More than three days after her potentially career-crippling run-in with a deeply offended audience in San Francisco, folk singer Michelle Shocked finally got around to issuing a public apology Wednesday, saying, “I don’t always express myself as clearly as I should,” and affirming her commitment to gay rights in the wake of her allegedly homophobic comments.
But the timing may not have been ideal, as within hours of her pro-gay statement reaching the media, an audio recording of her contentious San Francisco performance swept the web. And many following the controversy felt that the incendiary content of the tape seemed to reinforce the outraged initial impressions spread by concertgoers immediately after the show, rather than offer exculpatory evidence.
In a pair of open letters, Shocked asked fans not to “believe everything you read on Facebook or Twitter. My view of homosexuality 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… 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.”
Previously on Twitter, Shocked had told a concerned fan that she was “neither against a woman’s right to choose nor gay marriage. Am a fundamentalist tho” (sic), she added. Similarly, in the open letters she issued Wednesday, she took pains to establish that she is both a faithful evangelical Christian and an LGBT rights supporter, writing, "I know the fear many in the evangelical community feel about homosexual marriage, as I understand the fear many in the gay community feel toward the self-appointed faithful. I have and will continue speaking to both."
How does that explanation hold up against the tale of the tape?
The newly released audio begins cheerfully, as Shocked begins what was to be her second set of the night at Yoshi’s reading tweets that came in during intermission. After a lot of shouting and catcalls, the riveting recording ends 22 minutes later with most of the crowd having walked out, the club having cut off her power, and Shocked passing the hat to the fans that have remained because she assumes club management will refuse to pay her for the gig.
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“I love me some Jesus and I love liberation,” she says a few minutes in. “And I did not know how I was gonna come to San Francisco and authentically represent…” She trails off, not for the last time. Soon, she is talking about one of her role models, Georgia O’Keefe, and how the non-believing artist’s ashes being scattered on her favorite mountain is evidence of God’s existence. “So it’s not too late,” she says. “You can jump into this Jesus game any time.”
Then the rough stuff begins. “I was in a prayer meeting yesterday,” she tells the then still supportive crowd. “You’ve got to understand how scared folks on that side of the equation are. From their vantage point — I really shouldn’t say , because it’s mine, too — we are near the end of time. And from our vantage point, we’re gonna be… I think maybe Chinese water torture is gonna be the means, the method. Once Prop. 8 is instated, and once preachers are held at gunpoint and forced to marry the ho-mo-sexuals” — she says the word homosexuals almost in a parody of a Southern accent — “I’m pretty sure that that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back. “
The confused murmurs begin. “You said you wanted reality!” There is some nervous laughter and applause. “If someone could be so gracious to tweet out, ‘Michelle Shocked just said from stage, God hates faggots,’ would you do it now?” The laughter gets more nervous and dies down to silence as Shocked seems to wait for patrons to actually send out this tweet.
Responding to the first of what will be many cries of confusion from the crowd, Shocked says, mirthfully, “You’re confounded!” A man is heard loudly telling her that there’s “gonna be a looooot of talking about that.”
“I ain’t scared,” Shocked responds. “This is not a tribunal. This is one woman’s opinion. And it’s fun! It’s a lot of fun. I am so committed to loving each and every soul in this room. But I could not come here and ignore you. I could not come here and pretend that I was above the conversation. And. I couldn’t pretend that I was beneath it either. I had to join it.” One person is heard applauding. “Thank you for that one hand clap. I do that all the time. As a matter of fact, I was in church a couple… You know it’s come to a bad point when the white girl is sitting in a black church, I’m clapping, and a man in front of me turns around and goes, ‘That’s irritatin’.’ Hallelujah. I’d like to play you some songs. But…”
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A woman interrupts. “I hope you get wise, Michelle, and realize that there’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing to fear. Everybody is deserving of whoever your God is. It’s love.”
“Can I respond to that off the microphone?” Shocked asks gently.
“Respond to it on the microphone,” someone calls.
Shocked goes off-mike—to shout: “I AM SICK OF CHRISTIANS FILLED WITH HYPOCRISY HIDING BEHIND THE SYMBOL OF A CROSS.”
