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.
Part of her ongoing problem is that she uses highly charged, hyperbolic language like that and never quite gets around to explaining whether she’s being serious or ironic or a bit of both. She became furious with me for my reporting on the incident of March 17, 2013, when she was effectively shouted down and booted from the stage of a San Francisco music club for delivering a lengthy monologue that most of the soon-to-be-former fans on hand determined was anti-gay. Almost a year and a half later, her intentions that night are still utterly unclear.
My articles at the time allowed for the possibility that her statements about gay marriage precipitating a biblical apocalypse might have been intended as a preamble to some other message that was left undelivered, and that her use of the phrase “God hates faggots” might have been not just in quotes but double-quotes. I even introduced a defense that she took up later herself, that maybe this speech had been more Lenny Bruce-ian than Fred Phelps-ian in original intent… even though, as a Pentecostal Christian, she’d gone on record before saying that homosexuality was a sin. In any case, the fact that I interviewed and quoted audience members who had taken the dimmest possible view of her words and behavior that night made me her immediate enemy. Even though there were many, many other stories about Shocked’s seeming meltdown, the fact that my articles were actually reported stories made them worse in her mind, and she blamed me for the almost immediate cancellation of her entire tour, not to mention her inability to book gigs since (although she does finally have a series of club shows booked in England this October).
Shortly before my first breaking news story on this career implosion was published on Yahoo, I wrote an email to the person listed as Shocked’s manager on her website, not realizing that “Phyllis Stein” was really a pun (she looooooves her puns) on “philistine,” to disguise the fact that she was self-managed. Rather than respond directly to the interview request, the singer reposted parts of my naively friendly note to “Stein” on her Twitter account, calling me out as a hack. It would be months later when she reposted it again and included my home phone number more than once, a TOS violation that precipitated the first of her four suspensions from Twitter, but that’s another matter.
She began showing up outside her canceled gigs, wearing all white with duct tape and taking a vow of silence to protest her supposed censorship. I followed her to one such non-concert she planned to demonstrate outside of in L.A., where the management had openly worried they’d need police intervention. On Twitter I learned that she’d turned around and said she was heading to speak at a political forum downtown instead. When I arrived, she and her church members were playing rocking gospel music for an audience of homeless people at a rescue mission. I tweeted about this turn of events, and Shocked responded, “Don’t blame me, @ChrisWillman! That was Jesus spankin yo’ li'l hiney!” — as if I hadn’t enjoyed the gospel music a lot more than I would’ve seeing her doing her stomping-mime act for the Santa Monica P.D.
After covering her continuing, increasingly confusing escapades for Yahoo and the Hollywood Reporter, I vowed to retire from this bizarre beat after writing one last recap of her April Fools Day 2013 appearance on Piers Morgan’s CNN talk show. That interview, seen as her salvation, ended up doing absolutely no favors as she appeared to stonewall even Morgan’s puffiest softballs; he had to ask as easy a question as “Are you a homophobe?” repeatedly before she finally did him and herself the favor of saying no. It seemed more important to her to emphasize that there was “nuance” to the gay marriage issue than to say anything that might salvage her career with the LGBT audience that once made up a huge bloc of her fan base.
People still ask me if I personally think she’s a homophobe or holds anti-gay marriage views, and I have to say I don’t know, although I suspect the answer differs on whether she’s with her Pentecostal friends — she does self-identify as a fundamentalist — or with her far-left “anarchist” crowd. Are we talking about the Michelle Shocked who shares conspiracy theories on Twitter about “ProMos” (professional homosexuals), “Big Gay” and “the Gaystapo”… the Shocked who publicly solicited support from English anti-gay activist Aiden Russell… the Shocked who defended Phil “Duck Dynasty” Robertson’s “soulful words and intentions” on homosexuality… the Shocked who just recently took a gig performing at a conference held by Stanford’s anti-gay-marriage student group, hosted by one of GLAAD’s and marriage equality’s foremost enemies, Robert Oscar Lopez? Or the Shocked who last year tweeted a photo of herself performing at a gay friend’s wedding?
There seem to be a bunch of Michelle Shockeds, and I had the strange urge to try to reconcile them. Moreover, where she had refused any attempt I made to interview her, she was willing to engage my questions on Twitter, albeit with enigmatic 140-character sound bites and riddles that just created more puzzlement. I would ask questions like: “Some of us assumed your intent (at the San Francisco concert) was to build a bridge between gays, evangelicals. But lately you say intent was to set a trap for Big Data.” And she would answer: “My intent was to speak Truth to power. Is it my fault Big Data runs subterfuge as ‘protector’ of gay community?”
