An Open Letter to Michelle Shocked
A Beautiful Storyteller’s Ugly Downfall
By Dave Fox
When I interviewed you 20 years ago, I’ll confess, I was star struck. I was a rookie music journalist for a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. You were one of my favorite musicians and lyricists, and one of the first rock stars I’d ever interview.
I had raved to my editor when I heard you were coming to town about how you blended American folk and rock music with hints of swing jazz, Celtic folk, bluegrass, and even funk. And I’d said to him, “Michelle Shocked is a gifted storyteller.” I told him we needed to cover your show.
When he told me two days later you’d be calling me that weekend for a 20-minute phone interview, I decided I’d found a pretty damn good job – even if it was part-time.
Back then, Michelle, I loved your words. I was wrestling with depression at the time, and on bad days, your lyrics cheered me up. I couldn’t help but smile when you crooned, “When I grow up, I want to be an old woman,” or sang your story about playing with matches in the dry grass and “making trouble for the VFD [Volunteer Fire Department].”
You wrote playful tales of barrel rides over waterfalls, and fiddling contests in the backwoods of Appalachia. “Anchorage” was your poignant story of re-connecting with an old friend and mourning the loss of youthful recklessness. And “33 RPM Soul” still cracks me up. Your attempt to sneak as much profanity as you could into a hit single that would garner national radio play, over the heads of censors, was brilliantly immature.
You wrote angering songs too. You honored the memory of Michael Stewart, a young African-American man strangled to death in the custody of eleven white New York transit cops for the crime of writing on a subway wall. You sang about the shame of a young woman raped by a civil war soldier.
Whatever you wrote, Michelle, your words were vivid and full of meaning.
So 20 years ago, I was shaking with nervous admiration when the phone rang.
I remember you were friendly and cool. “My life is an open book,” you said as I asked you about everything from your erratic leaps between musical styles to your anger at your mother for putting you in a mental institution nine years earlier.
You explained, “I was going through a very, very typical identity crisis a lot of young women go through when you’re strong, you’re smart, but you grow up in a society that encourages you to act stupid when you’re smart or act vulnerable when you feel strong.”
At the time, I saw you as a champion for the underdog.
But today, I am in mourning. I am mourning the loss of your music, which I fear I will never listen to again — because from here on out, your beautiful words will be poisoned in my mind. I will never again be able to hear your songs without my thoughts drifting to one hideous three-word phrase you uttered at a show in San Francisco this past Sunday:
“God hates faggots.”
I don’t live in Madison, Wisconsin, anymore. I live halfway around the world now, in Singapore. I read last night about what you said while I was on the subway. I was so stunned you would spew such hatred that when I reached my station, I had to find a bench and sit down.
There had to be a misunderstanding. You had always been a singer who liked to rile people up. Surely you were paraphrasing the hatred of others, mocking such statements, not promoting them. But as I read the full news report on my phone, of your snarky bickering with audience members who eventually stormed out of the theater in disgust while staff dimmed the lights and silenced your microphone, I had to come to terms with reality. You had said what you said, then stood your ground. No immediate back-pedaling or attempts to clarify.
I tried to piece it together. How could I have viewed you for more than two decades as a tolerant rebel who fought for those whose voices were muzzled? How could I have been so wrong? As pieces of your biography re-entered my mind, I hated the story that came into view. I wanted the reasons that were coming to me to not be true.
In think it was the early 1990s when I saw you play in Seattle, and you told the crowd how you’d been working on a gospel music project, hanging out at predominantly African-American churches. You’d started going for the music, not the religion, but somewhere along the way, you had “found Jesus.”
I cheered when you said this, along with many others in the crowd. Even as a non-Christian, I was excited for you – excited that curiosity had led you to an unlikely home in a foreign sub-culture, excited you had found a spirituality that gave you peace and strength – because I think whenever someone finds any spirituality that gives them peace and strength, it’s a beautiful thing.
