20 July 2010

Michelle Shocked and the Meaning of 'Anchorage'

As I'd recently picked up a copy of Michelle Shocked's Arkansas Traveler (1992), I took the trouble to look up the lyric of my favorite song of hers, 'Anchorage', which confirmed my opinion that this is a great song. Unfortunately, I also clicked on a link to a comment on this song in Wikipedia, which confirmed the deep suspicion I have about many of Wikipedia's articles. This is the first paragraph:

'"Anchorage" is a song by Michelle Shocked released as a single from her 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked. The song is about the writer taking time out to write to an old friend, who has moved from Texas to Anchorage, and her friend's reply. Although sung, the song retains the feel of the written correspondence between the two. The "sung" letters lyrically describe her friend settling into a life of contented domesticity, talking of her husband Leroy moving to a better job in Alaska, a new baby girl and her son losing a tooth. At the same time she calls for 'Shell to "keep rocking in New York."'

Forgetting the misquotation at the end of the paragraph, but remembering that much of the material in Wikipedia is in effect often written by many people continually 'correcting', the phrase 'contented domesticity' is bizarre in this context, and suggests that the writer(s) has/have no understanding of the song at all.

This song is not called 'Anchorage' for nothing, and the refrain 'Anchorage, anchored down in Anchorage', by its repetition alone, should underline what the song is about: a rather desperate young woman who has given up her freedom in exchange for a life effectively led for her by her husband in particular, but also, of course, her two young children anchor her down further. And the refrain could be the narrator Chel's comment on her friend's predicament, or the sub-text of her friend's letter. She is as existentially dislocated as Alaska - whose east coast ajoins Canada with its west almost touching the USSR - is geographically dislocated from the USA.

She is given no name, as though she is a non-person. Conversely, her husband Leroy (Le Roy = The King, of course), is mentioned by name five times.

This then, is a song of lost self, but also of lost love: the unnamed writer has not only forgotten the name of the song that Chel sang at her wedding, but also says twice in succession ('forget' followed by 'don't recall') that she doesn't remember the song itself. The listener hardly needs to be told that this is because love too has gone.

Oh yeah, I just had to change Wikipedia's 'Anchorage' entry too. I'm sure some person'll alter it, but that's the nature of palimpsests.


ADDENDUM: I don't think I like Michelle Shocked anymore, and don't understand who she is or what she represents. In the light of contradictory statements she's made relatively recently, I think that's all I have to say. (Written 2014, although in no way would I wish this statement to deter anyone from making further comments below.)

16 comments:

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Some time after writing this post, I received an interesting, and considered, email from a person who probably wants to remain anonymous, but I feel I must show a little of the content:

"Dear Dr Shaw

Thanks for the comments about the Michelle Shocked song, Anchorage. I too sometimes wonder about Wikipedia and just where people get some of their ideas from. [...]

Kind Regards, [etc]."

Between the bracketed dots, the email contained some very interesting material, although I'd probably be breaking a confidence to reveal that now.

But it's enough to say that the clown who wrote the Wikipedia crap in the first place has now deleted all the sense I was talking in the post above.

Conclusion? Be very, very wary of anything you read on Wikipedia. There's a hell of a lot of good stuff there, but the bad is really bad.

Anonymous said...

I think the writer you criticize had it right and you have it wrong. I think "contented domesticity" is pretty much right. Note the letter writer bragging about her "brand new eight month old baby girl". Also note that Leroy seems a decent fellow, telling the singer to "keep on rockin!". For that matter, one of the definitions of "anchorage" is "a source of security or strength".

Dr Tony Shaw said...

This is a feminist song, and there's a great deal of irony in it that seems to have escaped you.

Sure Leroy's a decent guy, why shouldn't he be - his wife's given up her life for him! And she knows it: 'I sound like a housewife/Hey Chel, I think I'm a housewife.' This is not contentment - it's a desperate cry for help.

Anonymous said...

Not a good interpretation. One clear sign is reading far too much into Leroy's name -- it's not an invention on Michelle Shocked' part, it's her friend's husband's real name.

Further, like a lot of surface music criticism, such as the legions of people who have misinterpreted Bob Dylan over the years, this piece focuses solely on the lyrics and leaves out the music!

The music is an extremely traditional arrangement, unlike much of the harder rock on the album. It's not as though Michelle Shocked is afraid to launch in to an electric guitar and drum heavy rant on "Short Sharp Shocked" but she clearly chooses not to on Anchorage, evoking nostalgia with the organ, fiddle and acoustic guitar rather than anger or desperation.