Last summer Shocked invited me down to the L.A. County Courthouse to observe her trial for an Occupy L.A. trespassing bust, which was quickly dismissed because of time already served. I thought maybe she’d asked me to come because she wanted to usher in the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Instead, she handed her phone to a friend and instructed her to start filming as she laid into me for five minutes about how my “yellow journalism” had derailed her career, and that the SF concert was just a “gig gone wrong” that never would have attracted any attention if not for me. Shocked never did put the footage of this sandbagging online, which makes me suspect that it made someone look even worse than me. A couple of months later, she asked me to meet her at a diner near her penthouse apartment, but she was nowhere in sight when I got there, leaving me feeling like Charlie Brown falling for Lucy’s football again.
It got weirder when she started directly tweeting some of my Twitter followers who’d never heard of her, including the people who follow me because I cover NCIS for TV Guide. She made some kind of conspiratorial connection between a Change.org petition TV viewers had started to get the actress Cote de Pablo back on NCIS and a Change.org petition that had led bookers to cancel her shows, alleging that it was Change.org itself that had planted hecklers at her concert. “I don’t understand how NCIS would allow CW to operate with such impunity,” read one typical tweet. “Willman’s #NCIS fans are dupes.” She also sent messages to all the writers I followed or had as followers, sending a link to a blog she felt explained everything. “5 minutes of your time?” she beseeched, among others, Roger Ebert, who was deceased.
Eventually she started announcing she was filing harassment reports against me on Twitter’s support page, as she was with anyone who engaged her in a not-entirely-supportive way. “This town isn’t big enough for both of us, Willpire,” she tweeted. (A pun on the long-defunct hip-hop crew Ill-pire? I have no idea.) “Someone’s gotta go. Shoot out at high noon.” And she did succeed in briefly getting a support person at Twitter to suspend me. In celebration of my ousting, she tweeted a photo of herself with a twisted smile, writing, “Ask not for whom the punk smirks. She smirks for Yahoo!” But after a #FreeChrisWillman hashtag campaign picked up support not just from fellow writers but a number of well-known musicians and actors, and Twitter reinstated me, prompting Shocked to delete her own account in frustration. Fishbowl New York reported on the fracas and declared, “It all ranks as one of the strangest 2013 episodes involving the social media network. And that’s saying a lot.”
I figured we were both happy to be through with each other by the turn of the year, but then came the moment in March when a letter arrived in the mail from California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, saying that Shocked had filed a discrimination complaint against “Chris Willman – Yahoo News.” When I called the state agency in question, they seemed to get that I was in no position to offer Shocked either a job or an apartment, and suggested I shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. It didn’t help that she hadn’t filled out the part of the form about a basis for the complaint. When I found a phone number for the man listed on the document as having filed it on her behalf, I rang him up, only to find that, although he was her friend, he knew nothing about the complaint.
We’re done here, I thought again, after it was dismissed. And then I heard that Shocked was releasing a new album. This came as a surprise, since she’d previously announced she would never put out another record as long as websites like Google, YouTube, and Spotify existed “I will not write songs that bullies will steal. I won’t allow my babies to be sacrificed on an altar of blood,” she’d written. “I cannot & will not record because I won’t submit to the Fair Use doctrine Google wishes to impose on creators.” In other words, she was holding her new recordings hostage until a deprived public rose up and overthrew streaming services. Or something.
So what was Inaudible Women, then? That’s right: a silent album. It wasn’t her most original idea. She admitted she’d borrowed it from the band Vulfpeck, who had encourage fans to put their silent album, Sleepify, on perpetual repeat and make them thousands of dollars in the process. It turns out that not even the list of people Shocked chose to name the songs after was original. The first nine names/titles are all lifted from a post by Cracker leader David Lowery, taking votes to determine which music-industry bigwigs are the biggest “enemy of songwriters,” with the same ranking of execs from Pandora, Sirius, Google, Clear Channel, etc. – and the addition of me.
I plan to be a fan again and hope there are further records to buy someday. For now, however, I’m still feeling just embittered enough to ask you to boycott the official Michelle Shocked version of “Chris Willman” that is on sale at CDBaby.com, and instead enjoy a free stream of an unauthorized cover version: “Chris Willman” as performed by the Inaudible YouTube Choir Singers. This one’s got a good beat and you can feud to it.