Why My 'Feud' Partner, Michelle Shocked, Named a Non-Existent Song After Me
I never imagined myself actually getting in a beef with a pop singer. As an entertainment journalist and sometimes critic, I’d gotten my share of hate mail over the years, of course. Phil Collins scribbled me a furious note that concluded with the ominous words, “You’re on my list.” Gene Simmons wrote me a letter assuring me that “in rock ‘n’ roll, critics don’t count, never have and never will.” Barbra Streisand disparaged me on a couple of occasions in letters to the editor or interviews for insufficiently praising her. I once so angered Kanye West by giving him a B+ review that he wrote a blog entry ending with “Chris Willman, kill yourself!” But these were singular rages.
Relations between Michelle Shocked and me, however, rose this past year to the level of the F-word… feud. And let us all agree that there ain’t no beef quite as hair-trigger-intense as a middle-aged music reporter/folk-rocker beef. (I believe the words “Everybody, duck!” go without saying.)
So when I first heard the news a few days ago that Shocked had named a song after me, I knew the tune would not be as affectionate as, say, “Anchorage,” the college-radio hit from the late ‘80s where she and an old friend catch up and say sweet things like “Hey, Shell.” I knew the lyrics would have to be less fond in the tune “Chris Willman,” since she had spent the last 16 months on Twitter addressing me with terms of endearment like “toady tabloid tipster,” “bloggerazzi,” “opportunist,” “troll,” “hack,” “boogey man,” “webserial killer,” “tell-all tubby,” “lying creep,” “ersatz gerbalist,” “blobbermouth,” “d—,” “double-d— dude,” and “purveyor of online porn.” (Also, “Willbilly,” which sounded kind of sweet, despite her best efforts to make it nasty.)
Now, artists have composed great songs about being mad at writers before, and even Bob Lefsetz, the columnist whose attacks on Taylor Swift inspired “Mean,” had to admit the song she got out of it was terrific. So I was kind of up for a good anti-Chris Willman protest song, and if nothing else, I hoped Shocked might fit my name into the rhyme scheme. I imagined the endless derisive possibilities: “Your reporting is swill, man”… “Impale yourself on your quill, man”… Well, she’s the tunesmith, so leave it to her to go in for the kill… man.
Alas, her “Chris Willman” turns out to be 1:15 of pure, data-less silence, as it is with the rest of her new album, Inaudible Women (a bargain at any price, but a mere $9.99 on CDBaby.com). All 11 “songs” are exercises in extreme noise reduction, in the tradition of John Cage’s silent “4’33,” or, more recently, Vulfpeck’s Sleepify, which that band admitted was an attempt at making money for nothing. Shocked used the titles of her non-tunes to take a dig at some supposedly sinister digital music executives she believes are destroying the business for artists, but she left the 11th and final slot open for “Chris Willman.” I’d like to think this pegs me not as an afterthought in her contempt but as something more like the “Jungleland” of Inaudible Women.
Although I lean toward conflict-avoidance, I have to admit there are some positive aspects to being in an ongoing struggle with Michelle Shocked. Like: when you’re feuding with someone who has for some mysterious reason called herself “the world’s greatest homophobe,” people just generally tend to want to take your side.