The mellowing of 'Miss Shell Shocked'
By Zany Begg
"I can't tell you where I'm going but I can tell you where I came from", says Michelle Shocked about her latest album The Arkansas Traveler. This sense of heritage is an important theme that flows through Shocked's music. While listening to her albums you can almost smell the dust at the bluegrass music festivals she went to as a child and you can certainly hear the crickets chirruping in the background of her first album as it was strummed beside a Texan campfire.
Authenticity is central to Shocked's appeal. She gives you music that acknowledges its roots.
This is Shocked's third tour of Australia. Her warm energetic performances and off-beat talent have already won her a large following.
Preparing for her first performance in Sydney she seemed relaxed and confident as she spoke to Green Left Weekly. She gave me a huge grin as we caught the elevator to the hotel lobby and said enigmatically, "I have a secret way to get everybody dancing at my concert". But Shocked doesn't need any secret methods. Her gutsy performances are guaranteed to get even the most staid audiences on their feet.
Shocked's charm lies in her combination of swinging music and street credibility. But if her music flows easily off the tongue, her kudos has been hard won. At 16 Shocked ran away from home to escape an "austere religious family". She spent the next few years roaming Texas with no steady means of support. Her mother caught up with her in 1984 and had her committed to a mental institution. After escaping that experience Shocked hitch-hiked to San Francisco where she became involved in the squatters movement before she left America for Europe.
Shocked had to cope with a hard getting of wisdom. Raped while hitch- hiking in Europe, arrested several times at demonstrations and spending the years 1979 to 1987 virtually homeless have all impacted on her world outlook.
The name "Shocked" was chosen to symbolise her response to these experiences: "The name, Miss Shell Shocked", she told Green Left Weekly, "is a direct reference to the 1000 yard-stare which was a term that they first used to describe the victims of shell-shock in World War One. These people from outward appearances had survived the war quite well when in fact inside their minds were blown. I first used that name in 1984 at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco where I was arrested for protesting and demonstrating against corporations who contribute money to both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party campaigns".
In 1992, with four successful records behind her and a growing popularity, Shocked still appears to be "shell-shocked" by life's experiences. "At the moment I'm going through a point where I feel like I get high on pains", she said in a slow Texan drawl. "Life is full of pains, and when you're in pain, a lot of the time you feel depressed and that means you either lay in bed or you have to move very slowly, .
But Shocked is also a survivor. Although she still considers herself a "runaway-kid" she states that she is trying to move beyond the pain that she feels and achieve a sense of her "own power".
Politics has played a crucial role in providing Shocked with the necessary objectivity to overcome her difficult earlier years. In "5 a.m. Amsterdam", one of Shocked's first hits, she names a therapist, Isabelle Pierce, who gave her the confidence to go on when she told her "you ain't crazy, you're just poor". For Shocked this was an important insight, as it pointed out that it wasn't her that was the problem but the system.
After the success of her first album, The Texas Campfire Tapes, Shocked's second album, Short, Sharp, Shocked, came wrapped in a cover of her being dragged away from a demonstration by police. Shocked became immersed in anti-Reagan politics "I went to San Francisco", she said "pretty down and out, and fell into a group of anarchists who had been recently in touch with the squatters in Europe — Germany, Amsterdam, England". Social commentary became an important part of Shocked's music as she reflected on her own experiences and the injustice that she saw around her.
One of Shocked's most political songs, "Graffiti Limbo", comes from this time. She became quite passionate as she described to Green Left Weekly the incident which provided the inspiration for the song. "My song describes the case of Michael Stuart who was strangled to death by eleven white policemen and then had his case dismissed in court because the coroner had lost the evidence. This is, of course, a rich metaphor for the way that the justice system seems to work in favor of some and against others. But the real metaphor was left out of the song which is the fact that the evidence the coroner lost was Michael Stuart's eyes. In the autopsy to determine that someone's died by strangulation, they have to dissect the eyeballs. So, really, the metaphor is that justice is more blind than we could ever imagine".
But if Shocked's music was moulded by the raw politics of the squatter community and anti-Reagan demonstrations this influence has proved transient. With greater success Shocked has moved out of what she calls the political "fringe". "I have a different perspective on it all now", she says reflecting on her activist past.
Certainly the blatantly political image that was used to sell Short Sharp Shocked is very different to the coy kitsch image that comes with Shocked's latest album The Arkansas Traveler. The question arises, has Shocked sold out?
The answer is yes, and no. Our interview began with an incident that symbolises this perfectly. Shocked bounced into the room dressed in the obligatory black with a Che Guevara badge pinned to her jumper. I complemented her on the badge, but was met with a quick rebuff: "I just wear it to tell the front of my jumper from the back", she said dismissively. The symbols of political protest are still present but the defence of them has gone. Shocked described this transformation herself: "I still fight for all the big issues", she states, "but now in my own small individual way". With typical wit, she then adds: "The paradox is greatest when I tell the media that I'm not a publicly political activist but a personal political activist. So if you can live with that contradiction, I certainly can".
But the contradictions don't stop there. Shocked has always projected the image of a strong woman which has won her supporters in the women's movement and the lesbian community, but before the interview I was taken aside by her manager and specifically asked not to mention lesbian issues and, when questioned about women's rights, Shocked described herself as a "weak woman". The more we talked, the more I realised how much of a clash there was between Shocked's image and her reality.
As the conversation moved from Shocked's past to the state of the world today, the inconsistencies in her politics became more obvious. While describing US capitalism as the "paradigm of crisis" she simultaneously praises US President-elect Bill Clinton for providing her with "inspiration and courage". While condemning racism and oppression she claims that the LA riots were caused by gangster rap. While wearing a Che Guevara badge she claims Fidel Castro has little to offer humanity.
But if Shocked's inconsistencies may disturb the more political of her following she is unperturbed: "Almost anyone can come in as a critic and say to me that you failed to sell a coherent image that tells who you really are. But that wasn't really my intention; my intention was to engage my audience's imagination and let their imagination do 90% of the work".
And Shocked's performances certainly fire the imagination. Her inspired combination of folk, country, traditional fiddle tunes and swing give her music an inspirational quality. If her politics has softened with success her musical creativity has only expanded. Shocked has maintained her musical authenticity though unfortunately lost some of her political heritage. Canberra: December 15, Canberra Labor Club.
Michelle Shocked's tour dates are:
Sydney: December 10 and 16, State Theatre.
Newcastle: December 11, Newcastle University.
Brisbane: December 12, Livid Festival.
Canberra: December 15, Canberra Labor Club.