There’s a new HBO Max film on recently by the singer-songwriter Taylor Mac (who is also an actor, playwright, performance artist, director, and producer). I was hired to play for it here in Los Angeles in 2018. The show is called “A 24-decade History of Popular Music”, and was scheduled to last an incredible 24 hours. This was the day before my son’s wedding, but fortunately, I was booked only to play the first four hours. (The show “loses” one musician per hour, a way of paying homage to the people lost to AIDS. In the end, after twenty-three hours, only Mac is left onstage.)
However, part of me regrets missing the final twenty hours of the marathon. How could they possibly finish, I wondered, how will the star be able to sing, will the audience still be here? What is the point to all this? Those are questions that make me wonder, and whenever we wonder, we are using our creative brain. This illustrates Mac’s genius: he gets you to dream with him, because he realizes that you, too, will ask these questions.
I arrived for the rehearsal at the downtown ACE theater, and upon entering the stage, was greeted with a declamatory “Perfection is for losers!” coming from someone in a bikini bottom and high heels at the center of the room. I smiled at the apparition, and felt somewhat relieved. I didn’t know much about Taylor Mac before I was asked to play, but I knew that he was something of a certified genius (MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim, Obie Award, Pulitzer finalist). I wasn’t sure what he would be like in person, and this intentional act of greeting, although out of the norm, served to make me feel like one of the gang right away.
Putting together this show represented something I find so fascinating about creativity: someone wants to say something, and have people listen because they think it’s important. But how do we get from that to something like Mac’s creation? Somewhere in the middle of the broadcast, in one of the piped in interviews that are scattered throughout, Mac says, “It’s the responsibility of the artist to dream forward.”
What does he mean by that, especially when he’s referring to something that purports only to look backward? And yet, this twenty-four hour wrap up of American history tells us a lot more about our country than the evening news or history books ever did or could, where we came from, and how we choose to march ahead.
Mac himself says he wanted to ask the question, “What happens when history is filtered through one body?” or point of view. And what if that point of view is coming from a queer person, someone who explores and embraces human differences? Sure, it skews the result, but it also opens our eyes and gives us a reliable look from a new perspective at what happened in our history.
This is the essence of creativity – seeing a new way. It’s being troubled or unconvinced by what the old way was (or frustrated that there isn’t, in fact, a way), taking disparate elements, slamming them together, and standing back to see the result. Then asking the question, “What can I/we learn from this?"
At around 7 a.m., nineteen or twenty hours after the show began, the Ted Nugent homophobic country song “Snakeskin Cowboys” was performed. Mac asked people to find someone of the same gender as them and dance together while the song played. Exhausted audience members found each other, held each other up, and the song took on a new meaning: we can do this if we do it together, even in the face of some ugly human prejudices.
To say creativity takes courage is a vast understatement. We are creatures who need to belong, to have a tribe, to know there’s a home for us somewhere. We don’t naturally go against the norm.
But, to see a new way, to “dream humanity forward” is, most probably, the only way we’ll survive. Be brave, explore, and imagine.