Michelle Shocked is a singer-songwriter whose music and performances seem influenced by her Texas roots, her political activism, and a self-assured style that her first major label producer likened to troubadors such as Joni Mitchell, Spider John Koerner, and Dave Van Ronk.
She was born Karen Michelle Johnston on February 24, 1962, in Dallas, Texas, the daughter of a carpenter and a woman who would end up committing her to a psychiatric hospital twenty-something years later. She graduated from high school in Gilmer, Texas and received her bachelor's degree in the Oral Interpretation of Poetry from the University of Texas in Austin.
Michelle's stage name dates back to the name she gave when arrested in 1984 at a protest for fair housing during the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California. Her nickname was 'Chel, so Michelle Shocked was a play on words intended to resemble the phrase "shell shocked". The front cover of her (arguably) best-known album, Short Sharp Shocked, shows her restrained by the chokehold of a San Francisco policeman in a supposedly authentic photograph of this incident. However, some indie music critics of the time observed that the style of this image showed a strong similarity to a photo that appeared on an album cover from British punk band Chaos U.K. This led some to assert that she plagiarized the concept, but the accusation was never answered nor seriously pursued.
Michelle Shocked received her first international exposure in Europe, particularly Britain, with her debut album The Texas Campfire Tapes. The album was originally recorded as a field recording directly onto a Sony walkman at the Kerrville Folk Festival by Pete Lawrence, the co-owner of British music label Cooking Vinyl. Her break into U.S. national renown came with the appearance of her 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked on college radio rotations around the U.S., which was met with strong acclaim from listeners. On the crest of this independent momentum, her 1989 album Captain Swing in 1989 was accompanied with a strong promotional push including a MTV-aired video of the single "On the Greener Side." However, commercial success did not follow, and she returned to making music as a grassroots singer/songwriter. An acoustic version of her song "How You Play the Game" was featured as the opening and credits soundrack in the DVD of the 2004 documentary film "Bush's Brain."