I’ve only sat through nine hours of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Taylor Mac’s outrageous, outlandish, offensive, embarrassing, raunchy, insightful, inspired, clever, sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving, sometimes thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event.I feel deprived for having to miss the other 15 hours worth of concerts. The term “concert” feels inadequate – just as calling Mac a drag act doesn’t get anywhere close to describing the artist’s extraordinary talent and breadth of theatrical ambition . The Mac voice is a flexible instrument that serves all genres, the body a canvas for fabulousness, the mind a weapon against mainstream complacency.
“A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has been running at St. Ann’s Warehouse since September 15 in three-hour segments (actually closer to three and a half hours), each covering three decades. The shows will culminate in a continuous 24-hour performance on October 8th and 9th in which Mac will perform all the songs from 1776 to the present. There are no intermissions, for the three-hour concerts or for the 24-hour marathon. Audience members are encouraged to leave whenever they have to.
Taylor Mac has been putting this project together for years, with director Niegel Smith (now artistic director of The Flea) and a stellar design team that includes MacArthur “genius” fellow Mimi Lien as the set designer and the costume designer known as Machine Dazzle, whose costumes are so intricately flamboyant that a facsimile of them are on display in the St. Ann’s Warehouse lobby, as if at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw the work-in-progress 1900s to 1950s concerts at New York Live Arts in January, 2015, and this past weekend caught the 1956 to 1986 concert, which has proven to be the most popular.
“A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” is as much an American cultural and political history – and the weirdest fashion show this season — as it is a history of the nation’s music. It is decidedly a queer history, if there is room in that label for other marginalized groups beyond LGBT.
The first decade of the three I saw over the weekend, 1956 to 1966, was focused on the March on Washington and the civil rights movement. Mac came out dressed in a pink dress suit and pillbox hat reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy’s, with an American flag undergarment, and a shawl of Campbell soup cans – as well as sundry accessories I couldn’t quite identify. Mac first sang “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the 1950’s Peter Seeger song whose words come directly from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. Then Mac ordered all the white people in the center section “to stand and move to the suburbs” – the seats at the edge. He welcomed the people of color to take their place at the center. This was a pointed illustration of segregation, and amusing, if only because it’s not your usual concert patter. But it went too far when Mac spotted a white man still in the center, and ranted until the man was more or less chased out of his seat. This turned out to be one of the tamer examples of audience involvement, although the others were more outwardly affectionate. Theatergoers not familiar with his work should be aware that Mac’s aggressive commitment to novel audience participation seems to be a full-fledged part of the artist’s boundary-crossing aesthetic.
The songs selected from the decade were by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes, The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan and several from Nina Simone, concluding with her “Mississippi Goddamn.” Mac introduced the song by observing that “My three favorite singers can’t really sing. Nina Simone always sung slightly above or below pitch.” But her singing was deeply effective, because she was singing her rage. I suspect rage motivates Mac’s art as well.
For the next decade, Machine Dazzle came on stage to undress Mac. Bald, wearing nothing but beige underwear and some glittery makeup, Mac resembled a cyborg from a science fiction series, or at least a warehoused mannequin.
Mac, re-dressed in a tie-dyed miniskirt, a psychedelic light show of a bra, and a hat that looked like a disco ball, launched into 1966-1976, and a focus on the Stonewall riots and what led up to them. The theme of gay oppression and liberation gave a new meaning to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”
Stripped once again, Mac was re-dressed as a feathery, glittery disco diva all in purple, and sang some disco anthems, as well as “the greatest make-out song ever written” – Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The subject of this decade was sex – specifically, backroom sex. “I like anonymous sex,” Mac said at one point. “I get you’ve never heard anyone say that from a stage….unless you went to one of those progressive schools.”
The decade, and the evening, ended with what Mac called “a bummer,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” written in 1979, a year before the band’s lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, committed suicide. Mac said nothing about that, but didn’t have to.