The King Who Dreamed of Being a Frog: Taylor Mac’s Heretical American History in Song
By Barrie Jean BorichFebruary 28, 2018
Covering Diamond’s 1971 hit “I Am… I Said,” Mac — who uses judy (lowercase) not as a name but as a gender pronoun — is dressed in a bell-sleeved white shift draped in a sheer outer layer of white gauze. The wig is blond with long loose curls. The hat is a fuzzy white fascinator, oversized and adorned with tendrils of cascading glitter. The makeup is white mime face paint with sequins glued around the eyes, and overdrawn red lips. The result is a decidedly tilted femininity, and though judy likes to say “comparison is violence,” metaphor is the only way I know to explain. Mac’s costumes — originally self-designed, and currently made by the artist Machine Dazzle — are less pageant drag than glitter impersonating a fountain impersonating every nightclub diva who ever stepped onto a dim lit stage.
In the video Mac performed at Joe’s Pub in New York City, a guest of trans chanteuse Justin Vivian Bond’s (Mx. Justin Vivian’s gender pronoun is v) always sold out alt-cabaret shows. I’ve nurtured an artist crush on Bond ever since seeing v for the first time in John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus; I’ve long been following Bond online, and in some of v’s performances both at Joe’s Pub and on tour. In Shortbus, v’s character is the tall, wry mistress of a sex club who entertains the revelers with a nearly apocalyptic style of belting. That performance hurled me back to my youngest self, sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, leaning into the weekly Judy Garland Show, which ran for just a couple of years when I was only four or five years old. That’s where this sensibility begins in a girl like me from the working-class regions of what was then industrial Chicago, and who came of age too lesbian for straight punk culture and too high femme and gay-friendly for radical lesbian culture. I’m not always sure if any category more precise than queer, or possibly Gaga’s little monsters, will ever do, but I have always been attracted to camp excess and maximalist democracy.
I was wandering through a maze of internet links, looking for more Justin Vivian, when I stumbled into my first turning point moment of Taylor Mac, which was this circa 2009 “I Am… I Said” video. Whatever my particular and ever-shifting queer parentheses, I’d been waiting for Taylor Mac for such a long time.
“My gender is performer,” Mac has said in more than one interview, and in saying so claims a tradition born of adoration and remaking, a path many artists will comprehend. But why judy? The attempt to use such a resonant name as a pronoun is both revelatory and awkward for anyone willing to try. Does the use of pronouns that are not generalities dismiss the collectivizing purpose of pronouns? Who then is a judy, a joni, an aretha, a bruno, a beyonce, and even (oh no) a lower-case kardashian?
One of this year’s MacArthur fellows, Obie Award winner, and Pulitzer Prize finalist, and creator of the multidisciplinary, site-specific extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge, as well as the author of the plays Hir, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth, and others, Taylor Mac is described as “Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim.” Mac is all about repurposing what we’ve been given, and has explained that judy chose “judy” because neither he nor she seemed right. For a gender identity Mac names “performer,” judy does make sense. Though I am probably more of a joni than a judy (I’m pretty sure I became a writer after the thousandth time I listened to Joni Mitchell’s song “Hejira”) my own first awareness of a creative energy beyond my immediate world was awakened when I was that little girl obsessed with late-career skinny and hepped-up Judy Garland — from Television City Hollywood, Here’s Judy — and then again, later, with some of the same resonances in her daughter Liza, something so frenetically female, smiling but deeply in need, all phrasing and flittering hands — language created for me in Garland’s sharp enunciation of on Shish-ka-bob and breast of squab we will feast in her version of the standard “Chicago,” wearing a scooped sequined top and a long black mermaid skirt.
Gay and trans kids of a certain age, in love with the original Judy, are not the only ones who saw their future bodies in Garland’s glittery phrasing and Liza Minnelli’s lacey camisoles and green fingernails, alcoholism and all. Together the two of them (along with the strange bedfellow contrast of Joni) are probably the reason the smashing masculine apocalypse of punk never drew me as it did nearly everyone else of my time and place. It wasn’t until later, in the fully lived gender blur of artists like lesbian theater collaborators Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw and others associated with the WOW Café Theatre in New York, along with Mx. Justin Vivian Bond and Taylor Mac, that I found, with tearful and jittery relief, the kind of queer art-making this sort of sensibility would grow up to pursue.
