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.

10 Replies to “Michelle Shocked , Natalie Maines and the Risk of Expression”

  1. Janet, I appreciate that. It is a pretty heavy topic so I wanted to go out on a light note.

  2. I’d like to point out that my enjoyment of the Dixie Chicks Taking the Long Way had less to do with their political views and more to do with the fact that they used songwriters like Gary Louris, Neil Finn and Dan Wilson.

    Hell I’d say “Everybody Knows” could have been the great later period Jayhawks single that we never got.

  3. I have been to many shows where performers stand on stage and give their opinions on everything from politics, to fashion, to music journalists, to drugs and everything in between. Anyone who has been around for any length of time or done any reading can see what a powerful force music can be when it comes to political issues. And, sure, everyone has the right to say what they want, whether I agree with it or not – but the people, and the venues have the right not to listen or endorse it.

    Admittedly, when I first heard about Michelle Shocked’s statements, I was outraged. I am a longtime fan of hers, never mind live here in the Bay Area. I can only imagine Yoshi’s probably had a significant amount of LGBT folk, or supporters of, in the audience that night. Not because it was San Francisco – but because she has a large following from the gay community in general. For years it was, I suppose, presumed she was a lesbian and she gave several interviews indicating she had had an affair with a woman.

    This wasn’t the first time she’s made comments that could be construed as anti-gay, but it’s definitely the first time it generated so much publicity.

    Having listened to the audio a few days after the whole thing went down, while still outraged, I feel like something about it was clearly off. Either she was trying to spread her religious message but saw the whole thing go completely awry or if she is really suffering mentally (I’ve read she is diagnosed schizophrenic. But, as disgusted as I was, after hearing the audio I also think that the media frenzy that resulted may have taken some of the things she said out of context. Did she say, “Michelle Shocked hates [homosexuals]”? Yes. But I also think that particular bit was not represented accurately in the media. Should she have said it at all? Not if she didn’t expect some kind of consequence!

    Hopmonk Tavern in Novato, where I live, was one of the first to cancel her after the Yoshi’s incident and they received a huge outpouring of support. But also there are people who believe cancelling her somehow goes against freedom of speech (under which Hate Speech is not protected). The way I see it, I agree people have the right to say whatever they want, but they have to know there are consequences to their actions. If venues don’t want to run the risk of her using their stage as a platform to spew her beliefs, they don’t have to host her.

    Am I going to run out and destroy my Michelle Shocked albums? No. Would I buy a ticket to see her perform after this (as I had planned to see her at Hopmonk Novato)? No. Would I boycott an entire festival if they had her on the bill? Probably not.

    Whether she’s mentally ill, being ironic, or truly meant the things she said (or some combination therein), the fact remains that EVERYONE has something to say about Michelle Shocked now. Including people who had no idea who she was before all this.

  4. Very thoughtful piece. I will say, though, that I think there is a difference between artists like Earle or the Dixie Chicks who become more explicit about there views and this situation. Shocked built a career identified with the women’s music sub-culture and as a queer artist (though admittedly ambiguous about her sexual orientation). Many of her fans felt personally empowered by the music. That is not to say that she has no right to change, but it is understandable that fans would feel betrayed.

    Also, have to defend Earle and political music in general. IMO he has written some great political songs (Jerusalem, Ellis Unit One or, on the last album, Gulf of Mexico). I don’t think the problem is becoming more political, but not editing himself and rushing to get a particular point or album out there. He has a couple dreadful love songs as well, and I say that as a huge fan.

  5. emfrank, thanks for stopping by and your thoughtful comment. Though Earle and the Chicks were less explicit about their early political leanings, they were quite about them, so this shift was, at least publicly, surprising.

    I agree Earle was more subtle in songs like Ellis Unit One and therefor more persuasive. It’s also a damn fine song. Please lord no more Condi Condi.

  6. I disagree about Earle – he makes jabs at Reagan and trickle down economics in the early albums (such as comparing Reagan to a Snake Oil salesman or in the song Back to the Wall) and Billy Austin makes a clear stand. I think it was only casual fans who were surprised.

    But again, there is a difference in the level of personal investment in between politics in general and the politics of sexual orientation.

  7. It seems odd to me that a venue would just shut down after a gaff like hers — I mean as long as there’s not a riot going on. If people are so offended they can just leave, can’t they? This is like a censorship of sorts. Reminds me of when Howard Stern got fined for saying “dirty” words. If you don’t like it, don’t listen but don’t stop the show because you think you are the word police.

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