A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The 1990s
World premiere commissioned by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Conceived, written, performed and co-directed by Taylor Mac. Co-Produced by Pomegranate Arts and Nature’s Darlings. Music Director: Matt Ray. Lighting Design Consultant: John Torres. Costume Designer: Machine Dazzle. Band: Matt Ray, piano and backing vocals; Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, drums; Viva DeConcini, guitar; Greg Glassman, trumpet; Gary Wang, bass.
June 12 & 13 at the Yale University Theatre. (Closed.)
Taylor Mac wouldn’t allow critics into opening night of The 1990s, deeming Friday’s gala performance a “preview.” That’s totally the creator’s call, and judging from Saturday’s show the whole piece is still in wondrous flux. “I call them workshops,” the innately fabulous performer explained in what was presented as a reluctant curtain speech. “But since people started giving me money to do them, I started calling them premieres.”
The only annoyances that came with having to see The 1990s on Saturday rather than Friday:
- Taylor Mac apparently had some extraordinary interactions with the honorable Edward Kennedy Jr. and some of the elderly Arts & Ideas patrons on Friday that I wish I’d witnessed firsthand.
- I was only able to see a few songs of Darlene Love on New Haven Green before having to rush over to the Yale University Theater for the Mac show.
Ted Kennedy Jr. and Darlene Love both became running jokes during the Saturday night performance—one because the State Senator uttered the word “pussy” in the inimitable (OK, immensely imitable) Kennedy accent, the other because Taylor Mac assumed that the free Love concert on the Green had drawn away some of the potential audience for The 1990s.
“I don’t know any better way to suck the energy out of the room than to have a curtain speech, and have Darlene Love playing down the street for free,” quoth Taylor Mac.
I’m really not sure which is cooler: seeing a highly rehearsed, technically resplendent, ravishingly well-prepared piece such as The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac, which was performed at the selfsame Yale University Theater in 2010, or seeing a Taylor Mac show in its very earliest stages. Taylor Mac, it turns out, can do it all. There’s a perfectionist streak in the costuming, the make-up, the set list and the tone of the shows. But under the carefully applied cosmetics there’s an extraordinary improvisational talent. A sassy spontaneity was the key to the audacious success of Saturday’s performance.
There was also the element of surprise. Until very recently, few clues had leaked about the nature of The 1990s. The piece is part of a a projected 24-hour performance that will cover the history of popular music over 24 different decades, with said decades being taken from anywhere in the last three centuries.
We might have feared the worst: a night of New Wave standards and glitzy radio pop. (The bestselling singles of the ‘90s were by Wilson Phillips, Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Ace of Base, Coolio, Macarena popularizer Los Del Rio, Elton John, Next and Cher. Yikes!) Even worse, showtunes. (The biggest musicals of the ‘90s were Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Rent). But Taylor Mac, ever the maverick, had a whole different direction in mind. The 1990s is a self-styled tribute to “radical lesbians of the ‘90s,” a playlist that included Bitch and Animal’s “Pussy Manifesto,” Tribe 8’s “Butch in the Streets,” Ferron’s “Girl on a Road,” Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything,” Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” and other examples of what Taylor Mac deemed to be radical and lesbian. There was also a recitation of Sarah Schulman’s Lesbian Avengers Manifesto, with the Avengers singled out as a signal influence on the entire radical lesbian movement.
The concert—for that is what is essentially was, a vocalist (Taylor Mac) backed by a five-piece rock band—was punctuated by pronouncements such as “Everything you’re feeling is appropriate” or “the genius of performance art is that there is no failure” or that the renaming of theaters for “oligarchs” (i.e. the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center becoming the David H. Koch Theater) is “so freakin’ gauche.” There were also long digressions on various kinds of pussy—“anal pussy,” “mouth pussy,” etc.—and how we should stimulate them. Males in the audience were directed to curl themselves up in their seats so they were “very small,” while females were encouraged to “spread out.”
Taylor Mac was grunged out in a torn-plaid ensemble with torn jean shorts, an electric-light wig and wings that resembles large red clitorises. The outfit was designed, as are many Mac fashions, by Machine Dazzle. All this outrageous outerwear was doffed mid-show to expose some rather lifelike strap-on female breasts and a torso graffitied with gender symbols and the words “mother,” “goddess” and “sister.”
The encore was “People Have the Power,” a song that was not from the 1990s (it was released in 1988) by Patti Smith, who does not identify as lesbian. But by that point in the evening anything Taylor Mac said, or sang, was the truth.