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.
All nuance was lost when word of Shocked's comments hit the Internet. "Alt-folk Singer Michelle Shocked Goes on Homophobic Rant" became the stock headline. Here, the narrative went, was an artist with a large gay fan-base, a woman who once admitted to sleeping with other women, and a radical progressive who'd been arrested numerous times at protest rallies, who had flipped the switch on her old life so completely that she'd become a gay-hater. It was the kind of precipitous fall that the Internet loves, a storyline so deliciously entertaining that few bothered to really examine it. The storm whirled itself into a national controversy within days. All of Shocked's subsequent U.S. tour dates were canceled. She fueled the furor herself by retweeting her critics and showing up to a Santa Cruz venue alone, dressed all in white, and covered with inscrutable statements in black ink. ("Gimme Wet Not Spit" read the back.)
Then she began a national apology tour. On April 1, Shocked went on Piers Morgan's CNN show to explain herself, and did what the network itself described as a "rambling and confusing" job. Morgan had to ask four times if she was a homophobe before he got a clear denial. Four times! The picture of Shocked that emerges from that interview is of a confounding, crazy woman who relishes a fight. It ends with Shocked quoting her own song lyrics while Morgan tries to shut her up.
Her own written statements were somewhat clearer:
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.
But the narrative had been written: The once gay-friendly folk singer Michelle Shocked was now a cruel homophobe. Her attempts to apologize and explain herself were regarded cynically. Her career appeared over. And that's right about where most people — myself included — stopped paying attention.
I just could not believe that recording the interview with her would be such a big deal. People tell me plenty of ugly, unsavory things with the little red light on. Often they request that the juiciest details — the bar fights, break-ups, tenant-landlord disputes — remain off the record, and I respect their wishes. It's the price of getting people to be candid. But Michelle had a paralyzing fear of the microphone.
Or maybe she just wanted to fight.
The cover of Short Sharp Shocked, the singer's 1988 debut studio album, shows her writhing in the arms of riot policeman while being arrested at a protest rally. It's the quintessential Shocked image, illustrating both her activist roots and her love — displayed again and again throughout her career — of being at the center of conflict and controversy.
Shocked was born Karen Michelle Johnston to a Mormon family in Dallas in 1962, and had an upbringing she's described as "white trash." She ran away from home, but her mother had her committed to a mental institution until the insurance money ran out. Shocked left again and rambled around the world, living in Europe and even San Francisco for a time. An English record producer secretly taped her singing and playing guitar around a campfire one night at a folk festival in Texas, and released it; the recording hit No. 1 on the British indie charts. Her first proper album established her as a national star, and won acclaim for its illustrative lyricism and smooth, powerful vocals.
Always a fiery activist, it didn't take long for Shocked to become embroiled in more controversy. In 1990, confirming what many suspected based on her defiant attitude and short hair, Shocked admitted that she was, if not a lesbian, at least bisexual. "I was with my first woman lover about a year and a half ago," she told Chicago's OutLines. "To be honest, the real fear of coming out of the closet... had been if you had certain problems identifying yourself one way or the other." Though she would later marry a man, the writer Bart Bull, many others remember Shocked describing herself at the time as a lesbian.
In 1992, Shocked announced that she would be appearing on the cover of her third album, Arkansas Traveler, in blackface. The idea, she said, was to make a point about the mixed-race roots of American folk music. But the point was lost. At worst Shocked looked like a racist, and at best she seemed to have no ability to understand how her words and actions would be received by the world at large.
Unhappy with her relationship with her record company, PolyGram, Shocked fought a bitter, two-year legal battle to gain control of her own music. She emerged, emotionally scarred but victorious, in 1996. Then she disappeared for a while.
When Shocked reemerged in the early 2000s, it was as a born-again Christian. Her longstanding interest in gospel music inspired her to sing in church choirs, and eventually the religion won her over, too. But while Shocked embraced a new faith, she never disavowed her old politics or activism. "It's just a real garden-variety, born-again, Evangelical Christianity," she told New York magazine in 2005. "But it does have the twist of my being a radical skateboard punk-rock anarchist."
Shocked, now divorced from her husband of 11 years, also seemed to deny that she was ever gay. She's given several explanations, including that the image of her as a lesbian was shaped by her former manager, who decided to brand her as such after his come-ons were rejected. In a 2008 interview, Shocked gladly accepted the title of "honorary lesbian," but provides a rather convoluted account of her own sexuality. "According to my Bible, which I didn't write, homosexuality is immoral," Shocked told the Dallas Voice. "But homosexuality is no more [or] less a sin than fornication. And I'm a fornicator with a capital F."
