Music is like politics in that it is too important to be left to professionals. –Michelle Shocked

Why did she have to ruin a great concert with all that political-forum crap? I came here to be entertained. –a dissatisfied concertgoer

Those who would allow no forum for fools to spread inane ideas are themselves the greater fools. –poster displayed outside the Art Institute

As a performance critic and thrill-seeking fan, I believe that popular music can provide occasional glimmerings of a shared community sensibility that is rare in a fragmented consumer culture filled with bewilderment and alienation. But as a frustrated observer of mass culture, I wonder whether these rare, wonderful moments are based on anything more than a shared illusion of togetherness. From Pete Seeger to Public Enemy, from the Woodstock Nation to “We Are the World,” the song–and the problem–remains the same: Can our gatherings devoted to dancing this mess around signify more than the received wisdom that “Bruce-U2-Sonic Youth rules,” “Bon Jovi is a hunk,” or “Peace and rights are good, war and hunger are bad”? Even if a performer talks about a revolution, will the nods and raised fists mean anything when the lights go back on?

While 1988 was a banner year for critical and commercial acceptance of overtly political popular music, I suspect that the vast majority of self-consciously “political” songs, made cultural inroads far smaller than, say, George Michael’s Grammy-winning derriere last year; the most widespread political imagery derived from popular music teetered between cheerful indifference (e.g., George Bush’s misreading of Bobby McFerrin’s hit as “Don’t Worry, Be Complacent”) and self-righteous sanctimony (e.g., suburban liberals’ misreading of Chapman’s big hit as “Do Worry, Be Guilty”). Glib narcissist though he may be, Manly George (Michael, not Bush, but give the latter time) has mastered the populist art of positioning his prized possession where it counts. While the typical political song may make listeners feel good about their own sensitivity or awareness, it’s much more difficult to inspire political participation.

If you haven’t heard Michelle Shocked, you probably will soon. While this playfully subversive Texan troubadour has the talent and appeal to follow in Chapman’s footsteps as the Platinum Political Folkie of 1989, she’s also shrewd enough to throw curveballs at anyone who would dare to pigeonhole her music this way. Her recent solo acoustic performance at Cabaret Metro featured country- and blues-derived songs of remarkable range and wit, opening performances by friends from both coasts (the Balancing Act, a cleverly inventive Los Angeles postrock combo, and Roger Manning, a ragged New York bluegrass anarchist), and–here’s the curveball–an impromptu public forum on flag etiquette with guest appearances from the current favorite public enemies of the month.

I’m not sure how to characterize the evening’s agenda, or even if I should try. (Was it a hootenanny for revisionist folkies? A return to “relevant” rock? A town meeting for yippies and yuppies? You make the call.) Before I explain why the concert/flag seminar was an inspiration rather than a yawn marathon, concerns for my security compel me to make two things perfectly clear. First, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party, the Art Institute, the Beach Boys Fan Club, or any other social organization dedicated to bringing about the end of the world as we know it. Second, I have never trampled upon any cloth more sacred than my autographed James Brown pillowcase.

Like many of us who grimaced during Ronald Reagan’s successful eight-year mission to turn Washington into the new vaudeville and dreaded George Bush’s resurrection of the 50s sitcom father figure as a means to legitimize kinder, gentler forms of world domination, Michelle Shocked recognizes that politics and entertainment have become inseparable. But unlike most of the new breed of political musicians, she seems to sense the special difficulties that this connection poses for an artist with a political agenda. To the extent that mass culture provides a surrogate for participatory democracy, there is a sense that politics has made entertainment redundant, and vice versa. (Is a John Tower joke “politics”? Is a top-40 song espousing sexism or homophobia “entertainment”?)

In a setting where much of the buying public believes that voting resembles a lottery, that party conventions resemble pep rallies, and that city council meetings resemble pro wrestling, an entertainer interested in social change must do more than recite politically correct platitudes. Rather than simply expanding the idea of entertainment to include “political issues,” he or she must also expand the idea of politics to include the ordinary events–at work, at home, on the radio, and in concert halls–that shape people’s attitudes about the way they lead their lives. From a casual listen, most of Shocked’s set at Metro–which included character sketches and childhood memories, homey yarns about trains and beer runs and letters to friends, dramatic shifts between urban and rural restlessness, and tall tales branching out from true stories might not seem political in the conventional sense, but these songs display her acute ability to bring the revolution back home. “I’ll concede,” Shocked has said, “that my music is not inherently political, unless you argue that people’s lives are the thing that politics are made of. And I think that argument can be made.” While the Stings and U2s of this world have fallen into the habit of making “message” music from the top down, delivering the occasional sermon on the mount to their admiring flocks, Shocked reverses the process, trying to forge a community consensus from the bottom up by getting inside the ordinary aspirations of everyday people and encouraging her audience to do the same.

Part of the reason Shocked is such an effective storyteller may be that her own life has been more interesting than most movies you will see this year. Growing up with a fundamentalist Mormon mother and stepfather in rural east Texas, she read too many books and asked too many questions (she had to “teach her history teacher how to say ‘bourgeois'”). She learned to associate music with liberation while attending bluegrass festivals with her natural father, an aging hippie. In one of several hilarious moments at the Metro show, Shocked yodeled (to a tune that by her own admission sounded a lot like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”) an account of her hometown of Gilmer’s annual “Yamboree Queen” contest, which continues to be celebrated despite the fact that government agricultural policies terminated yam production there decades ago. “That’s east Texas for you,” she said. “Hell, that’s America.”

