Taylor Mac on 20 Songs That Made the Cut for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Taylor Mac's theatrical, musicological, ontological history of pop is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through October 8. Photo: Norman Jean Roy

On September 15, Taylor Mac began the world-premiere run of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, an immense theater-music-performance-art piece presented in three-hour segments over eight evenings. (Each decade gets about an hour.) The real extravaganza, though, is on October 8, when the artist (who gender-fluidly avoids “he” and “she” in favor of “judy”) does the whole thing in 24 hours, for an audience of folks who’ve agreed to stay for the duration. We asked Taylor Mac to explain how these 20 songs — out of the show’s 246 and the millions in American history — made the cut. 

10 Songs You’ve Never Heard Of …

1. The Congress, by Traditional, 1776
“This is in our first decade (Act I) and is written from the Tories’ perspective about how awful the Congress is. We sang this in San Francisco when Nancy Pelosi was in the house. She took it with humor and even posed with me for a photo after the show. (Say what you want about Nancy Pelosi, but Paul Ryan would be way too homophobic to pose with a drag queen.)”

2. Life Let Us Cherish, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/Derrick, 1799–1803
“This song is in what I call the genre of carpe-diem-as-tool-for-seduction.”

3. Little Bee/My Bondage and My Freedom (medley), by William Wells Brown, 1853; Frederick Douglass, 1855
“We had to write music for this one because, to my knowledge, only the lyric has survived. Frederick Douglass wrote that enslaved people would sing this on the plantations when the slavers weren’t in earshot.”

4. Unreconstructed Rebel, by Major Innes Randolph, 1866
“A song about how bitter the rebel soldiers were after the Civil War, which seems like it could have been written today about a certain politician’s supporters.”

5. For Three Years Now, by Traditional, N.D.
“I translated a bunch of Yiddish songs into English for our 1896–1906 decade (Act V), which is dedicated to songs that were popular in the Jewish tenement. This song shows you how to take love seriously in a minor key.”

6. Napoleon’s a Pastry, by Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg, 1937
“Not one of Harburg’s better-known songs. I love the lyric ‘Napoleon is a pastry, Bismarck is a herring, Alexander’s a crème de cacao mixed with rum, and Herby Hoover is a vacuum.’ I mean, really.”

7. Pachuco Boogie, by Don Tosti, 1948
“Anything oversize and stylish at the same time is a major inspiration for me, so obviously the zoot suits are personal heroes. This was one of their standards.”

8. Snakeskin Cowboys, by Ted Nugent, 1975
“We do this Ted Nugent song like a gay junior-prom ballad. It’s magic.”

9. Denny (Naked), by Jon Latimer Ginoli/Trebor Healey, 1995
“A queer-core band called Pansy Division wrote this song. It takes the circumstance of AIDS and manages to make it funny and sad and angry and full of radical thought. Perhaps the greatest AIDS anthem that hardly anybody’s heard.”

10. Epilogue for a Masked Ball, by Taylor Mac, 2016
“The last decade I perform (Act VIII) consists entirely of originals I’ve written for the show. This one borrows its title from a Romà Ribera painting, which you can see at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. It consists of a clown lying in the streets with two cops and a milk boy looking down on him. When I saw the painting, I knew I needed to write a song about it for the final decade. I think it will capture the essence of a room full of people who have experienced
a 24-hour concert.”

… And 10 You Have Heard.

1. Amazing Grace, by Traditional/John Newton, 1779
“We do this with an orchestra of 24 musicians. It’s thrilling and surprising to see a queen sing this song. I think it changes the audience perspective on what the show will be like but also what grace is.”

2. Meet Me by Moonlight, by Traditional, 1812
“In Act II we blindfold the audience and make them do lots of stuff. You’ve never heard this song until you’ve heard it while doing blindfold musical chairs.”

3. Camptown Races, by Stephen Foster; 1850
“Sometimes we sing songs we hate just so we can turn them into things we love. This moment in the show has become an audience favorite, despite how insidious and obnoxious the song is.”

4. Home on the Range, by Brewster Higley/Daniel Kelley, 1873
“Matt Ray, our arranger and musical director, has created the most beautiful arrangement of ‘Home on the Range’ you will ever hear.”

5. Three Little Maids From School Are We, by Arthur Sullivan/William Gilbert, 1885
“For an hour of the show all we sing are songs from The Mikado. But we set them on Mars. We call it our Marskado. It has all of the joy, none of the cultural appropriation, and uses the material to critique economic disparity (and how our current times are following in the footsteps of the Gilded Age).”

6. Keep the Home Fires Burning, by Ivor Novello/Lena Guilbert Ford, 1914
“I love reframing. Taking something that traditionally has put a community in a box and using it to free that community from it.”

7. Turn! Turn! Turn!, by Pete Seeger, 1954/Ecclesiastes
“Another one of my favorite arrangements. We do a mash-up of this lyric to the music of Peter Gunn. Sometimes you have to abstract the thing to hear the thing.”

8. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, by Bob Dylan; 1963
“At one point we sang this song from the 1780s called ‘Lord Randall,’ but then decided to do this Bob Dylan version of the song instead. He took the original, which was a little benign, and turned it into something revolutionary.”

9. O Superman, by Laurie Anderson, 1981
“It gives me chills.”

10. Everything Is Everything, by Lauryn Hill and Johari Newton, 1999
“It’s a little scary when all you do is play the opening chords of a song and 90 percent of the audience explodes into applause. The pressure to do something with it or live up to the original is heavy. But the great thing about this song is you just have to trust the lyric and it plays itself. Plus it’s a microcosm of the entire show in one little song.”

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through October 8.

*This article appears in the September 19, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.