The simple answer is: alienate your audience. This is exactly what Michelle Shocked did last Sunday at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.
Shocked had built a career over 30 years of activist folk music that targeted a progressive, LGBT friendly crowd.
Then, in a moment, she did the equivalent of white Michael Jackson dropping a hateful N-word bomb at a black Baptist church in Birmingham. She began her slow, painful meltdown saying that once Prop 8 gets repealed and “preachers are held at gunpoint and forced to marry the homosexuals, I’m pretty sure that that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back.” Then she said “Please tweet out Michelle Shocked just said God hates faggots.” Most of the crowd probably hadn’t realized that Shocked became a born-again Christian a few years ago.
This is the point the crowd began to turn on her (and leave). She continued to ramble, speak bible versus in Spanish and finally got the mic cut by the club owner who came on the system thanking people for coming to Yoshi’s and asking them to close out their tabs. Shocked then tried to sing unplugged (to the mostly emptied room). She then said “I have pretty good reason to believe that when I leave here tonight I’m gonna be told that I did not give anyone their money’s worth and so now I’d like to pass the hat and ask if you wouldn’t mind putting a dollar in for the folk musician, for the busker, for the street performer.” And then asked people to buy her song book.
Remember, this was in San Francisco. Not that this would be ok ANYWHERE or that her fans are much different in different cities, but it’s SF for God’s sake. What did she think was going to happen?
This meltdown is actually quite epic and it’s amazing to see how quickly she loses control of the room. You can listen to the full audio below.
Within hours of this meltdown nearly every club on her tour cancelled her show.
So, aside from the obvious “what not to say on stage… ever” takeaway, there’s much more to learn here.
You are targeting a demographic – you may not realize it just yet. And you may not even realize that you’re targeting a demographic that you don’t even like! I remember reading in the June 2012 Rolling Stone issue that somewhere towards the middle of the Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill tour the guys realized “meatheads who bullied them in high school” were showing up to their shows – not the hip hop community they thought they were a part of (especially after a string of opening tours with Rum DMC and LL Cool J). They didn’t put it that way in interviews back in the day however – only 25 years later.
But once you have a fan base and realize who they are, for all that is holy, don’t alienate them. Especially not on stage where they paid to see you perform.
Now, I’m not saying censor yourself on Twitter to the point of a CNN “breaking” newsfeed, but just be aware of who your fans are. Be yourself. Be transparent. Be who you are. But if you start to build your fan base around that and then turn into someone COMPLETELY different (i.e. a lesbian turned born again homophobe), expect a serious backlash.
+Don’t Forget Your Lyrics (Performing)
Everyone’s fan base will be diverse. You will never be able to appease everyone. If you want to get political, do it on Twitter, Facebook, your blog, website wherever. If you do it at your concert (and your music isn’t blatantly political or at a benefit/rally) and start ranting, expect some very unhappy concertgoers who will want their money back.
I will never say “shut up and sing.” We, as musicians, can have a large influence in the world and anyone who knows my music and my project knows I do anything BUT shut up and sing. I think it’s important to use music to illuminate injustices and work for change, but some people use YOUR music for fun, love, comfort or a myriad of reasons that have nothing to do with politics, social change, or your cause of the moment. Don’t forget that while your beliefs are important to you, they may not be to others. You’re going to have to make a decision on HOW important they are to you and how much you want to share in song and in speech – on stage and off. I share quit a bit online and offstage and I work for causes I believe in. I have even written a few protest songs for various causes. But I know my greater fan base are not fans BECAUSE of this (some are, though).
In concert, I don’t go on political rants, but I will play songs that may have a veiled (or blatant) cause I’m behind. People can get behind the music – even if they don’t love all the lyrics.
Rant on Twitter. Perform on stage.
+Don’t Forget Your Lyrics (Performing)