Later, you became “born again.” And last night, as that thought crept into my head while I walked to a swimming pool in a Singapore suburb, I said out loud on a crowded street, “Oh no.”
See, Michelle, I have close friends who are passionate Christians, who are also vocal supporters of gay rights. These friends have struggled to show me and others in liberal cities where I’ve lived, like Madison and Seattle, that a lot of liberals like me have false stereotypes that paint them as people of hatred when they’re not. I have other Christian friends who do not share my view that non-heterosexual orientations are natural. I can maintain sincere friendships with them, in spite of our differences, because these people carry their views without spewing hurtful words. They don’t contort God into a deity of hate.
So as fear washed over me last night that your outburst might be tied to your religious conversion. I felt sad for my good Christian friends and the ugly shadow that statements like yours casts over their religion. That’s when those words left my mouth:
After two days of silence, you now say what I wish I could believe – that your words are being taken out of context. And to be fair, let’s put them in their full context, because when I first read the three-word quote, it was not complete. Your full, inflammatory sentence at your concert was, “If someone would be so gracious as to please tweet out, ‘Michelle Shocked just said from stage, ‘God hates faggots,’’ would you do it now?”
After I started writing this letter, Thursday morning Singapore time, you released a statement to KQED radio, stating, “I do not, nor have I ever, said or believed that God hates homosexuals (or anyone else). I said that some of His followers believe that. I believe intolerance comes from fear, and these folks are genuinely scared. When I said ‘Twitter that Michelle Shocked says, ‘God hates faggots,’ I was predicting the absurd way my description of, my apology for, the intolerant would no doubt be misinterpreted.”
Oh, Michelle, how I wish I could believe you.
The problem is, in 2013, if you perform in public, chances are someone’s going to be recording it. I’ve heard the recording, Michelle. I’ve heard everything that went down at your show. To me, it does sound like you are paraphrasing a certain radical branch of religion. Unfortunately, it also sounds like you are agreeing with them.
On the recording, you are heard telling the crowd:
“You gotta appreciate how scared, how scared folks on that [conservative Christian] side of the equation are. From their vantage point — I really shouldn’t say ‘their’ ’cause it’s mine too — we are nearly at the end of time and from our vantage point … once preachers are held at gunpoint and forced to marry the homosexuals, I’m pretty sure that that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back.”
Your uglier “God hates” line is what comes next, followed by what I interpret as awkward silence and then you telling the audience you are not afraid to express your opinion. You defend your words and sound smug as a venue employee announces the show is over and they’re pulling the plug.
What I hope you will come to understand is this: Those of us walking away from you now are not people who want to hate you. We are people who have loved and supported you for years. But we can’t pretend this didn’t happen. We will never be able to slither inside your head and know with 100 percent certainty what you really meant. But we’ve heard what you said and it has left an indelible stain on your music. We will forever question whether the singer who we loved was the kind person we thought she was. That question in our minds is what now makes it impossible for us to enjoy your music. Maybe born-again Christians are misunderstood by liberal Americans. But for a hetero-identifying woman in your position to go on stage and refer to gays as “faggots” — while denouncing gay marriage and preaching about the end of time — is not something we can shrug off as a misunderstanding or an okay form of sarcasm.
So I’m feeling sad today, Michelle. I am mourning the loss of music and stories I have loved. But I cannot listen to you anymore without your cruel words echoing softly on an extra track in my mind. Therefore, I cannot listen to you anymore.
I will miss a lot of good times with you as my soundtrack.
When we talked in 1993, you said, about a trilogy of albums you had released, “I wanted to create a road map home…. I didn’t know where this journey was going to take me but my fear was that if it got too big too fast – even if it took too long and I started to get discouraged – I would always want some reminder of where I came from.”
I hope someday, Michelle, you find your way back to the person you were back then. I don’t believe that person ever would have uttered words like “God hates faggots” – even in jest.
Wisconsin State Journal Article:
June 18, 1993