“A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Abridged)

Genius drag on display at Stanford.

Written by:
David e. Moreno
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Taylor Mac just hit the San Francisco Bay Area like a category five hurricane; surprising seasoned thespians, consummate drag queens, strung out performance artists, elite Stanford students, and, baby boomer culture vultures. Who could resist the shear force of Mac’s spellbinding “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music”? There was just too much–pageantry (think, SF Gay Pride), vocal talent (think, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), seductive finesse (think, transvestite scientist Tim Curry–“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) plus, enough rebellion (think “Les Miserables”) not to beg for more. Can I just say, there was way too much—genius. Mac’s limitless creativity; theatrical talent, timing, spontaneity, transparency, vocal range, and irresistible command over the audience was jaw-dropping. Equally so were Machine Dazzle’s psychedelic fairy-like costumes all whimsically stunning, all art in their own right.

Performances at the Curran Theater were six hours long over two weekends. Each performance covered 6 decades of popular music starting with 1776 and ending with 2017. As if this wasn’t enough for this quasi one-person show—complete with an orchestra and lots of audience participation–Mac offered a Mac-sampler, a two-hour “Abridged” version three nights later at Stanford University. The “Abridged” version was supported by a stellar music ensemble–directed by Matt Ray (piano and vocals) with Danton Boller (bass), Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks (drums), Viva Deconcini (electric guitar) and, Greg Glassman (horn). It had lots of innocent audience participants willingly sacrificing themselves to Mac’s whims, but sadly, the “Abridged” had only two fantastically garish costumes for the full show. Beyond Mac’s immediate and obvious talents is judy’s (Mac’s gender pronoun preference–always in lower case) ability to manipulate an audience, physically as much as psychologically; causing them to grimace and laugh at themselves even though what they were laughing at was their societal shadow. In some cases Mac grabbed people from their seats and brought them on stage while at other times he had the entire audience either waving their arms like a hula or moving them like they were rowing a boat. At times the audience acted out different roles, section by section, with the most touching and heartfelt being when they sang to each other as if sailing away from their beloved–vocally growing quieter and quieter as if sailing into the horizon.

“We are making a 24 decade history of popular music! It is a radical faerie, a realness, a ritual… sacrifice! And here we go!” exploded Mac, as he went into a series of deconstructed historical songs, one after another. Each deconstructed song pitted original lyrics—that ultimately reflect the social norms and view of its time–with the underlying shadow reality of what those lyrics are actually saying to people of color, women, homosexuals, and other disenfranchised minorities. Mac exposed these sides of songs with gusto, superbly delivering them while at the same time eviscerating the underlying prejudices. Admirably, judy appeared casually detached from judy’s own point of view—accepting it for what it is. Mac seemed uninterested in making judy’s view the only one and thus, becoming part of the white colonialism judy was poetically dismantling. Mac alternated these deconstructed songs, with others that were sung more at face value, like the swirling 80s disco anthem “Gloria” that he used to help liberate the audience from sexual shame. Or, with his poignant rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall.” “Where the people are many and their hands are all empty, Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters, Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden, Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten…”

Taylor Mac capitalizes on the queer aesthetic and sensibility—a style that is naturally rebellious. In doing so he popularizes and legitimizes the queer agenda, an agenda that is different from the gay agenda in that there is more of a bite to the flamboyance than camp- for-camp’s-sake and a greater desire for living outside of the box than being accepted by it. This approach, like that of Machine Dazzle’s wardrobe designs, has immediate historical connection to the late gay photographer/filmmaker, performance artist, and costume designer, Jack Smith (1932-1989) who pioneered the camp and the trash aesthetic as an expression of going against the grain. Smith’s style and attitude has been upgraded and lives on in “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” and also greatly influenced two other queer artists, Andy Warhol and John Waters.

A longtime darling of the New York vanguard, Taylor Mac is the earthquake Californians have been anticipating. “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has just shaken us coastal folks. What we thought we knew about theater; gender, race, art performance, fashion, conformity, and—time—have fallen off the shelf. Ironically, when Mac was in high school judy didn’t like playing the enigmatic and degenerate Master of Ceremonies in a theater production of “Cabaret” —a musical adapted from the “Berlin Stories” by another gay playwright, Christopher Isherwood. Yet, in fact, judy has become that persona, that magical MC for these dark times in American history. “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” is a beacon of light; a fashion show of forewarning, a no-holds-barred education, a gender-fluid force of nature.

David E. Moreno

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