It's important to bring up the notion of context of the entire album here, because Michelle Shocked wrote Short Sharp Shocked as a whole, and looking at Anchorage in isolation clearly has led to a wrong conclusion, which would be harder to reach if it were heard in the company of songs like Black Widow or Fogtown.

Further understanding can be gleaned by taking a look at Shocked's video for the song, which incorporates actual footage of Shocked and her friend together in Alaska, which does not present her friend's life as something filled with despair dislocation. Shocked appears genuinely glad to join her friend's life in Alaska.

Diving in the lyrics, it's clear that there is a sense of loss, and like most good art there is certainly ambiguity, so that it's fair to say that the status of being a housewife evokes some disappointment. But the focus of this piece is off. What is Michelle's friend's number one complaint? It's that Michelle has been a bad friend and dropped out of her life. This piece pushes the focus too far on the friend, when much of the regret is in fact being expressed by Shocked for cutting her ties.

Leroy, rather than being a smothering presence, is in fact shown as being actively interested in Michelle Shocked's life and clearly glad that she's reappeared in their lives.

There's certainly a sense of irony in the refrain "anchored down in Anchorage" but this pieces misses the fact that it cuts both ways, and diminishes the richness of the art. It's valid to suggest that the friend feels constrained, but it's worth seeing a sense of loss on Shocked's part as well in her lacking an anchor, which led her to burn that bridge. Both Shocked and her friend can be said to regret losing the old days, but Anchorage needs to be seen as a case of Shocked taking her share of responsibility for the loss.

Like the great song it is, Anchorage is a much more complicated song than presented here, much richer in ambiguity and nuance than simply pegging it as about a desperate woman who has lost her freedom.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

First, many thanks for this contribution, as it's always good to get online feedback - feedback almost always comes via email. So thank you again. Interpretation is always tricky, but any is valid if it can be backed up. And overwhelmingly, this song really keels over toward feminist tract as opposed to an expression of marital contentment.

I never intended my post to be a definitive analysis of the song - that would be impossible anyway, and impossibly arrogant - no, just a comment on some of the unthinking nonsense that can be written on Wikipedia. I've given up writing stuff there, as it's just altered beyond recognition. Here, it's my blog, so I can within reason say what I like, in exactly the same way as anyone can make what comments they like.

Michelle Shocked may be singing this song, may have written it, may even have received a letter like it, but the words are by a narrator and not Shocked's friend (assuming she exists) because, even if it's a reconstruction, it's still an invention, and the people spoken about (including 'Chel') have no existence outside of the reality of the song. (Same with biographies, of course, incidentally: they're only reconstructions of people: real people don't exist on paper. But that much is self-evident.)

I don't understand your first paragraph: you're saying that this is a real friend whose husband is called Leroy, right? But so what? Why is the name 'Leroy' repeated several times, and we don't know her friend's name? Because he's the king! This is quite intentional, I'm sure.

You're right to draw attention to the music - although it's not nostalgia, it's an elegy to lost love. Intonation is also important in song. Just think how sadly the narrator says 'What was the name of that love song you played?' Touching. Just like the narrator says, 'New York City[!] Imagine that[!]', implying of course that she'd far prefer to be there than anchored down in Anchorage. And let's face it, it's impossible to see that choral refrain as an expression of stability! Is it stable for a person to be anchored down? I do not think so.

And I choose to look at the song in isolation because it's my prerogative. A song, like a novel, a film, or whatever, is very often treated in this way.

You say 'What is Michelle's friend's number one complaint? [or, as I prefer, 'What is the main complaint in the letter?']': 'Anchorage, anchored down in Anchorage' (stuck in the ice, if you like - you know Alaska? - and it doesn't have to be literal), and equally 'What was the name of that love song you played?/I forgot how it goes/I don't recall how it goes' (because love has gone). That repetition isn't arbitrary: we're talking about a serious songwriter. Where does the narrator claim in the letter that she loves (or even likes) Leroy, for instance? And don't say it's not necessary: everything points to the fact that she doesn't. She just repeats his name. He's the king. And again, why doesn't the friend have a name? Surely the king can't have taken her forename as well as her surname? Yeah, I'm a feminist too.

You say: 'This piece pushes the focus too far on the friend, when much of the regret is in fact being expressed by Shocked for cutting her ties.' Oh, no. What 'Chel' says is a mere preamble: the letter is almost the entire song.

Ms. D said...

Michelle Shocked was recently interviewed on KPIG radio Santa Cruz, CA...the couple Anchored Down in Anchorage are still married and the baby has a baby of her own.

Diane Music Library Assistant at W&M Music Library

Anonymous said...

Yep, it's a feminist song.

An 8 month old baby isn't brand new - the friend is realising how time (and her life lived for others) has disappeared before she was able to contact her friend Chel.