Mac’s judy-ness is evident in the Joe’s Pub clip, judy as both pronoun and performance frame. What we call femininity and masculinity are kinds of traditions, like literary genres, deemed sacred because they are handed down, but more so just a matter of affinity, with tremendous room for invention between the binary poles. Mac fills this space with abstract and assemblage art makeovers that include glitter heels, found object collage wigs, balloon dresses, and so much more. The Commedia dell’arte meets drag queen costuming of Mac’s work is physical ridiculousness, playful archetype, anarchic improvisation, adding up to what is both an elaborate theatrical masking and excruciatingly expressive vulnerability.
In a 2017 Howlround interview with P. Carl, Mac said: “On stage the drag isn’t a costume but something I’m exposing about myself; it’s what I look like on the inside.” What comes across is an intimate cracking that is not about femaleness or maleness or even just queerness, but rather contains the skewed breath and teetering balance of human life resisting received scripts. Mac covers the Neil Diamond song, honoring the pathos of a pop ballad about loneliness, but at the same time creating a paean to being an aberrant American seeking radical community.
“I Am… I Said” is a prelude to the work judy is presenting now, the 24-hour durational performance of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music — performed the first time in Brooklyn in a single day, then later in four six-hour segments in San Francisco and Melbourne. (Mac’s company will present the work in four six-hour shows in L.A. in March, and then in June, in Philadelphia, they will present the show in two 12-hour performances.) The last time I checked Mac’s “I Am… I Said” video has 14,000 views — and only about 100 of them are mine. The video is an arresting performance that does not repeat in the current 24-hour show, or at least did not when I saw it. Mac memorized over 300 songs for the 24-decade project, and is still adding more to the list, and has prepared at least 50 more than they are able to use, even with 24 hours to fill. Still, the video is an example of the sort of show audiences can expect in Los Angeles — and one of those fleeting performance passages captured on the web that in any other era would have been known only to the ones in the room where it happened.
Taylor Mac is not your mother’s Neil Diamond. Mac’s pauses and articulations are singular, but layered with indirect references to Judy Garland–style hand movements, shrugs, and conversational interjections, as well as the exaggerated and crass stock character movement of Commedia dell’arte. Diamond’s line about sunny and fine L.A. as carried by Mac’s lighter vocal is casual and bright, but then judy shrugs a little, a sad discomfort coming through, the discomfort of the displacement that sits at the center of the original, but also the queer discomfort that permeates all of Mac’s popular music covers. This queer discomfort immediately hurls the song far beyond the personal. Even within the relative comforts of white gay life today — an awareness Mac does not avoid in the work overall — this discomfort contains a long queer history.
By the time we get to the “I am” chorus we are already deep into classic LGBTQ I am what I am territory. Then, in the verse about the frog who dreams of becoming a king, Mac’s face inverts cinematically from sadness to a smile both sweet and bitter, silent picture facial transitions worthy of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Next judy pokes at the words a bit. In Mac’s story of the frog who becomes a king it’s not just the names but the pronouns that change. But is this the right story? After the hat and wig come off — “It’s not performance art. I just was hot” — the masked revelation reveals another unmasking, and this is where the work is truly subversive. Mac’s unconventional-even-for-drag oeuvre is not at all just an expression of the jittery and singular brilliance of certain iconic American song artists. The work is a critique and rebuilding of the world that both created and killed the likes Judy Garland, as well as generations of Friends of Dorothy. At the end of the song Mac holds up one finger, asking us to wait for it, and then we get another adaptation. “Did you ever read about the king who dreamed of being a frog?”
