Taylor Mac: how a 24 -hour pop odyssey redefines American history

The performer is embarking on an ambitious project a 246 -song marathon performance that seeks to sum up a new, queer vision of America

A couple of weeks ago, Taylor Mac expended the evening rehearsing a number from A 24 -Decade History of Popular Musicat St Anns Warehouse in Brooklyn. An ecstatic and skeptical exploration of American song, Macs project is divided into eight three-hour concerts that will eventually be scrunched together into one 24 -hour cathexis.

The number at hand was Tiptoe Through the Tulips and Mac was rehearsing an epic dance-off between 12 ukulele-strumming Charles Dickenses and 12 tapping Tiny Tims. As none of the strummers or hoofers had been called to rehearsal, Mac was alone onstage.

It didnt seem that route. Mac stimulated the tinselswagged platform feel crowded, hectic, delirious. A sometimes solo artist with titanic presence, outsized glamour, and coruscatingly queer sensibilities, Mac can fill a room as awesomely as the gods of the Homeric hymns, who would cast off their human disguise and abruptly rise to the ceiling.( He can display a deities brutality, too. Especially if youre a patron with a bourgeois air and an aisle seat .)

But offstage, bereft of eyeliner and trash-drag couture, Mac looks nearly poignantly human with a bald head, sad eyes and a demure smile. Mac favor the equivocal gender pronoun judy, which is, Mac says, its own performance art piece and its own fun, but when garmented down he presents as male. Theres something nearly childlike about Mac and you can glimpse that queer child from the California suburbiums, who first found refuge in community theater and then in the wild club scene.

Macs oeuvre includes pieces in which Mac has imagined the apocalypse, played a sentient flower, portrayed Macs dead fathers former pen pals. Mainstream culture is not exactly judys thing, but for the past five years, Mac has heard America singing, then selected 246 ballads that define the country from 1776 for the purposes of this, finally working with the pianist and arranger Matt Ray to adapt them for Macs voice( a warm and unexpectedly hardy tenor) and for an orchestra that begins with 24 musicians and shrinks to just one. The producer Mark Russell, an early champion of Macs, calls the result a magic act and a music act and a complete astound at all times.

Mac describes the show, performed by more than 200 people, as a radical fairy realness ritual. Like Macs last piece, the more or less realistic Hir, A 24 -Decade History isnt an outwardly political work. But the popular songs and the narratives Mac swirls around them are designed to make American audiences face up to the nations past, especially the parts of the past that weve rejected, stifled, evaded. A 24 -Decade History offers a return of the repressed. This time the repressed is dres sequins and a hot-pink merkin.

Its about were all in this room together and we happen to have this history on our back, Mac tells. How do we deal with it?

Taylor Mac: receiving the queerness in mainstream anthems. Photo: Nathan Keays

Mac isnt sure. Each decade renews the issues to, offering criteria such as Take Me Out to the Ballgame and Dont Fence Me Inas answers of a kind. Mac conjures a theme and a narrative spin for each decade and few songs are given straightforward performance. Every single ballad has some kind of queer thing in it and every sung doesnt, he says.

Mac has a talent for procuring the queerness inherent in mainstream ballads, pointing out the innuendo in Yankee Doodle Dandy, for example. When the songs defy, Mac just goes ahead and fags them, as where reference is stages Ted Nugents Snakeskin Cowboy as a slow dance number at a junior high faggot prom.

Early inspiration for the piece lay in memories of an Aids walk that Mac attended in the pre-retroviral epoch. Mac, a suburban teen, watched men are working together to celebrate themselves, their lovers, their family, their friends, even as so many “d die”. That experience resulted Mac to explore, how communities build themselves because theyre being torn apart, something that America has so often faced.

The marathon is uproarious, upsetting, and at least a little kinky. Photo: Nooshig Varjabedian

Mac refuses to explore it alone. To legislate these conflicts and convergences, he recruits audience members, sometimes individually and sometimes by the hundreds. Dressed in hand-me-down drag glamour distributed by his dandy minions, spectators play various opposition factions Americans and British, women and men, alcoholics and teetotalers.

This audience participation isnt always comfy, which is how Mac likes it. I dont want it to feel like Oprah, Mac tells, where everyone is agreeing and praising. I want people to be a little lost. I dont want them to feel like theyre satisfied with their purchase. Unless your notion of a date is uproarious, upsetting, and at the least a little kinky, It shouldnt feel like date night.

Mac enjoys constructing people uncomfortable and at a recent performance, Mac made joke after joke at the cost of the donors in the audience. Mac is an artist who likes to bite the hand that feeds him and then rub some glitter in the meander.

Which is not to say that there arent compensations. The ballads are pure delight, the costumes extravagant bliss. Various concerts include puppets, burlesque dancers, a marching band, free root brew. As Lear deBessonet, a director who has often worked with Mac explained in an email, Mac use fizzy drinkings, a staggering stage presence and outsized glamours to disarm audiences, and in that country of being loosened up with pleasure, thats when he can penetrate your heart, she wrote.

Outsized glamour and a staggering stage presence enable Mac to penetrate the audiences hearts. Photograph: Ves Pitts

This injury is designed to elicited the audience into rebelling against judy, against mainstream ideology, against American politics, but most of all against themselves. I simply want people to rebel against the feeling of who they are a little bit, Mac says.

A lot of that rebellion will probably take place during the course of its 24 -hour marathon, an act of endurance, for musician and for audience, that Mac has never rehearsed and will never perform again. I wouldnt want to set myself or anyone else through that on a regular basis, he tells. A 24 -hour show, its cruel.

Mac doesnt know if his voice or his body will sustain him. Im supposed to fall apart, the audience is supposed to fall apart, the musicians fall apart as we go forward, Mac tells. The last decade will find him alone onstage with my limited musical ability, trying to carry on.

In terms of necessities, Mac will have an outhouse onstage should the want start and moments of eating and drinking built into each hour. Initially Mac planned to surreptitiously scarf almonds and sip smoothies during cornet solos, but what happens, Mac learned, is that when I check out the audience checks out, so I cant ever check out.

Mac also has learned that judy cant check out of America either. The depict hasnt made Mac feel more patriotic( he has a costume riffing on the American flag, that costume is assless) or less angry. If hes pleased that the country has finally had the decency to acknowledge the basic human rights of fags, females, minorities, etc, hes appalled at how long it has taken. Still its helped Mac to claw back some sense of pride in the countrys pluralism.

Theres not a default of America that is bland and conservative and straight and white, he tells. Im saying this is what America is too.

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