On Michelle Shocked and syncopation
Syncopation is what happens in music when someone starts playing in a rhythm that’s a little bit off the rhythm you expect to hear. Sometimes this happens when the rest of the song keeps going at a steady pace and all of the sudden, a horn player, or something, starts playing around the rhythm. It’s so common in jazz, it’s practically expected, but other styles of music use it frequently. Sometimes, it’s the singer, who has to go off-rhythm for a minute to get out everything they need to say. It’s a precarious place to be – on a syncopated run – because you can go too far quickly and the whole thing can sound like a jumbled mess. But when you nail it, it lifts the song, it can lift the room.
One night when I was living in New York City back around 2001, I was walking through the West Village, as I was wont to do, from Carmine, down 3rd Street toward the East side. It was a typical route for me. Sometimes I ducked into the Fat Black Pussycat for a drink on the way. Sometimes I went by the Baggot instead. I was a regular on the block, and the folks who owned the clubs knew me by site as the kind of gal who frequently walked the city with a guitar strapped to her back. Doubtful they knew my name, but whatever.
This evening, I was walking down 3rd toward the East side, probably toward the Sidewalk Cafe or CBGB or some such place, when the owner of the Village Underground popped out and asked if I had plans for the night. That depends, I told him. What’s going on?
Well, we’ve got Michelle Shocked and her band downstairs. Want to come in as a VIP?
I was a folksinger, in the city to try to make a living doing just that. I was not accustomed to getting VIP access to the concerts of anyone other than my friends. Arkansas Traveler and Texas Campfire Takes were two recordings I’d spent a good deal of time listening to. Plus, I was broke and bored with my routine. I said yes.
It was an outstanding show. Given the albums I’d spent so many years wearing out, I did not expect the Latin0-Caribbean flavor that was coming off the stage. The driving groove – the vocal harmony – the syncopation.
When I eventually wound up in New Orleans for nine months, I heard stories from local artists about having crossed paths with Michelle Shocked. I don’t remember the details of any of those stories. People seemed to like her, think she was a true artist, a truly creative personality. You heard about her like you heard about all the other artists who lived in and around the Quarter. It’s all part of the culture there, part of the scene.
Through the years, I’ve loosely followed Shocked’s career as she’s proven to be an ardent socio-political voice in the world of music. Her actual recorded music has become more and more puzzling to me, but I don’t think too hard on it. I don’t “get” everything, and not everything people do musically pleases me. As I’ve become more and more of a music reporter/blogger/critic/whatever it is I do, my interest has become much more difficult to pique anyway. Occupational hazard. I hear too much to be impressed by much of it, so I don’t think too hard when an artist takes a direction that doesn’t dazzle me.
For that reason, mostly, I haven’t thought about Michelle Shocked in some time.
Then yesterday, people started posting on Twitter and Facebook that Shocked went on an anti-gay rant during a concert in San Francisco. Chris Willman from Yahoo Music has a full in-depth report of how it all went down. At first, this story appeared on various LGBT-themed websites, then progressive news sources, and now it seems from Willman’s article like this is something that actually happened and maybe not something that’s just been strung together based on two or three tweets by two or three annoyed fans who didn’t get a joke.
A couple of people have contacted me for my opinion – I guess because I’m gay and I write about this kind of music. But, to be honest, I don’t have a well-formed opinion on this.
Yes, it bothers me personally to hear the phrase “god hates fags” because it’s inflammatory and reactionary, and it plays on people’s fears. It spins a Bible verse for the gain of human ego, which my feeble understanding of Christian theology tells me is kind of not the point of that whole faith system. But whatever. People interpret things all kinds of different ways. I know that much just by watching people debate who the best songwriters of all time are. More importantly, though, people fall apart. People find religion and start believing all kinds of things which are in opposition to a lot of things I believe. People say mean things. People are right and wrong all over the place. Here in the United States, Michelle Shocked has every right in the world to have said what she said, and to believe it.
Perhaps it was weighing on her that she identified somewhere along the LGBT continuum at least vaguely for at least a moment in her career, maybe before she was sober? I don’t really know the details of all that. But this is where she’s at now, and that’s what she said.
Does it make Arkansas Traveler not a great record? Does it erase Short Sharp Shocked from the progressive vernacular? No, and no of course not.
Whether she’s struggling with mental health issues, whether she’s trying to distance herself from a past she no longer feels proud of, or whether this is just what she’s come to believe, she was clearly struggling with the knowledge that she’d be playing to a predominantly gay crowd in one of the gayest cities in the country, on the eve of a Supreme Court hearing held to decide whether or not her state was right to try to block LGBT people from the right to marry. If I want to have my rights recognized, I must also recognize the rights of others. That’s the fairness game that comes with freedom.
There’s a tension which arises in folk and roots music when politics comes up. Some people got more politics in their music 60 years ago than they ever want to hear for the rest of their lives. Others have come to this kind of music because it’s sub-corporate, on the fringe, and allowed to unleash Steve Earle and Joan Baez whenever it darn well pleases. Me, I came to this music because it was simple and unabashed, honest, authentic. I came to this music because it was a comfortable place to be the kind of songwriter I am. I’ve stayed this long (20 years after I arrived) because it’s the most comfortable place for me to be the kind of story-telling critic that I am. Also, because it speaks for communities – it employs tools of tradition for the purpose of furthering the dialogue between cultures and belief systems.
And, I have to admit, if I’m going to get on sites like this one and talk about how important it is for artists to speak and be heard, to have their thoughts and feelings received and considered for the sake of our national (and international) conversation, as our world moves away from polarized conflict and – hopefully – closer to peace, we, the audience, must let our artists have their breakdowns; must let them distance themselves from their previous public personas; must let them find god and change their minds; must let them struggle openly with the reckoning between their deeply held convictions and the pace of reality. These are all the reasons we humans make and have art anyway.
And, while I know Shocked employed a phrase which, when echoed in school lunch rooms and airports and malls and places of business and the US Congress, directly impact people like me in a very harmful way (and I’m not just talking emotional harm; I’m talking about the kind of harm where a person can lose their job and their apartment simply for falling in love and making a commitment to another person)…I can also recognize that I don’t want to live in a world where everyone agrees with me and believes as I do. That would be boring, it would make the music boring; it would rob us of all the harmony and syncopation.
The Texas Observer today printed a letter Shocked sent them about the incident. Among many other things, she said this:
…to those fans who are disappointed by what they’ve heard or think I said, I’m very sorry: I don’t always express myself as clearly as I should. But don’t believe everything you read on facebook or twitter. My view of homosexualty has changed not one iota. I judge not. And my statement equating repeal of Prop 8 with the coming of the End Times was neither literal nor ironic: it was a description of how some folks – not me – feel about gay marriage.
The show, and the rant, was spontaneous. As for those applauding my so-called stance that “God Hates Faggots,” I say they should be met with mercy, not hate. And I hope that what remains of my audience will meet that intolerance with understanding, even of those who might hate them.
Folks wonder about my sexuality, but denying being gay is like saying I never beat my husband. My sexuality is not at issue. What is being questioned is my support for the LGBT community, and that has never wavered. Music and activism have always been part of my work and my journey, which I hope and intend to continue. I’d like to say this was a publicity stunt, but I’m really not that clever, and I’m definitely not that cynical.
But I am damn sorry. If I could repeat the evening, I would make a clearer distinction between a set of beliefs I abhor, and my human sympathy for the folks who hold them. I say this not because I want to look better. I have no wish to hide my faults, and – clearly – I couldn’t if I tried.
You can read her full statement here.