How I Survived Taylor Mac’s 24-Hour-Long Musical History Lesson
Taylor Mac involves an audience member a scene from Act II (Image credit: Teddy Wolff)
By Chloe Veltman
KQED senior arts editor Chloe Veltman chronicles her experience of attending the first-ever full performance in New York of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music—the acclaimed drag artist Taylor Mac’s most ambitious project to date.
Editor’s note: What follows is an abridged version of the author’s article. Read the full version at KQED.org.
In the annals of marathon concert experiences, Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is right up there with legendarily lengthy sets played by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, and Chilly Gonzales. The acclaimed New York drag performance artist and Stockton, California, native appeared at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, in October 2016, presenting his 24-hour-long musical journey through U.S. history for the very first time. There are 246 songs in the work. And I was determined to stay awake for every one of them.
Act 1 from "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" (Image credit: Teddy Wolff)
1776–1786: Act I
Mac begins the first of his eight three-hour-long acts with a discussion about the core values upon which our great nation is based. The performer takes us through spirited versions of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “Yankee Doodle,” and other period favorites arranged by the production’s formidable music director and pianist Matt Ray. (“Only 245 songs left to go!” Mac says after finishing the first one. Ray grins.) From these, Mac deduces that the United States’ founding principles, among others, include “hating Congress,” “liking black hair,” and “making things.”
Mac’s getup sets the tone that will mark nearly all of the costumes for the show: He’s in a beribboned periwig and hoop skirt contraption that I imagine is what Marie Antoinette would look like if she lost her head at a karaoke bar.
There are 246 songs in the work. And I was determined to stay awake for every one of them.
A section on women’s lib involving a dress encrusted with disembodied dolls’ heads, framed by a couple of smoking wooden chimneys—an homage to the decade in which steam power was invented. Matthew Flower (aka Machine Dazzle) is Mac’s costume designer and truly a mad genius.
A memorable decade, playing ribald drinking songs (“Nine Inch Will Please a Lady”) off against hymns performed by a sniffy, bonneted temperance choir (“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”) to provoke a discussion about the often-strained coexistence between the puritanical and debauched in American society.
Taylor Mac explores 18th-century drinking culture in Act I (Image credit: Teddy Wolff)
1806–1816: Act II
Mac takes audience participation in his shows seriously, and the floor is already a mess of ripped-up paper, ping-pong balls, etc. from the various antics of the previous three hours. He devotes this section to staging what he calls a “heteronormative jukebox musical about colonization.” His story about young Irish lovers Harry and Jane separated in the old country and reunited in the new goes on for way too long. But we get to sing along with the band.
Mac’s helpers—whom he refers to as his “dandy minions”—pass out eye masks. We then spend the next hour stumbling about in the dark. Why? That’s the decade braille was invented. Also, Mac wants us to rely less on our sense of sight. So he has us feed each other grapes, smell carnations, and play a giant game of blindman’s bluff.
The next decade deals with the Indian Removal Act. Mac wears a cartoonish milkmaid dress with what looks like small plastic figurines protruding from it. As we learn about the Trail of Tears and one poor Native American orphan’s journey from Cherokee lands in Georgia toward Christian salvation in Oklahoma, the cast performs hillbilly, washboard-infused renditions of children’s songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and “Goosey Goosey Gander."
Taylor Mac in Act II (Image credit: Teddy Wolff)
1836–1846: Act III
This is perhaps the most pensive and dream-like of all the show’s sections, dealing with the subject of slavery and the Underground Railroad that brought captives to freedom. As Mac and his band perform songs like “Wade in the Water” and “No More Auction Block for Me,” puppeteers illustrate the spirit of the music with ghostly puppet sequences.
Mac announces an epic, lucha libre–style smackdown between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster for the title of “Father of American Song.” We’re to yell “Oh Captain, My Captain” if we want Whitman to win and the flaccid “doo dah, doo dah” for Foster. Of course, the Captain wins every round of the fight, and the audience collectively pelts poor Foster with ping-pong balls. Still, when Mac performs one of Foster’s most beautiful and socially conscious songs, “Hard Times,” most of us vote in the composer’s favor.
There are lots of spunky war songs in this section, from both the Union and Confederate sides, including “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and that sickly nostalgic idyll to the South, “Dixie,” which causes half the audience to hiss in disgust.
Taylor Mac in Act III (Image credit: Teddy Wolff)
1866–1876: Act IV
Mac has decided it’s time for us all to have a “family dinner.” As we munch on delicacies culled from Catharine Beecher’s 1871 cookbook, Mac treats us to ditties of the era, like “Home on the Range” (done in a moody, Dave Brubeck jazz style), while a bunch of circus performers make human pyramids and perform other tricks.
After our civilized family meal, things start to get really weird. We’re in the Gilded Age, and Mac decides to spend an hour performing an homage to Gilbert and Sullivan, who were as popular in the United States in the late 19th century as they were in their native England. Only he sets his abridged version of The Mikado on Mars. Why? Because the appropriation of Japanese culture—or indeed any culture other than one’s own—is tricky territory today. I’ve never heard “Three Little Maids from School” processed through Auto-Tune before. It kinda works.