The performance ends with a knowing nod to the audience, and yes, we absolutely do know then that this is not merely homage, certainly not nostalgia, and never for a moment merely entertainment. The king who dreams of being a frog is a citizen of the universe on the other side of the mirror. This radical faerie view looks back from where beauty, power, community, and art are turned on its head, as we hear in every note of tension and lyric ambiguity in the very last words of the song — “Oh no.”
The king who dreams of being a frog, flips hierarchical power and the-people-are-the-power. The Broadway musical versus performance art on a proscenium stage. The heteronormative narrative versus the recast queered normative. Rehearsed and scripted perfection versus anarchic improvisation, because, as we hear at least once every performance chapter, “perfection is for assholes.” A passive seated theater experience versus what Mac describes as “the art is in the room.”
I saw all four six-hour performances of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in San Francisco in September 2017, two Friday nights and two Sunday afternoons at the old Curran Theatre on the edge of the Tenderloin, where after the night shows let out the drag queens just done performing in the nearby bars still crowd the diner booths, as in Tenderloin days of yore. I sat (or stood, or wandered to-and-from, for one whole hour wearing a blindfold) in the far-left corner of the first row. My seat was in a limited-view cranny, my usual sort of hideout when I go to the theater alone, so I was left undisturbed more so than most in the front of the house, perhaps less than Mac wants the audience to be — the fact that I wished to hold on to my peculiarities is exactly the sort of human tendency endurance theater means to provoke. Still, even in my part-invisible corner, I was very provoked. I traveled from Chicago to San Francisco just to see this work, and I stayed for 10 days so I could attend every performance. This was my academic job sabbatical adventure and I expected to be glad I went, but I didn’t foresee how profoundly the experience would overthrow me.
In the stage light Taylor Mac possesses the quality of lush mirage, in that the space judy inhabits cannot be categorized, captured, or even fully described. Comparison is violence (I know, I know, joni says) because if one thing can be another then nothing can be its true queer self. Still, I want to fall back on metaphor to describe a queen at least seven feet tall in those spangle heels, a barrel decoupaged with sequined snakes, and a wig made out of wine corks. The show is a new kind of beauty, a vulnerable communion, excess, fear-and-chaos, a reappropriation and a reversal — “More, More, More,” as Mac shouts out in the video trailer for the San Francisco performances. Taylor Mac is like … Taylor Mac is … Taylor Mac might as well be … That I can’t come up with the ends to these sentences proves Mac’s point.
One thing I can say for certain is that Taylor Mac and the 24-Decade History is not a romance narrative, or a tragic narrative, or any kind of narrative. The goal is to flip-flop the message of centuries of popular music in which “the oppressor is forgiven but the outsider is vilified,” and in doing so may be the anti-narrative that resides inside us all, the unconventional beauty that breaks all the other beauties, which is how Mac’s work broke me, in ways that leave me nothing but impatient to build myself anew. Taylor Mac wears beauty spangled across the face. No comparison here; I mean this literally. Mac’s drag makeup is half-spattered, sometimes half-smeared across the forehead and cheeks, but I don’t mean to say judy is a hot mess, because this is a beautifully intentional snub of conventional beauty. If you say beauty is sparkle then fine, judy will give you sparkle, gobs and gobs of sparkle, will choke you with sparkle and then will sparkle even more until the beauty that emerges kills all the other beauty and you will never see beauty the same way again.
Taylor Mac’s endurance performance of this new beauty rerouted my brain and short-circuited my filters and even led me, in my late middle age, to come home and dye my Hollywood-blond hair lavender. Before, I possessed a zone I could always back into, a passive space of critical pause where I could retreat for collapse or respite, able to let anything pass and easily laugh at any ideological discontent. That zone is now closed for renovation. After my return, the first time my spouse Linnea and I went to the opera in Chicago, a big old-fashioned spectacle production in a huge old-world opera hall, every problematic and unquestioned representation (none of which I had failed to notice in the past, but which I had been able to watch through a protective buffer) now made me sputter and want to offer drag-inspired notes. Linnea said: “So that show ruined you for everything, right?” It has. Now I want drag kings and queens wearing installation art to revise every Orientalist opera, kitchen sink drama, and talk show. This is a separatist impulse I suppose, not unlike the dreams of the lesbians I used to know who loved the all-women’s music festivals and for weeks after they came home didn’t want to resume wearing shirts. The feeling wears off over time, that much I recall, but the understanding of what it means to breathe queerly in queer-organized spaces never leaves you.
