Taylor Mac in
Taylor Mac in "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" at St. Ann's Warehouse. (Photo by Teddy Wolff)
October 19th, 2016

Response: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

I’m an experimental theater writer/performer with the New York Neo-Futurists. Our art practice, Neo-futurism, is grounded in the “truth,” we never play characters, we are who we are we are doing what we are doing. I seek out artists who are blending creative inspiration with the ritual of expression and truth telling. This search led me to work with Jérôme Bel for his Perfoma 15 show Ballet (New York). This same fascination also brought me to A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC, Taylor Mac’s magnum opus.

It was a ritualistic celebration of the power of the creative mind and a fiercely political analysis of the history of America through song. It aimed to inspire people into sociopolitical action through an unrelenting durational performance, whose cry was “sometimes you have to do things for longer than you want to,” Taylor often said this throughout the day: regarding their actions, what they needed us to do as audience members (such as sing along or dance), or as a reminder of the deep reforms we need as a country and a global community.

Five years in the making, October 8-9th marked the first and perhaps only time that the piece was performed in its entirety. The show is constructed of 24 segments, each one roughly an hour long, that explores a decade in American history, such as 1926-1936. Popular music from that decade was contextualized, performed and dissected by Taylor Mac's accompanying band. Each decade is also wildly different in both the performance of the song, the visual aesthetics, the costumes by Machine Dazzle, the staging, the lighting and so on. As the day unfolds there were hours spent blindfolded, where we sat and watched Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado reimagined as a black light MARSkado dinner theater or a terrible period where we found ourselves listening to popular music from Oklahoma in the context of the state’s 1889 land rush and were subjected to terrible halogen “office lighting.”

The following is a chronicle of my experience at the event.

Before we continue, Taylor Mac’s preferred gender pronoun is judy, and only capitalized as ‘Judy’, when, like any other pronoun, it starts a sentence. At times this can appear confusing to a reader, or as if I am referring to two people, but be assured there is but one Taylor Mac, and judy is fabulous.

At 9:40 a.m., Mac says “we do not have to ask permission to create art which is fundamental to our survival.”

The show is staggeringly complex. At its heart was Taylor Mac who performed 246 different songs with no real breaks and never seemed to drop a note. Mac explored American roots with the songs that were popular at the time, beginning by highlighting how the songs of 1776 dehumanized “the other,” rejected the effeminate, were racist and blamed the oppressed not the oppressors. These themes would be returned to repeatedly throughout the night, frequently explored via the character of the Dandy, the spirit of the rebellious queer. For each decade, the Dandy character served as the voice for the decade, helped give the songs context, and provided fanciful historical narratives.

After a long diatribe about injustice and what we can do to address it as collective, Taylor Mac says, “But I progress.” and returns to singing.

The show was conceived out of an attempt to explore the early years of the AIDS crisis in the United States, both its staggering loss and the capacity of those involved to organize and come together. The entire work was about conceptualizing and synthesizing chaos and pain into art and action, lived experiences of Taylor Mac’s, during this time that they used as a window into exploring the history of America.

Each decade was accompanied by a complete costume change and often, new makeup. The outfit changes were performed on stage, aided by Machine Dazzle. Machine’s costumes were wearable art with multiple permutations in an hour, ranking somewhere between three and ten reveals. There were elaborate costumes with giant parasols, massive golden frames, or cumbersome props that were picked up, sometimes for not longer than a moment, before being discarded. I’m not sure I could pick a favorite, but when the giant vulva that had dominated the space descended from the ceiling at 11:00 a.m., (after an hour of music from 1996-2006 dedicated to radical lesbians and the power of the sacred femme/lesbian/goddess) and enveloped Mac’s body before unfolding into a haute couture tinsel covered ball gown, and a headdress that invoked the sun, I screamed myself hoarse.

As each decade ended one of Mac’s 24 band members left the stage. The sonic landscape was compromised by the departure of artists, until at hour 23, Matt Ray, Mac’s collaborator, piano player and the man responsible for arranging the 246 songs, left the stage. For the last hour Taylor was alone singing judy’s own original material. The ritual stripped itself down till it was its own essence personified, standing on a ruined staged, voice in tatters, trying to understand this modern landscape, and it’s pain, it’s loss: a prolonged meditation on the disappearance of a lost generation.

By collapsing 240 years into 24 hours, performed and explored through the surreal and magical lens of a radical faerie ritual, a 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC was an event bursting at its seams. What I saw in that day was this: art has the power to synthesize reality and remake you anew.

-Shelton Lindsay 

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Tags: Category: Writing Live