Melbourne Festival review: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Taylor Mac’s riotous aural history of American is a once in a lifetime experience. Truly magical.

MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant-bestowed Taylor Mac is not here for your hetero-normative jukebox musical. No sir.

Glitterbombing through 240-plus year’s of American pomp and circumstance via the most popular songs of the day, Mac’s triumphant Melbourne Festival jewel in the drag queen crown A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is a glorious queering of the narrative, unmasking the suppressed and often brutal truths behind the seemingly innocuous ditties.

A raucous radical fairy realness ritual where all the audience is a sacrifice, this exorcism and queer spiritual re-forging is one of the most mind-bendingly staged, anarchically joyful experiences I’ve ever been privileged to witness. So much so that, in the great spirit of dandy, I found myself relaying a vomit-inducing youthful sexual escapade on mic over-share with Mac and hundreds of strangers. That’s part of the magic. Not just there to perform, a Machine Dazzle fabulously costumed Mac’s glittering orbit drags in all manner of unwitting satellites, from a bears’ bare-chested go-go dance off to an hour’s worth of sensory overload as we don blindfolds, play musical chairs and brandish flowers up the nostrils of our neighbours.

No endurance test, six hours positively flies by as an ever-decreasing 24-piece orchestra (losing one player per decade) led by long-time collaborator Matt Ray, whose contemporary arrangements ensure even the oldest Scottish love songs carried over the Atlantic sounds zippy and new, marches us through this aural history. Mac, a human hurricane of an entertainer, is front and centre, though often wildly off or even above stage.

They roll out an early act of abuse reclamation behind the stars and stripes patriotism of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ then later Mac shocks the audience with the simple power of speaking slowly and clearly the lyrics of a previously beautiful-sounding sea shanty, revealing the horror of the racial lynching at its dark heart. And herein lies the power of 24-Decade. Mac gives voice to those who have had there’s stolen or slaughtered. It’s empowering and occasionally overpowering.

In broaching America’s genocidal colonial foundations at the expense of the Native American population and the scars left to this day, the echoes of Australia are made explicit. So too with malignant sexism and homophobia and the strange hangover of British rule. Fierce stuff in more ways than one, Mac has valiant support in telling these truth bombs. As well as his magnificent travelling troupe, we paid witness to Meow Meow crowd-surfing through America’s suffragette movement and an army of local dandy minions including Mama Alto, Miss Ellaneous, Karen from Finance and Agent Cleave, dishing out everything from free beer and fruit to ping pong balls to be hurled at an impressively in-character at all times and quite beautifully melodic Temperance Choir.

This isn’t polite theatre where everyone sits still and quiet and listens for six hours straight. Far form it, with toilet and even dinner breaks encouraged. Mac is adept at reigning it all in when required with a stealth attack shooshing disguised as sing-along breathing exercises.

Nor is it an opportunity for those unused to queer theatre to point and stare at the freaks, with Mac coaching this mixed company along the way, though never preachily. As he relays the story of witnessing one performer retrieve an entire chicken from her nether regions, he notes gamely, “Taylor, you’re just putting on eyeliner.”

Bit that undersells what Mac is doing with this unmissable marathon of magnificence originally presented in one almighty slam at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. This is art with heart and soul, sound and fury, with this iteration losing none of its inherent power for being divvied up into four six-hour parts. If anything, the cut-to-black cliffhanger left the Forum crowd rowdy for more as Mac drew the first 60-year chunk to a close at 1836. I, spew story and all, will not be missing the rest of this riotous, unforgettable revelation.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords


Book tickets to see parts 2-4 of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at Melbourne Festival here. Also check the discount Swift Tix page at 8am each morning.