An Appropriated History of Appropriation as History
It’s a silky, black, sort of gownish thing, bedecked with those little plastic gold coins that fringe bellydancing skirts. The headpiece is giant – leopard print, of course. Big enough that one must hold it up with an umbrella pole.
Oh. And those heels. Glittery. Gold. Amazing.
But – and with Taylor Mac, there’s always a but(t) – as TM slinks through the audience crooning “Where is the Street” the opening number in his extraordinarily entertaining and intelligent A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, one starts to notice some details that, as TM tells us, “the kids on facebook might call ‘problematic.'” Around judy’s neck (judy, lowercase sic, being Taylor Mac’s gender pronoun of choice (a choice this author finds both admirable and hilarious)) is a big gold Star of David. Hanging from judy’s ears are gold slinkies, a fabulous simulacrum for peyas. That big leopard print hat? On second thought, it looks a hell of a lot like the big fur hats I see chasids wearing in Crown Heights.
Underneath it, there’s a sequined yarmulke.
I’m Jewish. Or, well, maybe Jewish-ish. I’m not practicing, I’ve never really been practicing, I don’t particularly identify with the religion as a religious practice or a system of belief. But I did grow up going to a Jewish summer camp, Sunday Hebrew school, and the occasional Friday night at Temple Isaiah. So while I wouldn’t necessarily say that I am Jewish, I also find it hard to say that I’m not Jewish.
And I’m not offended by this image. To be perfectly honest, it made me laugh out loud, both in its boldness of concept and it’s remarkable execution. I don’t think Taylor Mac or his costume designer, Machine Dazzle, are being anti-semitic. A little anarchistic, a little puckish, certainly. But not anti-semitic. So I’m not offended. What I am, is confused.
And I think that’s a good thing.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is, like many things that spring from the mind of Taylor Mac, an absolute marvel. The piece, as it is conceived, will eventually be a twenty-four hour concert, one hour for each of the past twenty four decades, ranging from 1776 to 2016. Taylor Mac will perform the whole dang thing (with but brief breaks for guest singers) – his failure and fatigue (and our fatigue, for that matter) will be part of the experience.
Currently TM is engaging in a sort of “marathon training” for this future performance. Over the past year or so, judy has been crafting one-hour segments of the concert-to-be. Last week, at New York Live Arts, judy debuted the performance in larger chunks – three decades at a time, with one marathon six decade performance.
I was lucky enough to see the first of these two chunks (1900-1930), which covered songs popular in the Jewish Tenements of the Lower East Side (1900s), the trenches of World War One (1910s), and the generally repressed, happy-go-lucky dance halls of the jazz age (1920s). Each decade had its accompanying “holy shit” costume, designed with perhaps superhuman imagination by the possibly superhuman Machine Dazzle. Mac is accompanied by a top-notch ensemble – Matt Ray, piano; Bernice Boom Boom Brooks, drums; Danton Boller, bass; Greg Glassman, trumpet; Amber Gray, backing vocals; Yair Evnine, cello/guitar. The imaginative, dramaturgically robust arrangements by Matt Ray strike an exciting balance between making these old songs sound both very contemporary and very wonderfully old.
And then there’s Taylor Mac – an indomitable performer and ringmaster and guide who somehow dances, emcees, waxes philosophical/historical, and attends to the specific needs of this audience on this night, all while singing judy’s face off for three straight hours. In heels.
I could go on and on. The show is extraordinary. You can bet I’ll be first in line for the full twenty-four hour bonanza. It deserves every rave it has gotten and will surely get. But I want to get back to that costume.
To get there, though, we’ll have to talk a little more about just what Taylor Mac is doing with this concert, because it’s much more than just entertainment (though it is supremely entertaining). Mac’s project isn’t just to show us history. It’s to reframe it.
Mac is a pastiche artist, so it makes sense that judy’s way of writing a history would be through quotation, through patchwork. Judy has gathered these songs here and assembled them into a constellation of sorts – when we look at these songs, together, a shape starts to emerge, a shape that says something rather novel about our country’s history. Mac’s decision to tell this story through popular music ingeniously grants us a glimpse not only into the narrative of American history, but into it’s psyche. By hearing these songs, revisiting these songs, we can start to assemble a picture (marvelously subjective) of the American historical consciousness.
