Boys play the drums. Girls play the harp. When it comes to music, these gender stereotypes exist for a reason. On the one hand, there’s society and all of its sexual-identity hang-ups. And on the other, there’s the fact that, more often than not, boys play the drums and girls play the harp.
But if that is true, even in the flimsiest of senses, could it also be said that certain instruments themselves are male and others are female? The sturdy guitar, quite obviously, is male. (If you doubt this, all you have to do is recall Prince’s halftime show at the 2007 Super Bowl in which the Purple One held his guitar between his legs and thrust the neck of his ax upwards, again and again and again.) And you could argue that the harp, with its curved body and the seemingly tender way in which it is plucked, is female.
Of course, all of that is really nonsense. But, imagine if you will, that genders can in fact be subscribed to instruments, then exactly what would the ukulele be? Could it be that it falls somewhere between the two sexes? Could it be that the uke is androgynous?
Drag singer-storyteller Taylor Mac thinks that is certainly a possibility. “The uke is full-on trannie,” he says. “The uke is the best instrument because it is so dorky and it’s so unpretentious and it can’t deny it is and it wouldn’t even try.”
Not surprisingly, the ukulele is the instrument that this drag musician is most often identified with, although to describe him as a uke performer would be an error. “I don’t actually play the ukulele in all of my shows,” Mac says. “I started to because I was writing a musical about Coney Island and the freak show there, and so I said, ‘I’m going to learn how to play the ukulele, and what I’m going to do is I’m going to write all the songs for the musical on the ukulele.’ That’s what I did because it was of that world.”
He adds, “And then I began performing on it in some of my concerts, and I loved the idea that it was so small and I was so big. That juxtaposition was quite sweet.”
Considering Mac’s on-again, off-again relationship with the ukulele — he didn’t use it in his last show and it only makes two appearances in his latest work — it’s something of a wonder that over the years reviewers have often compared him to Tiny Tim, the out-of-left field sensation that first captured national attention on Laugh-In, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Tonight Show. The late Tim was noted for his high falsetto, his fondness for the uke, and his somewhat feminine appearance.
And those comparisons don’t end with Tiny Tim. Critics have also noted that Mac bears a superficial similarity to David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust period, thanks in part to the storyteller’s flashy costumes and the fact that he’s a gender-bending performer. However, Mac has long been dismissive of those comparisons. And thus began the germination of his latest show, Comparison is Violence: Or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook, which combines Mac’s queer-centric cultural observations with witty and often poignant songs.
“Years ago, a reviewer wrote about a solo show of mine. He said that I was like Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim,” Mac says. “And then all of these other reviewers would go online and they would do some research and they would just kind of cut and paste that description, so all of these people were calling me Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim, so I thought, what I’ll do is a whole show where all I’ll do is David Bowie-Tiny Tim songs and either I’ll kill the comparison bit or I will emerge as a Ziggy Stardust-meets-Tiny Tim butterfly.”
Oddly enough, Mac knew very little about Bowie’s catalog before he decided to embark on Comparison. He loved “Under Pressure,” Bowie’s collaboration with Queen, but that was about it. “I kind of just had fun learning his music and seeing the craft of his songwriting, which is actually quite good,” Mac says. “I’m so different from him, so I didn’t feel I was trying to force myself to be him. And I’m so different from Tiny Tim, so I didn’t feel that either. The show isn’t me trying to impersonate these two performers. It’s about using their work to kick-start a conversation about comparison.”
The fact that Mac is still able to shock audiences is a testament that the gender-bending glam rock era of Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed was nothing more than a passing phase, something that the Western world sadly outgrew. In fact, the world that they all promised — one in which boys could be girls and girls could be boys — never quite materialized. Instead, the world that we live in today is one in which Katy Perry can score a chart-topping hit with “I Kissed a Girl,” a catchy but clichéd bit of pop confectionery, but if the same song had been performed by a guy, it would have been all but ignored by Top-40 tweens and teens.
Mac for one doesn’t feel as if Bowie and the rest of the glam rockers actually had the balls to honestly stand up for sexual freedom and gay culture. “Those big pop icons were brave enough to suggest, but they weren’t brave enough to champion. They were brave enough to be like, ‘We’re kind of queer, we’re on the edge.’ But they weren’t actually brave enough to say, ‘This is what we are.'”
Today, Americans by and large have embraced gays, but they have not embraced a world in which straight men can take on more feminine traits. In fact, the one realm in which gender-bending once was approved — the world of rock — is now devoid of male divas. Heck, even Bowie emasculated himself as a gender-bender when he took on the guise of the Thin White Duke in the 1980s. (Director Todd Haynes argues this point quite well in Velvet Goldmine, a film not-so-loosely based on Ziggy-era Bowie and his relationships with Reed and Pop.)
“I do think that the most revolutionary thing that a man can be is to be feminine,” says Mac. “It’s still true to this day, which is not OK. And every so often we get a little close with metrosexuals and all that stuff, but, ultimately, then the economy crashes, and then they’re telling us that masculinity is back in.
“I don’t want masculinity to go away,” he adds. “I just don’t want to get beat up on the street.”
Despite the fact that there are gay teens on Glee, and Woody from Toy Story stars in a commercial for Dan Savage’s It Gets Better organization, Mac believes that queer culture has never truly been accepted by the masses. It remains outside the norm. “The LGBTQ community has been embraced, but queer culture never has,” he says. “The counter-culture is still counter. Of course, if it was mainstream, then it wouldn’t be as interesting. So there’s the dichotomy there.”
Mac also believes that it’s not just the straight members of society that sometimes find queer culture uncomfortable — so do many people who are gay. “There’s plenty of gay people who would not relate to what I do and the themes that I’m interested in talking about at all. They’re more interested in a mainstream conversation. Fair enough,” he says. “But I don’t see them as the same thing as the queer culture and the gay culture.”
He adds, “When we get to the point where we can really embrace difference instead of forcing difference to behave the way the masses behave, that’s when we really are going to be transcending.”