It began as no other story in this newspaper: With Todd Vogt, the publisher and president of SF Weekly's parent company, walking into the office SF Weekly shares with the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Bay Guardian and announcing an idea. Michelle Shocked, the lauded alt-folk singer who'd become a persona non grata after making some homophobic-sounding comments at a Yoshi's S.F. show in March, wanted to buy an apologetic ad in our special Pride issue. Vogt proposed asking Shocked to do a free concert along with it. My editors and I saw an opportunity to follow up on a local story that had exploded into a national controversy. Any conversation with her was likely to be difficult, but certain to be interesting. And somewhere in there, Shocked would, presumably, apologize and explain herself.
The package, seen as a whole, had about it the air of a stunt — for SF Weekly, and for her — but my interest was in the story. It wasn't my job to make Shocked look sympathetic, or to apologize for her telling an audience to Tweet that she said, "God hates faggots." I just wanted to interview the woman and write about it.
Shocked and I began discussing plans for an interview. Her first email to me contained a long list of research I was ordered to conduct before speaking with her: radio interviews to listen to, TV interviews to watch, the full transcript of her March 17 comments to read. "I accept that you may be daunted by the workload involved in giving fair consideration to the muckraking and pillory which I have endured," she wrote.
The issue of recording the interview quickly emerged as an obstacle. She wanted me to take notes only, but I insisted on taping it. I wasn't going to interview Michelle Shocked without getting a full, objective account of the conversation. The story of her homophobic rant began with a flurry of charged Tweets and conflicting interpretations. It bloomed from there into a now-familiar Media Controversy, long on emotion, short on reflection. Those who didn't get caught up with the story checked out of the whole thing, assuming she was either a homophobe or a nut and, either way, at the end of her career. For her part, Shocked had been on Twitter three hours every weekday for months already, defending herself. To shed any new light on this thing, I thought the conversation had to be expanded from the bite-sized rhetoric of social media.
Shocked wasn't having it. "Ok, so let's assume you don't really want to go on a pilgrimage for truth," she wrote back. "Soundbytes are your 'talk in trade' [sic]. Fine." Here was a woman whose career had been shattered by 140-character summations of what she'd said over a 23-minute performance and who has been defending herself on that same forum. Now she was claiming that to record an interview was somehow less honest than scribbling notes on the fly. It seemed she had not a desire for truth, but for control.
"I promised Todd I wouldn't be a pain in the ass," she wrote in that email. "You, not so much."
It's worth recalling what actually happened at Yoshi's on March 17, the event that offended and alienated many of her fans, and threw Shocked's already weird mental state into the paranoia I encountered. After a normal show, she came out for an encore, and began by going through the feed of Twitter comments and song requests from the audience. In the full, 23-minute recording of her encore (first posted by our officemates at the Bay Guardian), those are the statements she's reading and responding to. People are laughing. Shocked responds to a Tweet by saying, "Truth be damned, let's go with reality, just for a while." That statement will turn out later to be important, at least for her.
Shortly thereafter, Shocked tells a story about Georgia O'Keeffe, a nonbeliever who brings up God in the context of a mountain she painted. "So it's not too late," Shocked, a born-again Christian, tells the crowd. "You can jump into this Jesus game anytime you want." Then come Shocked's most incendiary comments:
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 — I think maybe Chinese water torture is gonna be the means, the method — once Prop 8 gets instated, and once preachers are held at gunpoint, and forced to marry the homosexuals. I'm pretty sure that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back.
Nervous chuckles. Someone says "What?" Shocked continues in a sweet tone: "You just said you wanted reality. 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?"
The audience is stunned. Voices ask Shocked to clarify her comments: Is she speaking for herself, or voicing others' point of view? Shocked tries to do that, albeit poorly. She goes off-mic (you can still hear her in the recording) to seethe, "I am sick of Christians, filled with hypocrisy, hiding behind the cross!" Then she says a prayer in Spanish.
Many in the room had no idea what Shocked had meant to say. "People misinterpreted her ironic comment," Colin Epstein told the Bay Area Reporter afterward. "She didn't mean it. It was her comment on hypocrisy." Others in the crowd were livid. "It was the most homophobic thing I've ever heard," Cindy Icke told the BAR. "It was not irony."
In context, though, it seems that by asking the crowd to Tweet "God hates faggots," Shocked is projecting what she assumes people will take from her words. Effectively, she created the controversy by predicting it. And she was right: Shocked's words, which anticipate a torrent of anger by assuming they'll be taken out of context, are themselves taken out of context. Meanwhile, she lets her original point slip into the vortex.