” and that the repeal of Prop 8 will usher in the End Times. Well, if I caused such an absurdity, I am damn sorry.
To be clear: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any so-called faith, preaching intolerance of anyone. Again, anyone: straight or gay, believers or not: that’s the law. That means upholding my punk rock values in the most evangelical enclaves and, in this case, speaking up for the most fearful of fundamentalists in, well, a San Francisco music hall full of Michelle Shocked fans. As an artist in this time of unbearable culture wars, I understand: this means trouble, and this is neither the first nor last time trouble has come my way. And that’s fine by me. I know the fear many in the evangelical community feel about homosexual marriage, as I understand the fear many in the gay community feel toward the self-appointed faithful. I have and will continue speaking to both. Everything else – Facebook, Twitter, whatever – is commentary.
At midnight on Friday, June 28—the day after the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, and the beginning of the San Francisco Gay Pride weekend—Michelle was a guest of Daniel Flessas, host of a weekly radio program, The Outside World, on listener-sponsored KBOO in Portland, Oregon. The call letters of that station were borrowed from a marijuana strain known as “Berkeley Boo.”
Having also been invited to participate in the dialogue, I asked Michelle, “Why did you convert to born-again Christianity?”
“I was making an album in 1991 called Arkansas Traveler that had its roots in blackface minstrelsy,” she replied. “My fiancee was a journalist, deeply researched on the history of the genre. He suggested we attend a local African-American church to explore the contemporary expressions of the music that had inspired the genre, and it was an easy justification.
“Gospel music, what's not to love? Soulful, passionate pyrotechnics, a choir. But I went one Sunday too often and next thing I knew, my feet were making the altar call. The rest of me decided to join them. I went for the singing but stayed for the song. Originally, I recall thinking, ‘You know, this music would be so good if they'd just cut out all that Jesus crap.’”
And then Michelle had a question for me:
“My experience has been that people don’t wanna let the truth get in the way of a good story. My question to Paul is, having been the instigator [laughs] of more controversies than I will manage in my lifetime, the absurdity of this situation often causes me to [laughs] ask myself—I’m not exaggerating—‘What would Paul do?’ Surely, there has to be some hilarity that I have overlooked, ‘cause I have tried everything I can come up with to make people laugh and to lighten the situation up. What have I forgotten?”
My response: “I think what you forgot was that audiences don’t always know the references, and so when you said, ‘God hates faggots,’ they might not have known that the reactionary Reverend Fred Phelps had said ‘God hates fags’ and meant it, and therefore they assumed that you were saying it as representing your belief when you were really, as I understood it, parodying the hatred that Phelps exuded. I mean risk-taking is risky business.”
Daniel: “But you didn’t always explain everything to everyone, did you, Paul?”
“No. When I published satire, I wouldn’t label it as satire any more than Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal. He didn’t say, ‘I’m only kidding, folks, I really don’t mean that Irish babies should be eaten by the British in order to simultaneously solve the overpopulation and starvation problems.’ And I didn’t want to deprive readers of the pleasure of deriving for themselves whether something was literally true or a metaphorical extension of the truth.
“There was a singer named Tonio K. I was invited at the last minute to open for him at the Roxy Theater in L.A.—Harry Shearer was supposed to do it, but he couldn’t —and I had never heard of Tonio K. This was at a time when there were all those TV evangelicals— Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker—and they were involved in one sex scandal after another, and so I did some material about that. But the audience didn’t laugh, and I couldn’t figure out why.
“Only later, a review in the L.A. Times concluded that I was obviously not aware that Tonio K. was a born-again Christian singer, and his audience was filled with born-again Christian fans. So I felt relieved, because it was funny material, but humor is totally subjective, and I think that’s what Michelle got caught in. The gay community has been so mistreated by people who actually do express hostility toward them, it suddenly landed Michelle in that category.”
Michelle: “Paul, can I hold your feet to the fire? As the original Zen Bastard, you did not provoke for the sake of provoking, you would never ridicule an audience simply to express some sense of smug superiority. There was always a point and a purpose to the endeavor, and so I would like to submit to you that my efforts were to confound an audience that has grown so self-righteous that they needed a little prick, they needed a little poking. What was that Abbie Hoffman quote? ‘Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.’ I gave them a little taste of the medicine, and they did not like it, not one bit, no sir.
“I am reflecting back that your sensibility was not that of a provocateur, but always of one that would inspire people to think, and my experience with this is that they had grown so entrenched in their dogma that, rather than think, rather than rush to curiosity, I was subjected to a rush to judgment, and I cannot think of anyone that I would like to give more tribute to inspiring [laughs] my instigation than you. I’m blaming you for all this, Paul [laughs].”
“Yeah, right—I’m the little prick that you referred to.”
Michelle confirmed that she would be at the Gay Pride celebration on Sunday morning, “but I will be part of the contingent that is making a statement that San Francisco is proud of Bradley Manning for pursuing his duties as a whistle-blower in revealing secrets that the government would rather not listen to. And we’re basically just all gonna raise points that San Francisco Pride leadership rejected the election by all of the former SF Pride grand marshals to name Bradley Manning as this year’s grand marshal in favor of allowing their sponsors, their military and their corporate sponsors, to dictate the conscience of a community they claim to speak on behalf of, and I would love to be in that great number, marching, proud of a gay soldier who has the interest of everyone in this country above the interests of a few in this country.”
On Monday, I emailed her and asked how that event went.
“The Bradley Manning contingent in the SF Pride parade was a feisty attempt to put context to the Yoshi's fracas,” she replied. “My story, the one I'm sticking to, is that it was a laugh riot, a second line of soul in the middle of a privilege parade. The truth is that I saw and heard countless reasons why any spirit of passionate resistance that once existed has left the disco long ago. It now resembles a Bourbon Street Mardi Gras without King Zulu. Show us yer tits! It's the Rose Parade, and the corporate sponsors write the script. Even the Manning contingent played to the half empty grandstand like dutiful dissidents. The Star-Spangled Burqa was a hit, waiting for the photographic/video evidence to appear. So far so censored. I've got this nifty little shot occupying Google at the parade.”
And so, returning back to that night at Yoshi’s, was Michelle homophobic? Please pass the analogy. In 1952, there was a French-and-Italian film, Seven Deadly Sins, consisting of seven vignettes, one for each sin—greed, lust, avarice, pride, Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful – and at the end of the seventh sin, the narrator told us that we were going to see the eighth sin.
On the screen were all those images that we had been conditioned to associate with the intimations of sin – sailors, hookers, an opium den – and then the narrator explained that the eighth sin was the desire to see sin. The audience groaned with a spontaneity that served only to underscore the narrator's point. Sometimes the ultimate target of satire should be its own audience.