Just when you expect Shocked’s slightly sentimental story telling to get mawkish and soggy, her versatile alto–alternately conversational and impassioned–captures the pain and dignity of luckless drifters who have discovered the ugly underbelly of America the Beautiful. She should know; she was one of them. A runaway at age 16, the former Michelle Johnston found herself wandering among hard-core folk and punk outcasts in Austin and San Francisco, with later travels taking her among other places to New York, London, and Amsterdam. Her mother put her in a mental institution, but her brief stay ended when the insurance ran out. A psychiatrist finally told her, “You’re not crazy; you’re just poor.” Having been exposed firsthand to the desperate condition of the urban poor, she found herself actively involved in the grass-roots political protests that remain central to her work and art. She adopted the moniker “Shocked” to commemorate her own institutionalization and the urgency she attaches to political change.

Michelle Shocked’s professional singing career came about almost by accident. British producer Pete Lawrence happened to be wandering through the Kerrville, Texas, folk festival in 1986 when he stumbled upon Shocked and persuaded her to sing into his Walkman. Even with its nonstop tape hiss, and the sound of crickets and trucks in the background, the resulting record, The Texas Campfire Tapes, quickly became the most popular independently produced album in England. Despite the production flaws, it’s quite impressive. Shocked’s offhandedly casual stroll through several decades of folk, country, blues, rockabilly, and bebop is a greater tribute to the old Folkways field recordings of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie than anything on the recent Folkways tribute album, A Vision Shared. (Shocked’s live rendition of “Midnight Special” at Metro hinted at the extent of Leadbelly’s influence on her efforts to create a postbourgeois blues for the 1990s.)

Since I had made my own Walkman tape of Shocked’s more recent material before the release last summer of her major-label debut, Short, Sharp, Shocked, I was initially put off by producer Pete Anderson’s squeaky-clean production values and addition of a full band (complete with banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and hammered dulcimer). But upon repeated playings, the crisp production started to enhance the material, which is clearly superior to the songs on the debut; there’s less chitchat and more emotion all the way through. Although this is not a Dylan-goes-electric type of record–Shocked’s economical playing and writing sounds more like her Texas mentor, Guy Clark, by way of O. Henry and early electric blues–it breaks new and impressive ground. The wealth of material on the new record was fully in evidence at Metro, with especially impressive versions of “Graffiti Limbo” (a traditional blues lament about a real-life black victim of police brutality), “V.F.D.” (literally a barn-burning rocker about kids making trouble for the volunteer fire department), and the gorgeous ballad “Anchorage” (one of the finest songs about lost and found friendship ever written).

The highlights at Metro were both warmly comic and brutally somber. In “The Campus Crusade,” which lampoons not only its evangelist targets but also American and Israeli imperialism, Shocked distinguished herself from Sting and similar Jesus wannabes through her ability to chuckle at her own limitations. “Preachers are like folksingers,” she wisecracked. “You say your piece and get the hell out of town.” Her hushed, gripping a cappella rendition of Steve Goodman’s Vietnam-era ballad “Penny Evans” made a devastating indictment of war, hypocrisy, and bureaucratic indifference through the eyes of a single victim. Whether she used the feather or the dagger, Michelle displayed an uncanny ability to shock the conscience.

Perhaps most shocking of all was her decision to devote encore time to an experiment in audience democracy: a participatory public forum on Chicago’s favorite parlor game, “What Is the Proper Way to Display the Flag?” Needless to say, Michelle was making trouble for the VFW; on hand to discuss the subject were Chicago’s favorite art student, “Dread” Scott Tyler, and an antiwar protester whose conviction for burning the flag (overturned on appeal in Texas) will soon reach the Supreme Court for review. The experiment seemed deliberately designed to shake up those fair-weather progressives in the audience who would rather leave their copies of Tracy Chapman on the coffee table than question any of their own beliefs. Judging from the mixed audience reaction–some felt cheated; others wanted to elect her mayor–she accomplished just that.

Rather than turning the public forum into a radical-chic version of the Morton Downey Jr. show, Shocked displayed a real sensitivity toward contrary viewpoints and demonstrated that, at the very least, she is a more capable talk-show host than Phil and Oprah combined. As an American who believes that patriotism includes a moral responsibility to criticize the government when it acts immorally, I am encouraged by Shocked’s recognition that the concert hall–like the art gallery or your living room–is a political arena where words and actions have moral consequences. I’d love to see her link her own feminist folk and postpunk progressive constituencies with rappers such as KRS-One, from Boogie Down Productions, since they share a desire to promote social change by forging a common consciousness within their own communities.

Tracy Chapman may be right in saying that the revolution will sound like a whisper: the silent cries of those whose personal stories are at the core of all politics. But Shocked senses that to be heard, the collective whispers must join together. Where there’s smoke, there’s sure to be a fire.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.