One could say that Mac is creating an emotional history, a psychological history, a poetic history of America.
Perhaps the best way to view this act of historicization is as an act of collection. One can imagine Mac pouring through music archives, “like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface.”
That quotation was from an essay by Hannah Arendt on Walter Benjamin (which, I mean, sorry not sorry), and I think the comparison to Benjamin here is apt. Benjamin was a critic and a thinker, but above all else he was a collector – of books, of oddities, of quotations. It was a dream of his to compose a book or essay entirely of quotations from other books and essays, to, like Taylor Mac, make meaning through an assembly of broken contexts.
Collection to Benjamin (and, I imagine, Mac), is an act of revaluation. The collector, by her act of collection, says “this thing has value.” Something old, in the hands of a collector, becomes an antique. Something worthless becomes something special. Think of how children collect – a little boy might gather up all the round stones on the playground, and while to you or I they might just be rocks, to him they have meaning, they have value. They are his collection.
So to assemble history through an act of collection rather than narration is to revalue history, to queer it. It is to say “these worthless bits, these scraps, these popular ephemera, they have value.” And through this radical act of revaluation, the collector-historian creates a new narrative, one in which these things (e.g. pop songs), not those things (e.g. speeches from dead white guys), are important. As such, we must completely reconsider our traditional historical narrative (i.e. one which ascribes to traditional notions of historical value). Add to this the fact that Mac makes a particular point to frame his narratives through queer eyes, giving voice to the historically voiceless, and you can start to see how this act of assembly is inherently political. It is to break with tradition and to dream forward something new. Again, Hannah Arendt:
“Tradition puts the past in order, not just chronologically but first of all systematically in that it separates the positive from the negative, the orthodox from the heretical, and which is obligatory and relevant from the mass of irrelevant or merely interesting opinions and data. The collector’s passion, on the other hand, is not only unsystematic but borders on the chaotic… Therefore, while tradition discriminates, the collector levels all differences.” -Hannah Arendt, “Introduction to Illuminations,” 1968.
It is this borderline chaos that turns an act of revaluation into an act of revolution.
It may seem as if I am overthinking this, that I am giving too much radical political weight to what is otherwise an entertaining evening of cabaret performance. But that is exactly the point. The fact that this radical act is couched in what appears to be “mere entertainment” is a pointed choice – Mac is revaluing the idea of performance as well. Judy is saying that singing a bunch of songs can be a revolutionary act.
And I’m inclined to agree.
So let us return, then, to this costume, the glamorous chasid. As Mac says in the performance, it’s definitely definitely cultural appropriation. But, I would argue, so is the entire performance. Any act of collection, of quotation, is an act of appropriation. Pop-culture appropriation, perhaps, but appropriation nonetheless. Mac appropriates these songs for his cause – such is the mode of postmodern pastiche.
But is it ok?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves – what does the appropriation of this particular image, this particular costume, accomplish? The simplest answer is visibility – Mac spends the 1900s singing songs from the Jewish Tenements, choosing to bring a marginalized community to the fore of our historical consciousness. The costume could be said to be simply the visual extension of that act.
But I think it’s a little more complicated than that, and here my thinking starts to break down. Because, unlike, say, flappers, who are long gone, chasids and orthodox Jews still live in this city. Many of us see them nearly every day. So appropriating it feels somehow messier.
And what’s more, the costume specifically appropriates a culture’s idea of the sacred. The peyas, the tallis, these are symbols of devotion. They have religious significance. So appropriating them (as opposed to, say, a pop tune) feels somehow… less ok. I wonder how I would feel if the costume were a stylized hijab instead.
(And here I am reminded of course of the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and similarly feel thrown into an ambiguous abyss – how much should one group be beholden to another’s sacred symbols?)
Again, I say this not as somebody who is offended, but as somebody who is confused. Is Mac’s representation doing damage to these people? I’m not so sure. Is it honoring them? Possibly. Or is this appropriation simply another act of radical revaluing (one that questions the value of political correctness, that throws us into the moral ambiguity of appropriation in the first place)?
Perhaps most importantly, even if it’s “inappropriate,” even if it’s “not ok,” even if it’s “problematic” – isn’t that what we need from our art? I welcome and encourage response.