In this interview with Dennis Pohl, cultural journalist and editor-in-chief of Spex, Taylor Mac gives insights into the creation of “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music”, questions the role of pop music as a medium of identification and describes alternative ways of representing the USA.

Dennis Pohl: I have to admit to something right away: I had a pretty hard time preparing this interview. “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” is more than 240 years of pop history, summarised in 246 songs and 24 hours of performance. So allow me to ask you this embarrassing question: How do you remember all of it?

Taylor Mac: We worked on it for six years before we performed it for the first time (editor’s note: in October of 2016 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn). And we are just entering our tenth year with this performance. That means that we trained for it in the same way you’d train for a marathon. First off there were 90-minute shows, then three hours at a time, then six, then twelve. I’d say that I have developed my muscle memory to an extent that it just works somehow.

Like riding a bike, you mean?

Something like that, just with the difference that I keep forgetting something. Falling down, so to speak. The show is designed in a way that part of the attraction is to screw things up. That’s when the fun really starts. And the effort we have to put into cleaning up the mess has a very important function. It brings the space we are performing in together instead of pulling it further apart.

You also mostly change on stage. Is that pragmatism or a conscious decision for transparency?

There’s two answers for that. Firstly, I absolutely think surprise is a moral obligation in theatre. So I mix it up a little bit. Sometimes I go off stage, sometimes we build a look in front of the audience. Both confuses them in a way. On the other hand it is a conscious decision for transparency because transparency is surprising. In theatre people are so used to everything being decided already and it’s rare to come somewhere where decisions are clearly being made in the moment.

In the past, you have repeatedly said that with “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” you wanted to help people bring out buried or forgotten feelings. What did the work actually bring to the surface for you personally?

To be honest, nobody has asked me that yet. Well, I didn’t go to the best school in the world. I even think it used to be one of the worst public schools in the USA. Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Stockton, California. So I didn’t know an awful lot about history after graduating, to be honest. But I wanted to understand. So at some point I decided to write a kind of historical performance. And in this process, feelings of not belonging to what is commonly called home came up in me. And with that came the activism that I had always carried within me.

What do you mean by that?

As a queer male in America, having no real connection to “home” gave me this desire to change reality somehow. In any case, those were two important aspects. And, of course, working on such an expansive piece with other creative people is an experience in itself. Working together always means choosing your own family for a while.

In the concrete case of “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music”, however, this is not only true for the people on and behind the stage. You also build up a very special relationship with your audience.

That’s right. And there was one thing that surprised me: That this relationship is not only limited to the duration of the performance. Since the premiere, for example, I have been able to observe the same people in the audience. People who come again and again. For me that is a very special form of community building. And in a way I don’t really know that from theatre. With us this leads so far that there are couples who meet at the show, get married later and divorce again. (laughs)

Speaking of your audience – you played the piece once without a break in autumn 2016. During such a marathon performance, what happens in front of the stage?

There was this point after 17 or 18 hours of this ordeal when people were completely winded emotionally. I said something half funny at best and everyone started laughing. Or something only slightly sentimental and I suddenly heard people crying. People were probably just tired. Still, it was a transformative moment for me. Something dissolved, a border came down.

Why is it that your work provokes these strong personal reactions?

That again is connected to my idea of the theatre’s obligation to surprise people. Not necessarily to shock them, but to positively offend them. That’s why we incorporate as many unexpected moments as possible. It doesn’t always have to be this gigantic moment, but just like a costume reflecting light or something. And I don’t think people are used to the theatre being so dedicated to that moment of surprise.

Personally I would have said it is because you leave a great amount of possibilities for people to connect on an emotional level.

I don’t cater my audience with profundity. I create the circumstances in which the audience can go digging for it. I think of myself more as a diviner than as somebody who comes up with a great philosophical idea. I’m basically just saying that there is an idea and I encourage the audience to go search for it. It gives them agency that they are not used to. And by that I want to encourage them to consider. To consider their own position, their feelings. That can be polarising, of course, but at least you will react in more than one emotional layer.

Speaking of digging: May I ask what your first favorite song was?

To be completely honest, I have no idea. But I know that my first favorite non-animated film was “The Sound of Music” by Richard Rodgers (editor’s note: the film adaption of the successful Broadway musical about the Trapp family from 1965). So probably something from this. But nobody would admit to that, because it’s not cool. (laughs) So please let me say it was “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie.

Okay, let’s change gears quickly. What does pop culture mean to you these days?

It is a tool like every other thing. And it has something that highbrow culture on the other hand doesn’t necessarily have: it reaches the people. And while, of course, in the show we are trying to reach for some degree of virtuosity, which is more connected to highbrow culture, that is the goal. To not make something that is not above the people, but something that connects with them.

And is pop the right tool for that?

Yes. Sometimes with horrible results, as we can see with all the populist movements these days. So pop is something to be wary of, something to deconstruct continuously, to try to use the best parts of. But it can be very useful to bring us together and to break through norms. To identify normative behaviour that has been around for ages and see how we can use exactly these rulesets to overcome them.

What fascinates me about pop culture also has something to do with identifying, but in a different sense, I guess. I think there’s no better indicator of where a society stands in a specific moment in time than pop. Look at its pop culture and you’ll understand a society.

I understand the honesty aspect that you mean. Because usually it is not sophisticated enough to hide anything. But then look at propaganda: It’s almost always very pop-infused and it’s made to lie to people. In American history we have so many songs that only served one purpose: to keep people in their places, be it Black people, queer people or whoever. So I think pop is see-through, yes. But not honest.

Also, let’s not forget that since at least the 1930s pop music has been one of the most potent driving forces of capitalist consumerism.

