- Subjective Histories of Taylor Mac’s “Radical Faerie Realness Ritual” History
Review: David Román
In 1987 a young Taylor Mac made a pilgrimage from the suburbs of Sacramento to the heart of San Francisco to attend an early AIDS march. The event was meaningful to him for several reasons, including the fact that he had never before observed a group of out queer people. The impact of seeing a community that was under siege and thoroughly devastated by the AIDS crisis come together in song and celebration in response to the epidemic was immediate and long lasting for the artist. The idea that the community was actively rebuilding itself in response to its tragic circumstances, and that it was creating a cohesive social movement despite its fatigue and vulnerability served as the catalyst for a performance that Mac would create decades later.
That project finally came to light on October 8, 2016 when Mac and his associates presented an extraordinary performance-art concert that began Saturday at noon and ended, without intermissions or scheduled breaks, twenty-four hours later. This durational work was performed only once for an audience of around 600 people who made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse to witness it. The concert, while inspired by the AIDS march in 1987, was anything but nostalgic. Indeed, despite its historical frame, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music proved to be very much an event of the contemporary moment.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music brings together over 240 songs from 1776 to 2016. Mac organizes them by decade, each of which is allocated an hour of performance. The songs selected for each section are not necessarily the most “popular” of their time; instead, they were chosen for their importance to a specific community featured during the decade being performed. Each ten-year period spotlights a particular community vulnerable to and struggling against the political forces of its time: colonial revolutionaries, temperance resisters, early suffragettes, Jewish tenement dwellers, 1960s Freedom Fighters, and radical lesbian feminists, among others. The songs selected reveal the struggle and resistance of the communities and range from the classic to the obscure or forgotten. This is especially true in the early decades of the concert that focus on a late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century repertoire of songs. The archival dimension of the project is most pronounced in these sections, given the historical distance between the songs and the audience. Mac brings the music into the present by summoning the sociohistorical context of each song and its significance to the community involved. As the concert moves forward in time, the songs become more familiar. Songs are pulled from a wide range of musical traditions including folk music, Negro spirituals, saloon songs, war ballads, labor tunes, Tin Pan Alley, the American songbook, and classic rock, to name only a few of the musical genres included in the concert. While each decade has its own stand-alone logic and coherence, when experienced together they build to tell a story of ongoing cultural resilience in the midst of tragedy and catastrophe. The entire project is a radical revision of American history through popular song; and yet, there is so much more.
Mac performed the concert with a musical accompanist, Matt Ray, who, in addition to excavating the music from earlier eras, arranged the songs in stunningly original versions. Ray also led Mac’s band, which at its core includes Viva De Concini on guitar and Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks on drums. For the Brooklyn event, Ray arranged the songs [End Page 404] for an orchestra of twenty-four musicians, one of whom would leave the stage after every hour, so that by the final hour Mac was left alone onstage. Each decade also had Mac dressed in a spectacularly theatrical costume designed...