A Musical History Of The U.S., With An Extra Dose Of Glitter

Sep 21, 2016
Originally published on September 21, 2016 4:55 pm

At noon on Oct. 8, 2016, the performance artist Taylor Mac will take the stage at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a full orchestra and backup singers — 24 musicians total. They'll begin singing American songs from the year 1776. Each hour, one person will leave the stage — and each hour, history will advance one decade, without a break. By midday on Oct. 9, Mac will be the only one left on stage, singing songs from the present day.

It's a show that Mac has spent years developing, called A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

"I wanted it to be so long that the audience is falling apart. I'm falling apart. We're all falling apart," Mac says. "But because we go through the history all together, and because I make the audience do so many things, they start to get to know each other, and we actually are building some kind of a tangible community out of an ephemeral art form."

The idea is that, as they collectively fall apart, the audience and the performers come together.

Mac (who uses the gender-neutral personal pronoun "judy" but also accepts masculine pronouns) has been dreaming about creating a show like this for nearly 30 years.

"In 1987, I went to the very first AIDS walk in San Francisco, and it was the first time I'd ever seen an out homosexual before," Mac says. "I was 14. And the first time I saw an out homosexual, [it] was thousands of them all at the same time. So that kind of weird dichotomy of a community building itself and being introduced to that community for the first time, and the community is being torn apart from the epidemic. I thought I wanted to make a show about that."

It took a long time to figure out what form the show should take, but Mac eventually decided on a 24-hour feat of endurance. Each decade is about a different community that builds itself as a result of being torn apart. Mac covers the struggles of groups like suffragists, Jewish tenement dwellers and civil rights activists — but often comes at them from a strange angle. For example, one part of the show is devoted to children's songs that were popular during the era of the Indian Removal Act.

Mac has been performing excerpts of this show all over the world and has picked up raves from the press. But next month is the only time Mac's scheduled to perform the entire 24-hour epic, and he really wants people who sign up for the full performance to stay the whole time. There will be nooks to sleep in and food to eat. People can get up and walk around.

But they'll be moving around anyway. During the decade Braille was invented, Mac blindfolds the audience and makes them play musical chairs. During the tenement section, everyone is directed to crowd together on stage and imitate crying babies.

"It's the genre of the ridiculous," Mac says.

Mac even finds it useful to add a dose of the absurd to serious topics like slavery, the Trail of Tears and internment camps. "Sometimes you have to show the ridiculousness of something to expose it," he says. "So sometimes you have to exaggerate something in order to show what the thing is."

That principle extends to the outfits: headdresses, gowns, elaborate makeup and plenty of glitter, all created by Mac's longtime costume designer, Machine Dazzle. Mac's physical presence is a spectacle — not exactly a clown, and not quite a drag queen — and it can be difficult to pin down the artist's gender, or genre. And there's a completely different look for every hour (including a couple dozen pairs of high heels). Mac's Civil War costume includes, surprisingly, a hot-dog headdress.

"Yeah, [Dazzle] tends to do some research about, you know, German immigration at the time, so hot dogs were being sold on the street to make people money," Mac says. "That's how it became a thing." As for the barbed-wire-inspired skirt that goes along with it? Yes, barbed wire was also invented in that era. And Mac says the ketchup-inspired fringe dripping off the headdress looks a bit like blood in the right lighting — appropriate for a decade about the Civil War.

After working for years to craft a show that tells the story of America through music, Mac is resistant to the idea of a single historical narrative.

"There isn't one story," Mac says. "I think that's the story of America is that there is not one story. And it's something that often gets framed as one story, one nation under God, and also because it all has to fit in a history book when we're kids ... And often the default is white and often the default is straight, and often the default is male. So it's just fun for me to think, what are the other stories that we don't think of as the American story?"

There's a lot about this show that Mac is still unsure about. And he's embracing the uncertainty. He doesn't even know whether he can make it through 24 hours — he says it could just be the audience singing by the end. But when the performance does become ragged and things start to fall apart, Mac hopes the community he is building inside that Brooklyn theater will come together and hold each other up.

Taylor Mac is presenting a few decades each night all this month at St. Ann's Warehouse. He'll perform everything from 1776 to the present day in 24 hours, starting Oct. 8.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At noon on October 8, a performer named Taylor Mac will take the stage in Brooklyn with a full orchestra and backup singers, 24 musicians total. They'll begin singing American songs from the year 1776. Each hour one person will leave the stage. Each hour, history will advance one decade without a break. By midday on October 9, Taylor Mac will be the only one left on the stage, singing songs from the present day. It's a show that he has spent years developing called "A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR MAC: I wanted it to be so long that the audience is falling apart. I'm falling apart. We're all falling apart, but because we go through the history all together and because we are - I make the audience do so many things, they start to get to know each other, and we actually are building some kind of tangible community out of an ephemeral art form.

SHAPIRO: So even as you're falling apart, you're coming together.

MAC: Yeah, that's the concept.

One, two, three, four...