It wasn't the first of Shocked's confusing statements on homosexuality. And it certainly wouldn't be the last.
Vogt came back to us at SF Weekly a few days after initially floating the idea. Shocked had agreed to the S.F. concert over Pride weekend for free — and she'd agreed to my terms for the interview, Vogt said. The plan was for the two of us to meet in L.A., so I booked a flight to Burbank for June 18.
Soon, though, it became clear that Shocked hadn't agreed to my terms for the interview at all. I'd tried being firm with her. Next I tried to be conciliatory, and explained why recording this was important. Nothing worked. "Homes, if I'm gonna be recorded I'm gonna be scripted," she wrote at one point. "If I'm gonna be scripted I'm gonna need the plot. Send the Qs and you'll have The Record. My head. My plate."
Shocked was terrified of being exposed in any position besides a defensive crouch. I could get her in 140-character bursts, or I could get her in rehearsed answers. Either way, she insisted on keeping as much control over the story as she could. If the Yoshi's experience had taught her one thing, it was to fear the way that the media could take any part of her that had been exposed, any revelation she offered, strip it of nuance, and send it out to the world to be digested and regurgitated even further. Essentially, she wanted to do to our pending interview what she thought the media had done to her.
A day later, on June 14, Shocked tried to take control in another way: She started Tweeting about her deal for the show, the SF Weekly story, and an Examiner op-ed she was supposedly writing. The woman has a strange obsession with Twitter: She claims that social media are distorting our image of the world and each other, obscuring "Truth" into "Reality," yet she holds a three-hour conference on Twitter every weekday. Mostly it's a handful of sycophants and trolls exchanging barbs or back-pats, to which Shocked responds in typically loopy fashion. After Shocked mentioned the SF Weekly interview on Twitter, Vogt tagged me explicitly in his Tweets, ensuring a stream of flames and nonsense in my usually quiet column of mentions and replies. Meanwhile, the day of our interview was coming close, and Shocked and I still hadn't agreed on conditions. I decided to just ignore it and see what happened. What would Shocked do — not show up? I gave her my cell number and said I'd be at our designated meeting place at 2 p.m.
One of her conditions I did meet, by speaking in advance with Roger Trilling, a former magazine editor, music producer, and old friend of Shocked's. While he defended Shocked's explanation for the March 17 comments, and tried to get me to empathize with her fear of being recorded, he agreed that she'd said awful-sounding things. In an email to myself and Trilling, Shocked had said that "I interview like a poet, not a politician." Trilling agreed: "She often talks that way, and she is often confounding — like, 'Michelle, what does that mean?'"
I asked Trilling if it was unfair to question Shocked's mental health, which, given her history, many have. "Of course it is," he said. "It is almost impossible for some people, many people, to embrace simultaneous contradiction. How can you be a born-again Christian and a progressive activist?... It's a contradiction, but does that make her crazy? I think it only makes her crazy if the person who's calling her crazy thinks that to be a Christian and to be a progressive activist is impossible."
On the morning of our interview, Shocked went public about our dispute. "I hate to take this to Twitter, but Ian is attempting to strong-arm me over a matter of principle and I have no reason to acquiesce," she wrote. Now her fans and haters were weighing in on whether it was reasonable to require a recorded interview or not. And just before my plane to Burbank took off, the news stories started to appear.
"Michelle Shocked To Promote Herself With Free Concert During Pride, S.F. Examiner Op-Ed," went the SFist headline. The bottom of the site's first story included this bit: "It sounds like Shocked has already figured out she could get played by the media. Now she's claiming that 'ProJo' writer/SFWeekly music editor Ian Port's request to record their interview is an attempt to strong arm her. (Into what, exactly?)"
In trying to get a story, I had become a part of the story. The same thing happened to Vogt. The previous week, he'd written, "June 30 is the last day of SF Pride Celebration. Watch @SFWeekly @sfexaminer & @sfbg for full details on @MShocked free concert." But news of the concert had been greeted with outrage, and soon Vogt was defending himself, trying to shape the narrative other media were using to report on him. "Maybe we challenged Michelle Shocked to come to SF, answer for what was said/reported, face her fans & foes alike and perform for free?" he Tweeted on June 17. "Nah. couldn't be just that."
As the story grew, his stream of Tweets became harder to parse. When he said that "People need to take responsibility and be held accountable for what they say and what they do," Vogt was presumably talking about Shocked, but others would hold him to the same standard, another illustration of the conventional limits of Twitter in conveying a complex situation. This controversy spawned from the original one, like a fractal. You could imagine it replicating endlessly from itself, each part the pattern for the whole.