Oh god, of course. Well … (pauses). Capitalism ruins everything. (laughs)

So what role do these aspects play in “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music”?

This is hard to say. But yes, you can learn quite a lot by looking through that specific pop history. Take these old Minstrel show songs, for example. Most people in some way know them and then you listen closely to the lyrics and realise: Oh boy, that’s basically why we have an industrial prison system right now. These are the mental considerations I want to provoke.

In that context, I immediately think of two specific songs, the first one being the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” that you slowly turn into a pretty chilling sound – and thereby into a pretty subversive song.

It was one of the very popular revolutionary songs that we learned as children and that represents what America is to many people. And I don’t think that anyone ever listens to the lyrics. So I guess I wanted to slow it down a little bit to let people actually hear the lyrics and then …

… it’s pretty queer.

Ha! I grew up in a country where there was nothing queer to be seen anywhere at all. The only thing I had ever heard about anything gay in my school education was my English teacher saying that Shakespeare could have been a fag. And yet this song, that our whole foundation is based on, is about a dandy! (laughs) So I thought, let’s unearth the queerness in our history. Let’s make a ritual out of it where we make everybody in the audience queer. And American, of course. But mainly queer Americans.

So it’s like rewriting a queer American history?

You see, queer people, they are never allowed to represent anything but themselves. They are not allowed to represent the larger culture. And we said: Nope, the queers are going to represent the US here.

The second one is this incredibly homophobic song by Ted Nugent …

… which is called “Snakeskin Cowboys”.

What a name.

Oh yes. He wrote it in the 70s and actually said in an interview that it is about fag bashing, which he likes. It’s about bashing anyone who wears fancy clothes on stage. So he’s basically making fun of David Bowie, of Iggy Pop, of Elton John and many gay performers nwho were popping up at the time.

You take this homophobic song, slow it down a lot and make it seem like a school dance.

We make everybody dance with their own gender, too. So this homophobic nonsense becomes an anthem to a gay prom. That’s basically a big “fuck you” to the man who wrote it, but also a moment to challenge the audience in a public sphere. Many of the people in the audience have never danced with their same sex. Not to imagine people coming with their mothers and dads. (laughs)

And you make it last just a little longer than it’s comfortable.

You can notice how emotions start changing in every direction.

You seem to do that quite a lot in your work. Take hurtful things, rip them up, piece them together differently and turn them into something positive. Is that a conscious decision or more a sort of self-therapy?

One of the major goals of my theatre is to heal people. I can’t say that I have accomplished that but one of my main aims is to ask how we are hurting and how we can use that to help other people. I absolutely consider that as I make work, because I would absolutely like the world to be more equitable and breathable.

In these many many years reflected in your show, I can’t help but be reminded of how the history of American pop is also pretty much a history of appropriation and exclusion.

That was a conversation we kept coming back to while making the work. One of the things that I really want to emphasise is that we are not the thing. Often the minorities are asked to stretch themselves towards the majority, so in this show we ask the audience to stretch towards the minorities. That’s a thin rope to walk, but we have to walk it because so much in American pop history is about stealing. And I want everybody to consider these things while the show goes: What is the root of this sentiment, what is the root of this pain? And what is the root of this liberation? Because even the liberation has been commodifi ed in many cases.

So the general narrative that pop is somehow by default sympathetic to the outsider is wrong?

Well, I think it is. Someone like a Lady Gaga, she has made a lot of money off  of a queer aesthetic and a queer narrative. I can’t be defi nitive, but to me it seems writing a song like “Born This Way” and making millions off it is some sort of exploitation of queer liberation.

This has happened for decades now, and while not trying to defend her, you could also argue that it has helped the community in some way by sheer mass exposure.

This is the odd thing about pop. Of course it could have helped. But even if it was a helpful gesture it could also be used to oppress a community and to keep it in its place. In a way, trying to become a voice for the community, to help it, to speak for it, makes sure that the straight girl remains the centre of the story.

In this context, do you see “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” as a way of reclaiming the narrative?

I’m not sure if I ever saw it as reclaiming. Minorities are minorities because there’s less of them. We have less of a voice in culture because there’s fewer of us. So no reclaiming, because we never owned it. It’s more like we’re trying to carve out our little spot in there.

But you can reclaim something on a subjective level that can never be yours in the big grand scheme of things.

Basically it’s just refusing to let America be defined by Donald Trump right now. He’s the president, the most powerful guy on earth and yet he doesn’t get to define us. Because there are many of us and we define ourselves. And more generally it’s about making sure that the story isn’t entirely told by people with power.

The show was written some time before the, let’s say, current political turbulences in the US. To you personally, has the meaning of the show changed in any way since?

We did our one 24-hour performance in 2016 right before the election and it felt like we were manifesting the world we wanted to live in. And that wasn’t just wishful thinking or a comment, it was tangible in the room. And then the election happened and it seems like it overshadowed everything we had created.

How did you go on from that point?

We just have to keep showing up, we have to keep talking to each other. When something is threatening to steal the attention from the storyteller you have to incorporate that threatening thing into the story at all costs. You can’t give the person trying to steal the lead from you the lead. The story is the lead, not Trump.

 

Photos: Taylor Mac „A 24-Decade History of Popular Music“ © Josef Beyer

With 246 pop songs through 240 years of American history: Taylor Mac’s monumental show “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” tells an alternative story of the USA over four evenings. Having earned vast acclaim in the U.S. as one of the most celebrated theater events of the decade, the 24-hour extravaganza comes to the Haus der Berliner Festspiele from 10-20 October 2019 for its European premiere and exclusive European performance of this unabridged version.