Also this isn't all about Chel contacting her friend, but also about her friend not contacting her - to tell of her move to Alaska to follow her husband's job choice (her own isn't even mentioned), or her second pregnancy and birth. The bridge was burning because of the lack of contact between them - the fault of both. Chel chose to cross it and make a contact attempt, which was welcomly reciprocated by her friend.

Leroy is decent, but you're right - there's so much reference to him as the friend tells Chel of his thoughts/words rather than it just being her own letter. His quote "keep on rockin" also implies that he too is bogged down in the wife/kids/family scenario.

It's a really great song, with music that just adds to the message. Us housewives have an anthem here.

stephen711 said...

Dr Tony, I appreciate your analysis. Nevertheless, I certainly disagree.

There is a very positive tone to the entire song. The letter writer's line are sang in a very positive/cheerful tone.

Furthermore, the entire family: LeRoy, the Letter Writer, and the Children participated in a music video. If it was such a horrible life for the letter writer, why would Michelle put her through this of writing a song and having them star in a music video about her oh so disappointing life?

The letter writer might have never expected her life to turn this way, with a family in Anchorage of all places, but she is quite happy with everything at the time of the letter writing.

Furthermore, when a friend reached out to you after several years, you would not write back droning about a horrible life. You would be positive, and she was positive.

The letter writers comments on Michelle in New York because she is excited for her at the same time. She wants Michelle to know that she is proud of her.

By taking individual lines of text, you can try to draw some of these negative ideas. Nevertheless, if you truly listen to the song, it is very positive.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thank you for your comment, Stephen, which is of course appreciated. Needless to say, though, I can't agree with it, and for all the reasons I've already given above: my argument is based on what I understand the song is saying, not on any factors outside it. If I agreed that it does indeed sound positive but is intended to be ironic then I'm sure you'd say I was twisting things, but there we are. I shall just add, with a broad smile, that I'd be far more convinced by your argument if the name of the city had been fictionalized to another place – say, Harmony?

Anonymous said...

I did a bit of digging on the song (let's hear it for google) and found out:
1) Leroy and Kelly are a real couple.
2) Leroy is simply his name.
3) They've been married over 25 years now, and live in Billings MT.
4) One link states "The song reflects those early life choices that women at the time were making, says Michelle.
Kelly to be married and have children; herself to be a punk rocker and vagabond."

Véronique CORNETTE said...

I hadn't listened to this song for a while. What strikes me is the feeling of nostalgia the two girls (now women) share for the time of their youth. WHat emerges to my eyes from this song is that life has not gievn them what they did expect from it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I read it as Dr. Shaw read it. For me, what clinches it is "what was the name of that love song you played/I forgot how it goes."

And as I was reading the detractors posts I thought to myself "they've obviously never been married."

Then I remembered that in 1988 Shocked hadn't been married either.... Maybe it's her (negative) perspective of the choices her friend made. Or maybe it's just about choices. In any case, a brilliant song in its ambiguity.

I've been a fan since 1988 and I'm also disappointed lately with some of her comments. It's too bad.

Chris Carrigan said...

I was cleaning up my iTunes library and for some reason this song came into my head.
It was like the letter, an old friend that I hadn't had contact with for years and years.
So I searched it out and actually Apple Music doesn't have much of Michelle Schocked (it must be a commercial thing or a stance by Schocked .. maybe someone know this) I found it on YouTube.
I listened to the whole cassette over and over on my walkman when it came out in the 80s and loved the edgy twang and her songwriting. I agree with other contributors in that although you may choose to view any work in isolation, I think it makes sense to put the wrapper of context around each song which is the whole album.

In my mind it is a melancholic song. Positive, with a hint of sadness over happy times and dreams unfulfilled. Of life taking you in directions you would not have predicted. I think she repeats Leroy because she loves him and he is also on the same journey. Maybe he would prefer to a be a rocker than slaving his arse off in Alaska to get enough money for the family. I don't buy the self centred feminist interpretation. It's a song about people, family , the anchor of responsibility, old friends, happy memories and the journey of life.

I am glad to have this old friend back in my music collection and won't let her drift away like I have in the past.

Chris Carrigan
Gold Coast Australia

Anonymous said...

Great song, great artist. Why overanalyse or analyse at all? Just enjoy!

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Over-analysis is my religion!

SABINA MOORE said...

I have listen to this song since it came out. I cherish it as it has taken so many different meaning as my own life went from travelling the world with friends to being a house wife with 4 grown kids. I now, email those friends left to their own destiny and country. I feel and agree with all the analysis before me . isn't that what songs are for .....to relate, learn and enjoy!!
Bina
Toronto, Canada