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Taylor Mac’s musical activism is just what we need

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Taylor Mac’s performance of “A 24-Decade of Popular Music” is a unifying experience. (Courtesy Little Fang Photo)
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I want Taylor Mac to be my new best friend.

Sorry, Jeremy, we had a great 30-year run, but I’m trading you in for a bawdy, psychedelic drag queen who performs for six-straight hours in 10-inch heels. I know finding out about your possible replacement in the newspaper is less than ideal, but seriously: Just see Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” and you’ll understand. It was quite literally the best show I have ever seen. I’m not being hyperbolic; I’ve been waiting my entire life this show and didn’t even know it.

Imagine mixing together “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” David Bowie and the Cacophony Society, and then adding a huge dollop of Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States.” Sounds incredible right? “24-Decade” is better.

While Mac and his backing orchestra breathtakingly perform 240 years of America’s most popular songs in every imaginable style, his wildly painted Dandy Minions mischievously mix it up with the audience, coaxing them to do everything from throw ping-pong balls to eat pretzels. To top it off, costume designer Machine Dazzle periodically appears to dress Mac in elaborate outfits that manage to be elegant, trashy and gaudy all at the same time.

This gang bang of stimulation isn’t just a fabulously queer reimagining of “The Great American Songbook;” Mac uses the music and his clever stage patter to illustrate how this country’s torrid history of racism, sexism, homophobia and hate have all laid the groundwork for the nightmare we’re in now.

In the era of Instagram, art has rapidly become something we no longer just look at. By taking photos of ourselves with or in the art and sharing them on the internet, we become both the viewer of the art and a creator of a secondary art byproduct. We are consumer and creator at the same time. The openings of big, bold, commercial installations like the Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream are indicative of this. As is the spike in interest in the work of Yayoi Kusama, especially her infinity rooms.

In an age where the most popular art is either political — like Shepard Fairey and Banksy — or bright, shareable spectacles — like Kusama and the Color Factory — Mac is the perfect artist for this moment in history.

That’s because “24-Decade” isn’t just a show, it’s a frenetically urgent conversation. By interacting with the audience throughout the performance and encouraging them to interact with each other, Mac doesn’t just break the fourth wall, he illustrates that there shouldn’t be any walls to begin with. It’s Mac saying, “See all these terrible things that have happened in history? They were allowed to happen because people sat in the audience and let them happen. Get on stage and get into the streets. We’re all in this together. Now, throw some damn ping-pong balls!”

“A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” is radical musical activism. It’s a lesson on unlearning the history you’ve been taught, so you can learn it again the right way. It’s art so devastatingly important that, once it gets inside you, you can’t help but share it — it’s art as an STD.

It’s also Radical Faerie moon dust tinkling in your tea.

P.S.: Jeremy, I love you. You’re still my best friend … until Taylor Mac accepts my Facebook friend request.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.

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