Thoughts of lesbian music festival spaces are not too far out of sync, even if comparison really is violence, as Mac describes this show as Radical Faerie Realness, and the radical faeries, with their anti-assimilationist tenets, counterculture spirituality, Utilikilts, and solstice gatherings have always seemed to me the most radical lesbian-like aspect of gay-male culture. In the San Francisco trailer, Mac begins with this line: “We are making a 24-decade history of popular music. It is a radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice.” I might have heard this line incorrectly when watching the trailer on repeat, in the weeks before I saw the show. I thought judy said this: Radical Faerie Realness. (Pause. New word.) Sacrifice! I heard the final word as a frightening, yet thrilling, verb command. How I heard it at the show was as a part of a compound descriptive noun, the show itself the sacrifice. Either reading works. The audience becomes part of a sacrificial rite, changed by the mental and emotional breakdown we undergo after the endurance of many hours of challenging participatory performance and exploding drag bombardment. The sacrifice is of our assumptions about both the way we will talk about the American story, and about the way an afternoon or evening at the theater will transpire.
The woman from Massachusetts who sat next to me at all four shows — our whole row in fact was there for all four shows, though the seats around us kept turning over — was seeing the 24-Decade History for the second time. I am envious that she attended the first iteration in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2016, the only time (Mac is adamant on this point) that the show will be done in a single, performer-immolating, 24-hour performance. I will never forgive myself for not figuring out how to be there too. My row-mate’s partner loved the experience so much she came back this time as part of the show, one of Mac’s Dandy Minions who serve as the genderqueer chorus and crew, slant-beauty clown-angels who fill in all the gaps, from passing out eye masks for our sightless hour the year braille was invented, and ping pong balls for the Civil War sequence, to distributing soup in the Depression-era song breadline sequence, to helping women audience members up on the stage in the lesbian tailgating segment (in San Francisco this was all self-defined lesbians and one self-described straight woman dressed as a clitoris). Yes, even the lesbians are celebrated in these 24 decades, and how often does that happen in any decade? To commemorate Judy Garland’s funeral, the Dandy Minions carry one of their comrades overhead through the audience. During the 1970s era the Minions hold up protest signs with email addresses of politicians in Michigan, encouraging us to rally against the politicians’ role in the continuing water crisis. They argue with the Puritans and dance with the visiting burlesque revue. My row-mate’s beloved was one of those who stripped bare the first night and dashed through the audience naked, one of several nudey babies running free through crowds. In the balcony, some of the audience members stripped off their clothes and joined in.
This show is, on the surface, an hour-by-hour revue, one decade per hour beginning in 1776, of songs that were popular in some sector of American life. Sometimes the songs are familiar, but often they are not. The chapters are less about music than about America itself, a decade-by-decade reversal of the lens, a reenvisioning of country’s making from the point of view of the frog, not the king. Mac creates broad and sometimes hysterical narratives around each period, always with the intention of flipping the lens away from “the heteronormative narrative” and reframing the American story from the lesbian, the dandy, the female, the person of color, or any other outsider’s point of view — vilifying the oppressor, honoring the outsider — always wearing Machine Dazzle’s astonishing costume art, some of my favorites a typewriter bodice, a barbed-wire skirt, a wig made from 3-D glasses, a vulva dress. As the epic begins Mac emerges from backstage in a curly Mylar pom-pom wig and a dress that appears to made out of shiny plastic rainbow flags with a spider-web back piece constructed of metal pipes. It’s 24 hours from here to democracy, and here’s where we begin, singing “Amazing Grace.” We are gorgeous wretches, all of us and our minions, so lost, but on our way to be found.
