Listen to this track by East Texas punk-folk singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked. It’s her perhaps unlikely hit song “Anchorage” as taken from her 1988 record Short Sharp Shocked.

Besides the title of the record, the cover indicates that the content therein would be pretty politically strident, depicting Shocked in the literal clutches of a seemingly enormous, mustachioed police officer during a 1984 protest of the Democratic Convention she attended that year. The picture was originally shown as a part of a story that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and re-used, with credit, for the cover.

All the while, this is the song off of the record that made an impact on the mainstream, scoring heavy airplay on MTV and Muchmusic up here in Canada, as well as on college radio all over North America. The song was  the centerpiece on an album that dealt with a number of political issues, from the decline of blue collar jobs in America, to police brutality and the miscarriage of justice for the poor. Yet, without being at all strident or polemical, “Anchorage” is equally political, with its subtlety making it the strongest statement on the album.

And what was that statement, exactly?

It must be said that even if Michelle Shocked was interested in exploring a politically conscious direction on this record, it is tempered by another stream which she includes to make this a very balanced work; that of memory, and even nostalgic sentimentality. An angry song like “Graffiti Limbo”, for instance which is about a murdered graffiti artist Michael Stewart at the hands of New York City transit police, is tempered by “Memories of East Texas”, a fond and affectionate paean to her childhood home.

“Anchorage” meets these two poles half-way, being a story about remembering an old friend from her teenage years, and deciding to write her a letter and “walk across the burning bridge”. It’s her friend’s reply that is the voice of this song, an affectionate reply that evokes memories of a wild-child past, contrasted very deftly with hints at a life in the present that has tamed her. In the song, husband LeRoy and his plans are central to that new life (“LeRoy got a better job, so we moved …”) as are her children, Kevin (who’s lost a tooth and is starting school …) and her brand new eight-month-old baby girl.

Her partner-in-crime has become a housewife, and a nameless, isolated one at that. We never learn her name.

I don’t think that Michelle Shocked has written a song that condemns the choices of her friend, necessarily. I don’t think this is an indictment against being a homemaker. I also don’t think that there are any bad guys, or people to blame in this song. But, I think this song is about how it is easy for a woman in our society to lose herself, to find herself in a life that isn’t satisfying to who she really is, while not knowing how she got there. And I think it’s about missing a friend as the person she once was, too.

I say that this was an unlikely hit (it hit the Billboard 100 at #73), being something of a Dylanesque folk-rock tune in the era of hair-metal and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. Yet, these themes are powerful social statements that were becoming increasingly rare at the time, yet no less potent and relevant, either then or today.

Enjoy!

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