An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Celebrating the history of American music in 24 Hours


A new documentary tells the story of an epic 24-hour performance that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.


TAYLOR MAC: Hello, everybody. Maybe you noticed this isn't like a regular concert.

SHAPIRO: The show's creator and performer is Taylor Mac.


MAC: I knew I wanted to do the whole show as a 24-hour performance, but I only wanted to do it once.

SHAPIRO: The documentary is called "Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History Of Popular Music." The show captured the sweep of American history from 1776 to 2016. Each hour, Taylor sang songs that were popular in a specific decade. Each hour, history advanced, telling the story of this country from slavery through Jewish tenements to women's suffrage. It involved a cavalcade of other performers, puppeteers, burlesque dancers, an orchestra and a pile of mischief-makers Taylor called his dandy minions.

MAC: I wanted it to be so long that the audience is falling apart. I'm falling apart. We're all falling apart. But because we go through the history all together and because we - or I make the audience do so many things, they start to get to know each other, and we actually are building some kind of tangible community out of an ephemeral art form.

SHAPIRO: So even as you're falling apart, you're coming together.

MAC: Yeah, that's the concept.


MAC: One, two, three, four.

SHAPIRO: In 2016, I first met with Taylor just a couple weeks before the marathon performance. And at the end of that year, when Taylor had recovered, I checked in with him again to ask how it had gone.

MAC: It felt a little bit like a ritual sacrifice. It felt like you put yourself through something really difficult, and you come out the other side.

SHAPIRO: When we talked before the performance, while you were rehearsing, you seemed genuinely unsure whether you would be physically able to get through it.

MAC: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So is there a moment in the 24 hours where you thought, oh, no, I'm really not going to get through it, or a moment when you realized, oh, I'm going to make it; this is going to be OK?

MAC: At hour five, the air conditioning broke in the space.

SHAPIRO: Hour five puts us in early 1800s.

MAC: Yeah, 1816 to '26. The space started to kind of get hot, and I sort of think, oh, does this space just get hot with all these bodies? Did I just make the worst decision of my life (laughter)? And is this just going to get worse from here? - because hour six was really hot. And then they fix the air conditioner. And then once we got to Walt - the Walt Whitman-Stephen Foster decade, everything started to ease up.


MAC: (Singing) And chase the buffalo. We'll chase your buffalo.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We'll wander through the wild woods...

MAC: And then we were fine. I mean, by the end of the show, I was destroyed, but I was (laughter) - but I knew I could get through it.

SHAPIRO: You were still singing, though.

MAC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The specific example you gave when we talked before was "Purple Rain." You were like, you know, if we get to "Purple Rain" and I can't sing it, it'll be like, well, the audience knows the song. They can sing it.

MAC: Yeah (laughter). Like, all I could make was legit one octave range.


MAC: (Singing) Honey, I could never steal you from another.

And I had Stephanie and Thornetta, who are these incredible singers from Detroit, and they had slept the night. They were all fresh. They looked amazing, and it was just this burst of energy that we all needed.


MAC: (Singing) Purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, purple rain.

SHAPIRO: Even though you had all of these collaborators showing up over the course of the 24 hours, your core orchestra shrunk by one person each hour.

MAC: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And at hour 23, it was just you and Matt Ray, your musical director-collaborator.

MAC: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about what it was like to go from the end of hour 23 into hour 24 and be alone on stage for that last hour?

MAC: You know, Matt is such a huge part of this project with me. And it's been five years of work, and our collaboration has been a lot longer. So it was an emotional experience just to go through all of that with him. He just started to break down on stage (laughter). And so I was holding him, and he was sobbing in my arms. And the audience was freaking out, cheering and screaming for - it just seemed forever. So that was really sweet. And then when he left, it felt a little lonely (laughter), but it felt right. It was slowly a process of giving it over to the audience. The entire piece was, OK, we're giving this art. We're giving this history. We're giving this collaboration over to the audience and this vision. And hopefully they will take it and make something with it.


MAC: (Singing) When all the artists leave or die and you're alone onstage...

I needed to go away, too, you know, which is what I did at the end of the show. Then I came home, and I fell asleep at the dinner table, you know?

SHAPIRO: Literally at the dinner table.

MAC: Halfway through eating something, I was like, (snoring).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And when you woke up the next morning, was it like, I'm in a different world now; I'm a different person? Or was it like, what am I going to do with my life? I mean, what was it?

MAC: A little bit like that. Yeah. Yeah. It felt like that's what I crafted for myself - was this massive project that allows me to enter into a new phase of life.

SHAPIRO: What was the before phase, and how would you describe the after phase?

MAC: Before, it was - I think so much of our attention has been placed on trying to identify what is wrong, and we haven't spent too much attention imagining a new what we want it to be and what the alternatives are. Part of "A 24-Decade" for me was claiming what's wrong with the world and what's wrong with our culture right now in America specifically and then actually imagining the world that I want and making that happen. We didn't really say, this is the world that we want, onstage. But we were making it with the dandy minions and the audience and the music and everybody participating. And I think that's what the future holds for me - is just making more work that is about making the world that I want as opposed to commenting on the world that is.

SHAPIRO: In that moment, speaking to Taylor in late 2016, Donald Trump had just been elected president. And so I asked how Taylor's experience of telling the story of this country in its entirety shaped his perspective about the moment we were living in.

MAC: It reminds me that it can happen at any time, that it's not over because you see the patterns over and over. And it makes you realize that things are cyclical, and they come back in some way. So you see the people who fought against it, and you say, oh, well, that's the person I want to be. So that's what I'll do when it happens.

SHAPIRO: The documentary "Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History Of Popular Music" is streaming now on Max.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASEGO SONG, "YOU NEVER VISIT ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.