Michelle Shocked , Natalie Maines and the Risk of Expression

shockedLast week folk-singer Michelle Shocked made good on her surname by treating a o a San Francisco crowd to a rambling anti-gay screed. “You are going to leave here and tell people ‘Michelle Shocked said God hates faggots,'” Shocked declared causing the fans to boo and stream out. The venue’s employees saw what was transpiring and decided to stop the gig by cutting the sound and lights.

This event happened almost 10 years to the day that Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines took to a London stage to protest the invasion of Iraq by stating ” Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” before performing the Bruce Robison-penned, beautifully subtle anti-war song, “Travelin’ Soldier,”

To my ears these are two sides of the same career-limiting coin. Looking your career demographic straight in the eye and spitting in it.

Both Shocked and Maines later tried to distance herself from their remarks. Maines releases the statement “As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect.”

And Shocked backpedaled thusly “To those fans who are disappointed by what they’ve heard or think I said, I’m very sorry,” Shocked wrote. “I don’t always express myself as clearly as I should … I’d like to say this was a publicity stunt, but I’m really not that clever, and I’m definitely not that cynical.”

But the damage was done.

Maines, and sisters Emily Robison Martie Maguire, faced fans publicly destroying their CDs, country radio boycotts and even death threats. In response the band released 2007’s Taking the Long Way, their weakest album in my opinion, and were rewarded by winning Grammy awards in all of the five categories they were nominated in including Album of the Year and Best Country Album, though it was their lest country influenced album. Taking the Long Way became that year’s favorite album of people that likely had never previously counted themselves as Dixie Chicks fans.

Shocked is currently seeing her tour upended with 11 of her remaining scheduled dates have reportedly called off by promoters, including an appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass festival. Her website still shows a calendar of European appearances, but most of these are described as “tentative” and at least one, Germany’s Burg Herzberg festival, has dropped her from the bill. There has also been calls of boycott and speculation about her mental health from people that once called themselves her fans. Whether people from the other side of the political spectrum champion her case remains to be seen, but Shocked has a much lower celebrity profile then the Dixie Chicks, and less of a chance to make cultural hay, so the odds are not promising.

Performer’s bread and butter is expression. Some may be more contrived than others but the while point of a musician. singer is to give voice to feelings. Why are we surprised when those feelings don’t mirror our expectations of them?

i am no angel in this. When Ryan Adams or Neko Case move from country and roots based music to pursue a different genre muse i bid them good luck but don’t cover them here. The name Twang Nation says it all. This is not exclusively an Adams or Case fan sight. i am not obligated to fall in love with their very utterances. When Steve Earle decided to trade his dusty boots in for A Greenwich Village soap box it wasn’t his advocacy I was opposed to. It was that it his new-found enlightenment was rendering his once eloquent allegories stiff and tedious. My bigotry is one I believe all cultural bloggers should posses, one of style not ideology.

So what goes through the mind of a performer when they purposely alienate their base? Do they feel their fans are so loyal that they can says and do anything? Are the feelings too much for them to hold on to and later distill into a narrative with a 3 chord progression? I have no idea, I’ve never been that performer’s shoes.

But as a fan of music i look around at all the contrived, manufactured for consumption crap we are barraged with every day and applause the occasional heartfelt opinion, whether it mirrors my own ideology or not. Maines, Shocked, Earle , Tom Morello, Ted Nugent, or Bale Shelton rephrasing a Shania Twain song. into some kind of homophobic slur. ..none of them I feel is my ideological kin. Maybe that’s why all the hoopla confuses me. I have no litmus of ideological purity i am holding them acceptable to. Just don’t make shitty music.

Musicians are entitled to have contradictory, and half- baked opinions, as do the rest of us in the old USA. And I believe that’s where the outrage lies. We don’t see them as us. We make them into more and set them on a pedestal and allow their gift to transcend them something more then flesh and bone.

Then when they pull an Icarus and plummet to earth we’re pissed. Not only at them, but at our naivety.

After all, we’re only human.

It’s events like these that make me appreciate this line from Evelyn Beatrice when she tried to encapsulate the ideal of the French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I would add “… no matter how stupid it is.” I would then add a chorus and play it in the key of G.

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