Two days and 10 decades later and Taylor Mac has worn 10 of these costume constructions, not yet even half of the full gallery. By the close of this 10th decade judy strips down, underpants the only costume remaining — notably theatrical briefs that pick up the spotlight, though the change happens in visible shadow. Machine Dazzle, who calls his costume creations visual sculpture, is also the performer’s dresser, sometimes patting and straightening the accessories before the next song, sometimes closing out the transition with a long kiss on the lips. Machine is another of many stage characters we (the audience, the community, the people of this planet all in the middle of by now) have come to love, in that way one loves family members we’ve just met, yet who seem to have been in our lives for, well, decades. Machine towers in even higher heels and a feather headpiece, while Taylor (at 10 hours in we must be on a first name basis) steps into another sequin and object collage. Not gowns, but installations; judy does not so much dress as effloresce.
I said Mac’s underpants are theatrical, but that’s not the right word, not in this ur-theatrical space. Theatricality is core to the experience of Taylor Mac’s 24-decade musical history of everything and a re-seeing of beauty as well, both drag beauty and people-power beauty. Performance is the tool, but not the point. What I have under-named theatrical is really simply, well, dazzle, pure embodiment, Leonard Cohen’s crack of light that keeps us alive. (Another for our pronoun list. Which of us is a leonard?) That Taylor Mac’s underpants take us deeper into who we are as humans is no accident. Every time judy strips down we are naked too, exposed and earnest, ready to live differently, with no clue what that means but oh so willing to learn. How do we get to this vulnerability and what does this revelation of flesh have to do with democracy?
Earlier in this day-two performance, “Chapter 2, 1836-1896,” the show opens with a boxing ring on stage, where we soon find Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman sparring for the title of Father of Popular song. An audience member stands in for Foster while Mac, as both Whitman and fight commentator, begins in a puffy layered paper hoop dress. Mac belts out the Foster songs and recites rolling and riveting passages of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Beyond, we-the-people (in the house), the ones who’ve already sacrificed one of our own to the boxing ring onstage, are told to join in by shouting Captain, My Captain in support of Whitman, and Doo Da Doo Da to help out Foster, though in this crowd, of course, Walt is the winner. Whitman’s long lines are the embodied and democratic ties that bind in this motley crowd of glitter-beard bears, nuzzling lesbians, decked-out genderqueers, hugging progressives, and the few regular theatergoers among us who had season tickets from the presenter wondering aloud if they’d ever seen judy on TV. (Mac has since that time, after winning the MacArthur, been featured on programs such as the PBS NewsHour, but then, most likely, they had not seen judy on TV.)
Some hours of the show are meditative but this one is delirium, and alters us through the questions asked. Do we acknowledge the racist language embedded in songs that were once performed in blackface? Is this still our formative infrastructure? What will we give up to fix the imbalances? Are we guided by a poet who was one with both the lilacs and the captains? What of our deep cultural underpinnings have we allowed to make and unmake us as Americans? Where are queer alliances clear, such as in the lush love of Whitman’s long song-like lines, and when, such as in Foster’s still relevant protest song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” do we decide to sing along?
Such is the collective experience of Americanness that we undergo during these 24 decades. We sing and then we don’t. We boo and we praise and we throw objects handed us by the Dandy Minions, as Mac sings through, sometimes with commentary, sometimes with a long-armed Liza-with-a-z flourish. We battle it out alongside judy, but who can really wrestle wearing a dress made of a collage of potato chip bags, glossy male-magazine nudes, chess pieces glued to a fabric table cloth, a fabric flower wig, and a green-glitter derby hat? Mac’s nearly naked form, three hours later, is the dramatic progression of all this artful garb, though judy will certainly dress again. The body revealed is queerness itself, here bald and shadowy, but beneath the stage light appearing to be dipped in gold. This queerness is constantly shape-shifting but always aches to be both the seer and the seen.
“I am not trying to teach the audience about history,” Mac said, in a panel discussion at HERE Arts Center, a New York City–based off-off-Broadway presenting house, broadcast online at Howlround TV in January 2017. “I’m trying to unearth something that’s been buried or dismissed or that they’ve forgotten about, or that someone else has buried for them, or that they bury themselves. So, I go hunting for who’s that dandy in the Yankee Doodle Dandy song.”
