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.