24 decades of subculture with Taylor Mac

Taylor Mac explores 24 decades of subculture in America. His Spoleto performance focuses on “Songs of the American Right.”

Taylor Mac is boisterous, bedazzling and very busy.

This multifaceted, often outrageous singer/drag queen/performance artist/provocateur has dedicated his year to putting together a musical marathon that will explore the American songbook from the 1770s to the present. Tonight, Spoleto Festival audiences will get a taste of what Mac is assembling.

At some point in 2016, Mac will present “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a 24-hour mega-concert that will dedicate one hour to the music of each decade. His Spoleto offering, “Songs of the American Right,” amounts to a speed round of the larger performance, with at least one song coming from each 10-year span. The focus of this abridged version will be conservatism in the United States, and, according to Mac, it couldn’t have come at a more interesting time.

“Subcultures are a major part of the conversation right now,” said Mac, who has performed at Spoleto twice before, most recently in 2011’s “Comparison Is Violence, or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook.”

“We, for many years, have professed to being a melting pot and to be a place where lots of different cultures can coexist and thrive,” he continued, “and yet we have this long history of monotheism and a mirage of celebrating the singular.”

Mac, who compares his current projects to ethical crusades like Black Lives Matter and the feminist movement, takes the problems of our country’s past, present and future, and asks what would happen if the polarizing walls were broken down.

Each 10-year section in the “24-Decade History” features the stories of specific subcultures and tells how their experiences were reflected in the popular music of that era. Along the way, he “takes songs from a period and reflects back what culture was like when people were singing those songs,” said Kristin Marting.

As artistic director of the experimental New York theater HERE Arts Center, Marting presented several of Mac’s gender- and reality-bending pieces, including “The Lily’s Revenge” and “The Ladies Of.” (Mac, for his part, calls Marting “one of the great say-yes-ers.”)

Mac believes that each subculture presented in the marathon has ultimately grown stronger through the complicated circumstances they faced, and he aims to convey that idea to his audiences.

“We put them through difficult circumstances, difficult physically and emotionally and intellectually,” Mac said. “And as a result of getting through that, they create bonds together.”

And so “24-Decade History” audiences are invited to sing, dance and represent the subcultures Mac includes.

Niegel Smith, the production’s co-director, said the audience response is always interesting to see, especially because of the generational struggles Mac unearths. (His outlandish drag costumes, which can incorporate everything from Pez dispensers to plastic netting, also generate plenty of responses.)

“What’s surprising to the audience is the vulnerability of the artist,” Smith said. “Not only do you get to see all this work and research, you get to know Taylor better.”

With some decades still in the workshop phase and others already being performed as separate acts, the shows will eventually converge in one massive entity for a one-time 24-hour performance next year.

“It’s a part of a series,” Mac said of “Songs of the American Right.”

“What we’re really doing is introducing the audience in Charleston to the project that we are creating with the hopes that people will be interested in being engaged.”

The American left — and many, many places in between — are still to be explored.

Love Lee is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University. Blair Sylvester contributed to this report.