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Follow the drinking gourd. Follow the drinking gourd for the old man is...

SHAPIRO: We're watching a rehearsal at a Brooklyn theater called St. Ann's Warehouse. This is a song from the Underground Railroad. We're around the year 1840. Clearly Taylor Mac takes liberties with his musical interpretations.

Though he performs in outrageous costumes, for this rehearsal, he's dressed more modestly. He told me he's been dreaming about creating a show like this for more than 30 years.

MAC: In 1987, I went to the very first AIDS Walk in San Francisco, and it was the first time I'd ever seen an out homosexual before. I was 14. And the first time I saw an out homosexual was thousands of them all at the same time - so that kind of weird dichotomy of a community building itself and being introduced to that community for the first time and the community as being torn apart because of the epidemic. And I thought, I want to make a show about that.

SHAPIRO: It took him a long time to figure out what form the show should take. Then he decided on a 24-hour feat of endurance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC")

MAC: (Singing) Where've you been, my blue-eyed son? Where have you been my darling young one?

SHAPIRO: Each decade is about a different community that builds itself as a result of being torn apart. There's women's suffrage, Jewish tenements, the fight for civil rights. But he often comes at them from a strange angle. For example, one decade is devoted to children's songs that were popular during the Indian Removal Act.

Taylor Mac has been performing excerpts of this show all over the world, and he's picked up raves from the press. But next month is the only time he's scheduled to perform the entire 24-hour epic. This recording is from Ann Arbor, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC")

MAC: (Singing) And I met another man who was wounded with hatred. It's a hard, hard - it's a hard - it's a hard - it's a hard rain, and it's going to fall.

SHAPIRO: Taylor Mac really wants people who sign up for the 24-hour performance to stay the whole time. There will be nooks for people to take short naps if they need and food to eat. People can get up and walk around, but they'll be moving around anyway. During the decade brail was invented, he'll blindfold the audience and make them play musical chairs during. The tenement section, he makes everyone crowd together on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC")

MAC: You guys are all going to play the babies in the Jewish tenement, OK? And when I go like this, you're going to make baby noises like (imitating baby crying). OK, ready, here, do it.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Imitating baby crying).

MAC: And if I go like that, you get louder.

SHAPIRO: I know this sounds really heavy handed, and that's partly because you can't see Taylor Mac. His physical presence is a spectacle - not exactly a clown, not quite a drag queen. On stage, it can be difficult to pin down his gender or genre.

MAC: It's the genre of the ridiculous.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) What does the ridiculousness bring to the conversation about serious things like slavery and the Trail of Tears and internment camps?

MAC: Yeah. Sometimes you have to show the ridiculousness of something to expose it. So sometimes you have to exaggerate something in order to show what the thing is.

SHAPIRO: That extends to the outfits. Taylor Mac's longtime costume designer goes by the name Machine Dazzle. The preferred look is headdresses, gowns and makeup that might be appropriate for Mardi Gras. Then just before going on stage, sneeze into a pile of glitter. We walk over to the costume rack. He has a completely different look for every hour, including a couple dozen pairs of high heels.

MAC: So this is the Civil War one right here.

SHAPIRO: With a hot dog head dress.

MAC: Yeah, he tends to do some research about, you know, German immigration at the time. So hot dogs were being sold on the street to make people money. That's how it became a thing.

SHAPIRO: With what looks like a barbed-wire-inspired skirt.

MAC: Barbed wire was also invented at the time.

SHAPIRO: Taylor Mac says the ketchup-inspired fringe dripping off the headdress looks a bit like blood in the right lighting, appropriate for a decade about the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC")

SHAPIRO: Having worked on this project so intensely for so many years, at this point, what is your story of America?

MAC: Well, the important thing is that there isn't one story (laughter), you know? I mean I think that's the story of America - that there is not one story. It's something that - it often gets framed as one story, one nation under one God and also because it all has to fit in the history book when we're kids.

And so we get the perspective that it is one story. And often the default is white, and often the default is straight. And often the default is male. And so it's just fun for me to think, well, what are the other stories that that we don't think of as the American story?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC")

MAC: (Singing) Let me tell my mother I come alone (ph).

SHAPIRO: There's a lot about this show that Taylor Mac is still unsure about, and he's embracing the uncertainty. He doesn't even know whether he can make it through 24 hours.

MAC: You know, I just (unintelligible) - well, like, I wanted to sing "Purple Rain" - can't sing it. Well, I guess I don't have a voice anymore. Well, the audience knows that song. You know, let the band play, and then (laughter) we'll just have the audience sing it.

SHAPIRO: When the performance does become ragged and things start to fall apart, he hopes the community he's building inside that Brooklyn theater will come together and hold each other up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) If I had money enough to spend and leisure to sit a while...

SHAPIRO: Taylor Mac is presenting a few decades each night all this month at St. Ann's Warehouse. He'll perform everything from 1776 to the present day in 24 hours starting October 8.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise and you should not, I'll gently rise and softly call good night, and joy be with you all. Good night, and joy be with you all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.