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Out in the Tropics: Taylor Mac's Pop Music Tribute Is So Last Century

Taylor Mac likes pop music. And he's pretty indiscriminate about the pop music he likes, from primitive folk songs of the 1770s to the Auto-Tuned, focus-grouped hits of today. The actor and gender-bending diva, recognized in New York City and beyond for his politically conscious, impossible-to-reproduce theatrical spectacles, is channeling his love of music for the masses in his next gargantuan project: a 24-hour concert in the Big Apple, slated for late next year, that will cover the past 24 decades of pop music.

But well before his 24-Hour History of Popular Music, Mac will run a number of mini musical marathons, including his much-anticipated appearance at this weekend's provocative Out in the Tropics festival at the Colony Theatre. Titled 20th Century Concert (Abridged), Friday night's show will feature a song from each decade of the 20th Century, in addition to a pair of encores. Mac will likely be an art exhibition in and of himself, with attire that will make Lady Gaga's and Björk's performance garb look conservative. Mac spoke with New Times about his unique aesthetic and the ghosts of pop music past and present.

New Times: How did this idea of "A 24-Hour History of Popular Music" originate?

Taylor Mac: I was thinking about why my favorite singers are people who don't sing so well -- Nina Simone (always slightly under or above the pitch) and Patti Smith (either screaming it or speaking to music with an idea of pitch). I thought it would be fun to make a show that explores this and would put me in a position where perfection couldn't possibly be the goal. Plus, Tiny Tim did a 24-hour concert, and I got excited about furthering the conversation he started.

Did you have to research decades you weren't already familiar with? What was popular music like in the 1770s, for instance -- was it synonymous with what we call classical?

Yes, I've been doing lots and lots of research. My life has become research. The research isn't as fun as singing the songs, but almost. Classical music was never popular music (well, popular in certain circles). I'm really limiting myself to music whose goal is to bring people together -- songs that all classes of people can connect to. So drinking songs, songs that rally, celebrate, sing-alongs, etc. Most of the songs like this from the 1770s are folk songs, patriotic songs, religious songs, and, of course, love songs.

What special preparations are you undergoing to perform 24 hours straight? Have you attempted anything like this before?

No. I'm treating it like a marathon. I'll be doing two ten-hour concerts at some point (one focusing on music from the 20th Century and one focusing on the 19th Century), and I've been performing the songs in various spinoff concerts (like what I'm doing in Miami) and will continue to, so I keep them in my brain and guts.

For the abridged, 20th-century version you're performing in Miami, what were the criteria for which songs or performers would make the cut?

A little what you know and a little what you don't know. Are they the kind of songs that bring a room of people together in some way? Can I deconstruct and reimagine them in a way that will serve the piece on a whole?

Does any decade of popular music stand out as your favorite?

They all have such gems. I did really like performing the 1820s because that's when Braille was invented, so we blindfolded the entire audience for the duration of the performance. To look into the audience and see them but not be seen was a completely new experience for me.

You say in your website's artist statement that "surprise (not to be confused with shock) is the way I get audiences to feel." Why is that distinction important to you?

Shock shuts people down, but surprise opens people up and reminds them of their humanity.

In what ways have your theatrical performances integrated audiences into the performance, or otherwise brought people together?

Literally, I get people to do things: There is not observation that lacks participation at my shows. So audience members sing along, dance, play characters, shout things out, meditate, make out with their loved ones or strangers, etc. I work very hard to make sure the audience is taken care of in their participation so they don't feel like they're responsible for the show. I never force participation, but I invite a whole lot.

When I look at the complexity of your pieces -- such as The Lily's Revenge, with its five acts, five-hour running time, and multimedia requirements -- they seems like a notoriously difficult work for a regional company to re-create. How do you feel about that? Are things like shelf life, regional productions, and touring capabilities important to you when developing your ideas?

I'm an artist, so I don't think about what financially it will take to make things. I make them. The secret is that people get excited by big projects, so the bigger your project, the more people you'll get to help you make it. The smaller your project, the fewer people will be able to get involved. And people are the solution to just about everything. Isolation is destroying us.

Taylor Mac performs at 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 14, at the Colony Theatre, located at 1040 Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach. Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students and seniors. Call 305-674-1040 or visit fundarte.us.

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