Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lessons from Michelle Shocked’s Career-Ending Rant

It could not happen often that folk venues get emails and calls from friends saying, “You really should cancel your upcoming show.” That helps to explain how Michelle Shocked’s tour could come to a stop so quickly.

It all happened after the alt-folk singer went into an out-of-character rant Sunday night in the middle of her set. The supposed topic was Shocked’s newfound opposition to gay marriage, but it was an ugly extended outburst, disturbing regardless of the listener’s views and even if the words “gay” and “marriage” could have been bleeped out. The singer pointedly and emphatically insulted the audience members, until most of them had retreated to the bar or the exits. At that point, the club’s manager apologetically called off the rest of the show, turning the sound and stage lights off.

Similar episodes occur at least once a month in rock and hip-hop circles. You hear of a disheveled show interrupted by a drunken rant from the star. Usually this is followed by a statement of apology the next day. The artist carries on, albeit with lowered expectations, diminished status, and smaller audiences. Entertainment reporters may slant this story in that direction just because they have written that story before.

The Shocked case was different, though. Shocked’s contempt for the alt-folk scene that had supported her throughout her musical career was perhaps too obvious, and the defiant tone and absence of an apology couldn’t have helped. Perhaps ordering audience members to live-tweet her self-described bigotry was a mistake. Perhaps, as one observer suggested, alt-folk just isn’t big enough to support a former star with an oversized ego. Folk music has stronger word-of-mouth than other music genres, and that must have been a factor. Whatever the reasons, the next day word came of venues canceling four of Shocked’s next shows. Within another day, all the remaining shows were called off and the tour was over. A vaguely planned fall tour will surely not happen either, given the circumstances. The abruptness of the response is nearly as shocking as the original outburst.

The most important cautions to draw from this episode are perhaps the most trite. Anyone can tell you not to bite the hand that feeds you. Some things are better left unsaid. When you have to say something unpleasant, say it in just a few words — don’t go on and on about it. If you declare yourself the enemy of your customer, you can’t be surprised if your revenue declines. Standing on principle, as Shocked thought she was doing, doesn’t give you a license to be impolite. Principles are beautiful, so if you have to be ugly to say what you are saying, then it is not about principle — you are just being angry. It can be hard to find the right balance, but if you are out of control when you are talking, it is entirely possible that the balance is not there. The message that comes out when you are speaking from a place of contempt might not be the one you want the public to hear.

There are indications that Michelle Shocked was tired of music anyway, but if someone in her position wanted to be a folk singer again, she would have to start by having a better feeling about it. The center of a good performance is a good feeling that can be shared between the performer and the audience, exactly what was so conspicuously absent here. The Maya Angelou quote applies especially to performers: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”