At this point, whatever point Shocked might mean to make about the hypocrisy of her fellow Christians, some in the audience are taking her yelling tone as confrontational. “Come on, show it,” one woman yells, baiting her. “Show your true self. Come on.” Others ask: “Can you clarify?” And “What are you so afraid of?”
“I believe the word of God is just what it says it is: the truth,” Shocked responds, not exactly clarifying.
“But you cut your hair,” a woman calls out. “That’s not so good in the Bible!”
“I’m just saying one thing. Just one thing,” Shocked retorts — and then loudly and emphatically recites John 3:16 in Spanish.
After some cries for her to say what she has to say in English, O’Connor finally starts playing her acoustic guitar for the first time since she emerged on stage almost 10 minutes earlier, and launches into a narrative ballad that lasts nearly seven minutes. During a spoken-word section in the middle of the song, a woman starts shouting: “Have you become homophobic or am I just confused? I’m so confused. That’s the most homophobic thing I’ve ever heard…”
As she finished her song, she was serenaded by shouts of “Homophobe” and “Everyone should get up and leave. That was rotten, that was a horrible thing to say” and “You’ve been confusing.”
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Rather than explain herself, Shocked says, “I’ve got a question for you all. It’s a sincere question. How are you enjoying reality so far? Sucks pretty much, doesn’t it?” She apparently looks at her phone. “I just got a tweet. It says ‘Don’t come to San Francisco sayin’ that shit.’ Where I go to say that shit?”
“Uh, Arkansas,” a man suggests.
“Wow, that’s so weird,” says a woman in bemused disbelief. “You’re so weird.”
“It weird,” Shocked responds with a chuckle. “Yeah, it is weird. This is not choice.”
After a few more catcalls about Shocked’s “reality” and cries of “get her out of here,” an announcer says, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for joining us tonight at Yoshi’s.”
“You’re pulling the plug? They’re giving me the hook yall… I still got game.” With the sound of much of the audience that is now chattering out in the lobby coming through the doors, a few remaining audience members urge her to continue, and she launches into an unamplified protest song about American values, which includes lines like “I seem to bring out the very worst in you” and “You yell at me and tell me it’s my treachery.” At one point in the tune she is shouting and hoarse.
The final kicker for those remaining: “I just want y’all to know that I didn’t ask for a deposit for this performance. And I have pretty good reason to believe that when I leave here tonight, I’m gonna be told that I did not give anyone their money’s worth. So now I would like to pass the hat and ask if you wouldn’t mind putting a dollar in for the folk singer, for the busker, for the street performer.”
Minutes later, she was seen sobbing at the side of the stage, consoled by a few supporters, before she bolted backstage.
By that time, angry patrons in the lobby were already tweeting that Shocked had ruined their evening by proving herself a convert to “hate speech,” although at least one fan insisted that the crowd had, amid her admittedly confusing patter, been too quick to form a “mob mentality.”
Within 24 hours, nearly every date on her tour had been canceled by the clubs in question. This had been the opening night.
Those who want to give Shocked the benefit of the doubt surmised after hearing the tape that perhaps she had meant to get around to a message about how fundamentalists and gays just all need to learn to get along. But with the fateful inclusion of the phrase that the opinions about to follow “are mine, too,” she left patrons with a literal reading that had Shocked herself believing gay marriage would precipitate biblical end times. The “God hates fags” line didn’t make much sense in any theoretical context, even the ironic one her intonation might have indicated. And in one of the stranger cases of performer ADD anyone has ever recorded, Shocked seemed to have mistakenly believed she’d gotten to her point, while anyone else would have considered it a movie with a crucial missing reel that was all incendiary setup and no moral redeeming payoff.
Shocked is set to do her first post-debacle interview Thursday with Nicole Sandler, a former Air America personality who now hosts a progressive web talk show. With seemingly a minority of her fans placated by the open letters, if social media reaction is any indication, Shocked may need to do a much bigger media tour to get a fuller explanation of her actions out. But her publicist of the moment is a video-producer friend she called up in Austin to handle the incoming calls. Can this career be saved, or does one disastrous set represent the kind of end times her church never could have prophesied?