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Taylor Mac on community, liberation, and the power of popular music

Taylor Mac's magnum opus, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music tells the story of us – as humans, as creators, and as destroyers, in all our ever-fallible glory. Across four six-hour chapters that move through a setlist 240 years in the making, Mac tells the story of the moments that shaped the world as we know it, all wrapped up in a visual odyssey that has to be seen to be believed. In the most genuine sense of the phrase, A 24-Decade History is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Best of all? It's coming right here to Melbourne in an Australian exclusive. 

"I wanted to make a show about how communities are built as a result of being torn apart," says Mac. "In order to tell that story I needed a form that would also do that to the audience; that would build a community of audience members because they were being torn apart. It needed to be durational, and it needed to have an onslaught of material."
 
When you analyse the events of history and the music that's been born as a consequence or reaction to it, it becomes almost impossible to separate the two. Arguably, the music of James Brown or Nina Simone is as integral to the Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and '60s as the protests themselves. More recently, think of Kendrick Lamar's galvanising track Alright and how it became the unofficial anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Popular music and historic moments have forever been intertwined. That's what makes pop music such fertile ground for exploring history, and vice versa.
 
"Popular music is reaching out to rally communities," says Mac. "It's using its imperfection and simple chord structure in order to do it, as opposed to something more virtuosic like classical music which is reaching for perfection. So much of our history is told through popular music; the foundation of who we are is held up through our popular music. So much of it is so insidious, we don't necessarily stop to think about some of the evil that's in our songs. I wanted to spend time reconstructing things and reframing it in a new light."
 
One of the most powerful qualities of A 24-Decade History is Mac's ability to reappropriate and transform songs with sinister meaning as something empowering; at once illuminating egregious strains of homophobia or racism while demonstrating the power of communities to withstand them while creating something resilient. In the hands of Mac, history is something to be transformed through reclaiming it.
 
"It's about giving people a new experience that is one of liberation," says Mac. "We do this Ted Nugent song that's about fag-bashing. This was a hit in the United States. We transform that into a gay junior prom song and everybody dances with somebody of the same gender. You see what happens to the room –this thing that was once used to beat up on people is now being used in a positive way.
 
"So much of our show is about incorporating calamity," continues Mac. "It's saying, 'OK, this horrible thing is happening to us. Let's use that and try to overcome it all together.' We're not trying to teach the audience, but we're trying to remind them of things that they've forgotten, dismissed or buried. It's useful for people to have those reminders, and see an example of how you can transform something."
 
However, while A 24-Decade History exposes the darkest corners of humanity, it also illuminates our triumphs too.  
 
"I didn't want the show to be one thing," says Mac. "It's really more about multifaceted expression and trying to get people to rebel against an obstinate sense of self. If they think that they're one way and they've decided about their life, maybe we can get them to expand on that and think outside of opinion and decision. In order to do that we mix it up."
 
Post-Brexit and with the subsequent rise of nationalism and populist agendas across the globe, Mac is trying to remind us of something  – that we've seen this all before, time and time again. History, unfortunately, can be a cyclical beast. Sometimes, we need to look to our past to see where our future is heading. Perhaps then, we can carve out a tomorrow that has room for us all.
 
"It's about picking and choosing what in our culture is hurting us, but is disguised as something that's been helping some people while harming others. The whole Donald Trump thing of 'Make American Great Again'. [We're asking] if we can dismantle the things that haven't been of service to us that many people are trying to bring us back to." 
 
It seems more important now than ever to look towards great art. Art that reminds us of the brilliant, inclusive, spectacular achievements humans are capable of. Undoubtedly, A 24-Decade History requires a commitment from its audience. But in this age of constant immediacy, perhaps there's value in experiencing art that quite literally forces you to break out of routine.
 
"I want people to dig in a little bit more into their considerations," says Mac. "To feel like they've been given enough inspiration to encourage that in their life; some sort of grounding principle or sensory experience that they can reflect on when they want to. Something that gives them a foot in the door for different types of consideration – more care for their fellow man, really. That's what it's all about for us."

A 24-Hour History of Popular Music will run at The Forum Melbourne on Wednesday October 11 (Chapter I: 1776—1836), Friday October 13 (Chapter II: 1836 - 1896), Wednesday October 18 (Chapter III: 1896 - 1956), and Friday October 20 (Chapter IV: 1956 - present). Taylor Mac will also appear at The Inauguration on Thursday October 5 and The Wrap on Sunday October 22.