“Dull” is not a descriptor that one would typically use to describe a performer who dons a glittery sun-shaped headpiece and belts out songs with show-tune verve, but Taylor Mac’s Songs of the American Right was mostly just that.
As a general rule, didactic art is kind of a drag, and Mac (whose preferred gender pronoun is judy) has created a show with an explicitly didactic purpose. In what judy described Wednesday night as a “radical fairy realness ritual,” songs traditionally associated with conservative political movements were subverted, deconstructed, and reassembled into affirmations of liberalism and libertinism. The goal of the evening, Mac said, was to “dream the culture forward.”
To that end, “Amazing Grace” became a sultry little jazz number, a Ted Nugent tune became a “gay junior prom song,” and “Okie from Muskogee” was bedazzled and burlesque-ified almost beyond recognition. Some of the transformations were clever, and Mac’s three-piece backing band tackled the material with aplomb. Between songs, Mac gave a running commentary on the songs’ places in U.S. history, their writers, and how judy intended to turn each piece on its head.
It’s impossible to separate the show’s artistic expression from its political content, so I’ll not try to. Even for audience members like myself who largely agreed with Mac’s politics, the presentation was ham-fisted and puerile, with Mac repeatedly bemoaning our participation in “the global capitalistic economy” and railing generally against the military-industrial complex. As political screeds go, Songs of the American Right had all the nuance of an MSNBC talk-show panel, albeit with a few clever zingers — memorably, “All conservatives ever made was the Die Hard movies and God.” (A note to religious-minded audience members: Even if you pride yourself on open-mindedness, Taylor Mac will probably offend you.)
If you plan to attend one of Mac’s three remaining performances, you should be warned that there is a good deal of audience participation. I’ll not give away too much, as the show relies heavily on the element of surprise, but in one of the milder instances, Mac encouraged the audience to do the Wave as the band tore through an upbeat rendition of the minstrel song “Massa’s in de Cold Ground.”
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling uncomfortable with audience participation — Mac even acknowledged that judy tends to hate it when performers force it on a crowd — but as I stood and waved and sang along, I tried to suss out the purpose behind it all. Was Mac trying, in the words of the humorist Finley Peter Dunne, to afflict the comfortable?
If so, judy probably succeeded, although I’m not sure to what end. It seems unlikely that there were many card-carrying Republicans in the crowd, and Mac was mostly preaching to the choir. Judy kept saying that we were ritually sacrificing old bits of conservative ideology that were holding our country back, but for those of us who had already laid those things on the altar, it felt a bit like attending an overly charismatic church service. I did enjoy a bit of meta-commentary on the festival itself, with Mac looking out on the crowd and pointing out the heavily skewed racial demographics of Spoleto: “One little peppercorn in a sea of salt.”
I know that the personal is political, and I know that Mac’s voice — bold and queer in a time when our society is only beginning to have serious conversations about gender identity — is much needed. And I have to say that Mac is a gifted singer with a sparkling personality and magnetic stage presence. But I don’t think this was Mac at judy’s best. Mac’s numerous plays and performances have earned rave reviews elsewhere, and I’d be interested in seeing judy in a less strident role.
By the end of the night, Mac had more or less dropped the original premise, performing two Civil Rights-era liberal anthems and a Walt Whitman poem. They were stirring performances in their own right, and a welcome relief. By that point in the evening, I had stopped caring about the premise.