This section deals with the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Mac instructs the audience to make a run for a big bunch of helium-filled balloons, grab them, and then use them to stake out their turf. There aren’t enough balloons to go around, so those left without have to negotiate with the new “landowners” for space in their domain.
Taylor Mac with music director Matt Ray (Image credit: Ves Pitts)
1896–1906: Act V
We’ve officially reached the halfway point. Mac is wearing his most beautiful dress yet, a figure-hugging, Gustav Klimt–inspired creation of black and gold. We’re exploring what it means to be a newly arrived immigrant to these shores. Over the next hour, we flop about on mattresses and think about what it’s like to have sex in a tenement within earshot of dozens of family members while Mac performs tuneful renditions of popular songs by New York Jews of the time, like Irving Berlin’s “All Alone.”
Now we’re in the trenches. Mac’s songs about life during wartime include a terrific feminist take on “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
In this section about the Roaring Twenties, Mac chooses to view the hedonistic excesses of the era not as victorious jollity in the wake of wartime deprivations, but rather as postwar trauma. Even though the hour is a loopy cocktail of balloons, good-time numbers like “Happy Days Are Here Again," and a conga line, Mac keeps reminding us that 16.5 million people died in the war.
When they get to “Mississippi Goddam," I start to cry. Someone hands me a boxed breakfast. I gratefully dig in, with salty tears pelting my yogurt.
1926–1936: Act VI
Now we’re in the Depression era. Mac feeds our souls with “Minnie the Moocher," “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and other hits. He also feeds our bodies: The"dandy minions" emerge with huge vats of delicious split pea soup and bread rolls. We get into snaking soup lines and gratefully accept this well-past-midnight snack.
At some point during this act—I’m a little hazy on which decade exactly it happens—the performer transforms himself into a walking chocolate-vanilla ice-cream cone with sprinkles. A cherry-topped headdress provides the finishing touch. Only it isn’t a cherry at all but a glittery, red human skull. Nice touch. I’m a bit lost though. “What decade are we in?” I ask a couple of fellow audience members. No one seems to know. “It’s at that time when it all slips away,” I hear Mac say from the stage.
Taylor Mac in 1950s-inspired garb (Image credit: Ian Douglass)
This decade is all about the white flight to the suburbs and the threat of the atomic bomb. Mac resembles a Stepford-wife-on-acid, with a wig made out of cardboard 3-D glasses and a shawl in the shape of a white picket fence. The songs are starting to become more recognizable to 21st century ears, ranging from Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” to the Platters’ “Only You.”
1956–1966: Act VII
Guest singers Stephanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis join Mac for this section about the civil rights era. Rambunctious performances of Nina Simone songs keep me going. When they get to “Mississippi Goddam," I start to cry. Someone hands me a boxed breakfast. I gratefully dig in, with salty tears pelting my yogurt.
An hour devoted to the disco era and the rise of gay activism, kicked off by an energetic rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” Then Mac brings on a marching band from Brooklyn composed entirely of young black men. In a sly act of genius, Mac reappropriates the homophobic Ted Nugent hit “Snakeskin Cowboys” as a gay prom song.
Taylor in Act VII (Image credit: Teddy Wolff)
This one’s all about a back-room sex party. It involves “Purple Rain,” among other great let’s-get-it-on tracks.
1986–1996: Act VIII
We’re diving into the AIDS crisis. Mac is wearing a dress covered in cassette tapes. The music is a mad mix-tape of goth-pop hits like “Blood Makes Noise” and “Addicted to Love,” with tracks like Whitney’s Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” mixed in to throw us off, I guess.
This decade, devoted to radical lesbian songs, is a bit of a struggle for me. I'm exhausted. And I’m just not all that into “Pussy Manifesto” and K. D. Lang. That said, I appreciate Mac turning this decade into a “lesbian tailgate party” complete with vagina decorations, mimosas, hot dogs cooked up on a George Foreman grill, lawn chairs, and several happy-looking dykes. I eat two bags of popcorn in solidarity.
Taylor Mac in the Disco era (Image credit: Teddy Wolff)
I forgot to mention that Mac has been steadily hemorrhaging musicians for 23 hours, at a rate of around one an hour. Now there’s no one on stage but him. With a hoarse voice and almost slurred speech, Mac performs the last part of his musical journey solo, accompanying himself at different times on the piano, banjo, and ukulele. The songs are alternately angry and funny, and consistently moving. Mac composed them all himself. One track is dedicated to last summer’s bloodbath at the gay club in Orlando; another, to the life of a “Rank and File Queer.”
The 24-hour act of heroism ends quietly. Then the room erupts.
In partnership with Stanford Live, the entirety of A 24-Decade History will be performed in four parts at the Curran in San Francisco on September 15, 17, 22, and 24. An abridged version will be presented at Bing Concert Hall on September 27. Click here for tickets and information.