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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."