13. Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked

I’m going to flip the script for this week’s entry. Usually, I track through where I was at in my musical growth when I first encountered the record featured, talk about the actual merits of the music, and then finish with a brief consideration of where the artist has gone in the twenty-five (plus!) years since. With Michelle Shocked, however, I feel compelled to begin with the unexpected anti-gay marriage rant from last year that earned her more prominent placement in the music press than she’s had in years. I would have quickly named Shocked as one of my favorite performers through the first half of the nineteen-nineties, but I largely lost track of her somewhere around the time she wrenched herself free of the label contract that inspired her to name a self-released album Artists Make Lousy Slaves. By the time I got to hear her output again a few years later, it sounded drab enough to me that I didn’t give it much additional thought. I certainly didn’t know she’d become a born again Christian, openly referring to herself as “the world’s greatest homophobe” when asked about the lesbian fan base that was instrumental in her early success. So the bigotry she espoused was entirely unexpected to me, especially since it was so completely at odds with the image I had of her from the time when I was an avid listener. She was a lefty protest singer when I left her. Now she was practically auditioning for a spot on a Fox News panel (well, except for getting arrested at Occupy L.A. protests).

As I noted, my disinterest in her more recent music is entirely on its merits (albeit merits gauged in the equivalent of glancing blows) and not predicated on a personal aversion to her bigotry, though that reaction is firmly in place. I’ve long said that if I got rid of every album in my collection that was created by everyone who I was pretty sure could be reasonably termed as an asshole in real life, I wouldn’t have much much music left to listen to. Still, I take a certain satisfaction in the fact that it’s now been a long, long time since I’ve supported Shocked in any way, while simultaneously feeling a little tingle of what can best be called regret whenever one of her old songs shuffles up. All that typed, Short Sharp Shocked is a terrific album.

Released by Mercury Records in the fall of 1988, Short Sharp Shocked was Shocked’s second album, and it was a clear statement of purpose. Her debut release, The Texas Campfire Tapes, is exactly what title implies. The album is what the lo-fi kids dream about: it’s nothing more than Shocked sitting out in the open air, playing her guitar and singing her songs. There are crickets in the background. The starkness of unadorned music presented her as a songwriter, first and foremost. She was a nimble musician and possessed an evocative voice, but the selling point was her ability to craft compelling songs that told stories both simple and profound. That established, Short Sharp Shocked seemed positioned to prove how much more she could do. The opening track, “When I Grow Up,” is layered with different studio adornments, as if to jar any listener expecting more of the same. It’s hardly a New Order song or anything like that, but it is loaded with strange, bendy noises that alter the dynamics of the song, heightening the sense of oddity as Shocked announces in the lyrics that she plans to have well over a hundred babies, adding, “We’ll raise ’em on tiger’s milk and green bananas/ Mangoes and coconuts and watermelons/ We’re gonna give ’em that watermelon when they starts yellin’.”

Across the album, Shocked balances folk-punk sensibilities with an earthier brand of studio polish, the latter provided by producer Pete Anderson, a longtime collaborator of Dwight Yoakam. Lead single “Anchorage” even alludes to this, as the reported correspondence with her friend who’s relocated to “the largest state in the Union” asks her “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker” and notes that her husband, Leroy, urges her to “keep on rocking, girl.” He also wants a picture. While Shocked made a case for herself as a pointed, politically-minded folk singer, she clearly didn’t want to be pigeonholed either. Thought that would become even more clear on subsequent releases, Short Sharp Shocked is already filled with songs that convincingly make the case that Shocked can zip across different styles: the bluesy grind of “If Love Was a Train,” the punk blast of hidden track “Fogtown,” the protest song repackaged as oblong jazz rumination with “Graffiti Limbo.”

That diversity of sound combined with the strength of her point of view had me convinced that Shocked was one of those artists who was in it for the long haul. This wasn’t just an interesting voice, I though. It was an important voice. I stuck with that conviction for a while, thought Shocked kept doing little things to convince me otherwise, including the one live performance I saw, circa 1996, when she alternated between daffily charming and borderline basket case. Still, I never foresaw how far off the rails she’d someday go, so far that it’s inconceivable she can find her way back to the sturdy, steel pathway ever again.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln

8 thoughts on “College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 13

  1. Dunno.

    Michelle Shocked grew up in a deeply, utterly religous environment.
    A rather musical one at that, it seems.
    Ran away from it.
    As in rather be adrift on the road.
    Made friends with homosexuals on the way.
    And possibly went clubbing with them, if I may cite her latest couple of videos.

    [Musical Career, unhappy marriges]

    She obviously found her own church in the nineties.
    That church takes the bible as literal wisdom.
    The way she knew about the bible anyways, back from home.
    Ironically.

    Perhaps found a non-hell kind of life, and came to repent her ways.
    Deeply repent her ways.
    And live in fear of god, as she’s a sinner.
    A v big one at that, given her public confessions.

    So she calls herself a homophobe.
    To the letter, that’s being afraid of homosexuality.
    From someone taking the bible to the letter, that may be about just that.

    So she said that she was afraid of priests being forced to marry gay couples.
    “forced, at gunpoint”, infamously at that, to make that point.
    In SF, of all places.
    Ironically.
    And things went south from there.

    Still, dunno.

    She is afraid that priests may be forced to act against their beliefs,
    forced to be a sinner.
    Oh well.
    Which probably is a thing that has the preacher of hers agitated,
    thusly highlighting politically utterly incorrect parts of the bible, which is right.
    Oh well.

    This view is well in the scope of religous freedom as understood in the
    western countries, innit?
    I mean, there’s a tea party running loose.
    She should ought to be able to really, really think that homosexuality is a sin.
    As long as she does not club them down, if I may cite her latest couple of
    videos again.

    I think political correctness fractions of the LBGBQ equal rights activists overshot here, successully.

    Also, I believe the LBGBQ equal rights activists are doing an important job,
    by and large.
    Also, I’m happy when people in power do not hold such strange beliefs.
    But we are talking a musician in a smallish club.
    A good musician with a reasonably successful past, but living a far more private life now.
    Repenting, and whatnot.
    I hope it involves good food.

    So, I think she’s judged way to harshly for an unpopular view.
    A view that’s part of the bible.
    Which she believes in.
    As part of the western culture.
    My country’s Grundgesetz bases itself on the christian belief, for chrissake.
    Oh well.

    1. While it certainly says something about the way we gin up outrage in this country that Shocked took a hit for views she’d expressed from the stage previously without a peep of concern (in part, this is a prime argument for the inherent value in the instruction “know your audience”). That noted, I’d argue she went beyond expressing an unpopular view into straight-out bigotry. There is and should be a different threshold. The fact that it’s bigotry with some wider or even biblical support doesn’t make it any more acceptable than the racial animosity that unfortunately defined the South in the U.S. for decades. That was extremely popular with a lot of folks who read their Bibles, too.

      Shocked may be less prominent these days, but she remains a working musician who therefore depends on the goodwill and attention of the audience. She betrayed that goodwill — significantly so — and faced repercussions for it. That’s how capitalism works in her chosen corner of it. She can certainly espouse her views. Similarly, no one is obligated to hear them without offering a counterargument. Free speech ain’t one-way.

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