I landed in Burbank and walked off the plane into the hot sun. There was a voicemail on my phone from a 323 number I didn't recognize. I'd hoped it was Shocked. But when I called back, it was Trilling. Shocked wasn't coming, he said; instead, he was going to meet me, and we were going to have a "chat."
We met in the sweltering parking lot of a Fry's Electronics near the Burbank airport. Trilling looks kind of like a mad scientist, with longish curly hair, little round glasses, and an intense expression. He drove me through Burbank to a Cuban restaurant. When we sat down in the air-conditioning, he pushed aside the little table placard, and tried, once again, to get me to change my mind.
"You're in an awkward position here," he said, reminding me that press interviews have been conducted since the beginning of time without tape recorders. "You're really okay with coming down here and not getting the story?"
"I am." I already knew what her stock responses about the Yoshi's comments would be. What I wanted was to go deeper than Tweets and prepared statements.
I reminded Trilling that Shocked had given numerous recorded interviews to other media besides Piers Morgan, and that she doesn't exactly speak in the most concise, clear manner. Even if I took excellent notes, it would still be very easy to take her out of context, or misinterpret a key piece of one of her long, circuitous tirades. That how this whole thing started, back at Yoshi's. Short notes wouldn't much help the kind of deeper examination I wanted to do anyway. Trilling then said that she had wanted to record the interview — but only if she retained the sole copy of it.
After 20 minutes, we both got tired of talking in circles. We finished the meal and he drove me back to the airport. Michelle stayed at her apartment in downtown L.A., and I got no interview. Soon Shocked was bragging about the saga on Twitter, calling the failed meeting "a metaphor for dry-humping." She was proud not to have talked. She regarded me as the enemy from the start, and in her mind, I guess she won.
After our interview attempt failed, things soured between her and Vogt as well. Eventually he pulled the plug on the free concert and apologized.
Later that week, Shocked released most of her email correspondence with Vogt and me to a circle of friends, who then passed them to other media. Some of those media outlets wrote stories pointing to a dissonance between Vogt's emails and his public statements, mostly about whether the concert and ad was his idea or hers. As far as I know, the ad was the idea of a sales representative at our sister paper, the Examiner, who first pitched it to her. Vogt is an excitable guy who likes the spotlight, and he clearly recognized an opportunity when it came along.
Despite Vogt's emailed promises to Shocked about an SF Weekly cover story, the interview was the idea of the editors. It was decided on our side (and independent of Vogt) whether and how it should be conducted. I knew going into this that Shocked was erratic and capable of doing anything, including publicizing all of our background negotiations. But as with one small piece of any story, those emails don't tell the whole thing. They're only a little better than Tweets — slightly longer statements for the media maw to chew up and regurgitate, sometimes adding a little context and understanding, often not.
It's worth keeping this all in mind when you think about what Shocked said at Yoshi's on the night of March 17 — if you've ever stopped to think about it all. You can believe that Shocked, who in another era publicly admitted to sleeping with women, has become a true hater of homosexuals in her conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. That she sincerely believes that "God hates faggots," that she's terrified of gay rights or enraged by them, and believes that gays are going to hell.
Or you can believe some version of the woman's own convoluted explanation for the whole thing, which, as offered to Piers Morgan and others, goes something like this: That her comments were meant to personify the cruel, fundamentalist, truly homophobic perspective of many fundamentalist Christians, but came out horribly wrong. That in saying "their" vantage point was hers, she meant only Christianity, and not homophobia. That she sympathizes with frightened Christians, but doesn't totally agree with them. That in the encore she meant to portray a flawed, awful version of "reality" (as opposed to her "truth") but did a spectacularly terrible job, confusing almost everyone who heard and/or read her comments. And that her basic inability to perceive how her words and actions would be taken by others caused her not to realize right away the huge mistake she'd made.
Or you can believe that all of it continues to be a waste of time. It does feel empty in a certain way: no concert, no interview, only a controversy, like many other recurrent media-borne controversies, that is always with us now, that flares up when certain conditions are met — the herpes of the Information Age.
Without having interviewed Michelle Shocked, I can't say for sure which of these scenarios I believe — or whether there's some middle ground between them where the real truth lies. I certainly have no reason to apologize for her. But after dealing with someone so battered by the deep churn of opinion and information on the Internet — and after being swept away by it myself — I'm even more wary of attempts to simplify any complex story, including hers. Watching these controversies unfold, we tend to think we're standing outside of the storm, able to see and define and comment on it. But as journalists, publishers, musicians, and social media users, we are the turbulence. We are the story we're trying to tell. And sometimes those stories just don't end with one Tweetable truth.