Through all these dandy searches, and song deconstructions, and so much more, Mac just keeps changing clothing sculptures, singing gorgeously, and queering pretty much anything judy can find to queer. The show is part reconstituted history but also part rambling memoir fragments, part serial storytelling, part drag catwalk, part Project Runway unconventional materials challenge. It’s about democracy because the performer doesn’t own the experience and can’t even fully control what happens: the art is in the room and we are here too, lining up for soup, or donning borrowed drag slips and dresses, or bouncing a gigantic red-white-and-blue penis-shaped beach ball around the ornate Broadway touring auditorium, or rushing the stage to sit with the other lesbians or the other gay bears or the other cis straight men or the other butches. Or we are blindfolded and feeding grapes to strangers, or moving from the front row to the balcony, or from the balcony to the front row, because, in the redistribution of wealth and racial justice parts of the show, we are acting out what America does, and what it might mean to do the opposite. In the process, we are able to inhabit a different America — an embodied, joyful, sexual, justice-loving, truth-saying, art-making, resource-sharing America where our actual beauty is no joke — and we do so for hours and hours and hours on end, enough time for the sequins to really sink in.
All this is why I will never be the same, but also, I blame the take-back-from-Ted-Nugent appropriation prom on the last night, the feel of the sequins under my hands when I danced with the person who touched my arm when Mac asked us to dance with someone of the same gender. Were we the same gender? I shrugged and took them at their word. I had, in the hour before, helped their date back up into the seat just above mine, so we already felt close. We were dancing in order to reappropriate Ted Nugent’s effeminate-men bashing song, “Snakeskin Cowboy.” Mac slows down the song and we queer it up with our same gender or genderqueer dancing and what we’re doing, Mac tells us, is holding our own auditorium-wide gay junior prom. In the P. Carl interview Mac said the prom is “about trying to inspire you to rebel against an obstinate sense of self. So, I’m saying to the audience in those moments, ‘You think you’re this way, now when I ask you to participate, how does that challenge you to think of yourself as a slightly different person?’”
Exactly. I am not a person who dances with strangers wearing heavy cologne and a scratchy sequined gold jacket; nor am I a person who keeps dancing until I feel the drop of that physical wall that we humans keep between us, and necessarily so, as who wants to be so open and loving to everyone we pass on any day, in any city, right? (Oh, but maybe that’s another assumption that has to go. I was worried about hugging a stranger, without finding out even those first few little things that lead people to care about each other, but ended up feeling little bit close, a little bit tender.)
Neither am I accustomed to being passed along by a glittery, half-intimate stranger to yet another stranger, my partner ditching our dance in one of those old movie “do you mind if I cut in” moves, especially when now the new stranger is a cute backstage techy wearing false eyelashes and whose arms and neck are softer than I remember skin being on anyone ever, and who so sweetly smiles at me and says “thank you” when the song is over. I think I am a woman who would never slow dance with a stranger. I imagine doing other more naked things with strangers all the time, but never dream of the too-private space of slow dancing. Yet, here I am, inside this breathtaking public intimacy, a different person than I was an hour before, and meanwhile fuck you Ted Nugent and the gun you rode in on. We made a much more beautiful dress and headpiece out of all you considered trash, and we can’t even see your ugly from here.
In the HERE panel Mac said “artistic expression is a kind of citizenry.” Citizenry is about building and tending to the home, creating and sustaining a geography we all want to live in. In the kingdom of the king who dreams of being frog, and then becomes one, I will reach out to you, blindfolded. Do you feel my fingers on your face? Good. Let’s just stay here for a while and touch each other’s beauty.
Image by Teddy Wolff.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic, winner of a Lambda Literary Award in memoir, My Lesbian Husband, recipient of a Stonewall Book Award in nonfiction, and, most recently, Apocalypse, Darling. She’s an associate professor at DePaul University in Chicago where she edits Slag Glass City, a journal of urban essay arts.
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