Performance artist Neal Medlyn discusses the celebrity public persona, growing up Pentacostal, and his new performance King, running through October 26 at The Kitchen.
Performance artist Neal Medlyn’s King, running through October 26 at The Kitchen, is the seventh and final installment of an eight-year series of shows in which he performs as pop culture icons including Lionel Richie, Prince, Britney Spears and the Insane Clown Posse. This one focuses on Michael Jackson. The show, in which Medlyn covers hit songs and tells stories, is accompanied by an installation of relics of previous shows in the theater during the day. Medlyn also now raps under the name Champagne Jerry.
Rosa Goldensohn Is this series an exploration of the idea of celebrity or is it an expression of your own stuff?
Neil Medlyn It’s expressing my own stuff, which has always been about performance. I’m interested in performance-related things, a lot of them being the things that pop stars do. Like there’s a part in every big pop concert where they suddenly stop in the middle of a well-known song and people applaud. A few seconds later, they don’t start the song again, they just stay silent. Then the 20,000 people there realize that they’re literally all in the same room and then they start to cheer even louder.
Taylor Swift stops and stands there for a second and then when people realize, Oh wait, this is really happening! she starts acting like she can’t do it . . . like she’s sort of overwhelmed by the cheering, by all those people reacting to her en masse. She stopped doing it, actually, because people caught on after a while. That kind of stuff can only happen with celebrities, in a way. Those performance ideas are awesome, I think.
RG And I guess the question is whether the audience is seeing “the real you,” when you’re performing.
NM Right, that’s been a big thing in the series. I was gravitating toward all these stars that had this thing about, “No, but this isn’t who I really am,” or “No, that wasn’t who I am, now I’m this person.” Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus was super-explicit about that being her thing. With Britney Spears it became very clear that what was going on with her emotionally was different from what she was doing on stage. And Prince realized that this bad part of himself called Camille had been responsible for all these dirty, nasty songs.
RG Do you feel like you, Neal, get seen by the audience for who you are when you’re on stage?
NM I don’t really know. I know who I am the rest of the time when I’m just at my house taking a bath or something, but when it comes to social media even, I don’t know. It’s all a series of decisions about how you’re going to interact with all of that stuff—it might feel 100 percent genuine, but it’s not really real.
That’s what is fascinating about pop stuff in general. When I’m making things, it’s not commentary. The way pop works resonates with me: things are real and not real; people are reacting to me but they’re also reacting to the idea of me and to the idea of whoever’s songs I’m doing and whatever baggage those songs have.
RG You grew up Pentecostal, which involves speaking in tongues. That seems related to what you’re doing now.
NM It is. It feels like you’re just vibrating with whatever. A lot of the performing styles that resonate with me come from the same kind of evangelical, charismatic churches: James Brown and that whole tradition of sweating and going, “I can’t do it anymore! Oh yes, I can, I can do it!” It’s the Southern traveling preachers thing.
RG What’s the role of the audience in that? You’re going to feel the spirit?
NM Yes. At the end the preacher gives a big long sermon and there’s this style to setting it up and going really high and then bringing it down really low, to finally go in for the thing. Right when you’ve really sold it, at its emotional peak, you’re like, “Now, with every head bowed and every eye closed, ask everybody to come up to the front.” Then everybody starts praying for about 20 minutes until they start speaking in tongues.
RG Did you want to be a preacher?
NM I come from a long line of preachers. My great-grandfather was a traveling preacher in that style; he was a revival preacher. My dad would fill in a lot; he was a Sunday school teacher. My grandfather also preached some.
I never successfully spoke in tongues. I went to Jesus camp and stuff like that and I’d try, but I couldn’t not also feel like I was performing, and that felt wrong to me. The idea was that somehow I’d get so lost that I wouldn’t know where I was. I could get really lost but I just couldn’t get that lost.
That’s why performing feels a lot more authentic. I can still be thinking in the back of my head, Wait a minute! What is that person in the front doing? Is that guy asleep? And then, Don’t forget, you have to go over here and pick up that thing in a minute. All the while you’re talking and performing.
RG Is that transcendental experience or whatever you want to call it still what you’re after?
NM Oh, yeah. It was interesting—when I started doing dance pieces it was the first time I was calm and on stage and inside of my body. Before, I could never know where I was. I wouldn’t know where my hands or legs were. I’d walk out on stage and everything would get a little crazy and ecstatic.
RG Dancers are leaps and bounds ahead of a lot of actors in terms of being present and being authentic. I think it’s because they train so much more.
NM Yeah, they inhabit the space as part of being on stage, period. With acting, you’re always trying to inhabit space by what you’re saying or by what your connection is with the other person. Dancers just walk out there and they know exactly where they are in the space. I remember watching Eleanor [Hullihan] and everyone who was in that show of Sarah [Michelson]’s at The Kitchen, Devotion, and just how close they would come, their spatial relationships with each other and with the walls. They’d be running really fast but end up in the same place. That’s just such a knowledge and use of space and time and distance.
RG Would it be overly simplistic to say that you’re a preacher but your content is pop?
NM That would be wholly accurate. The religious aspects of the shows we’re doing . . . I don’t know if it’s because we’re in New York, but I’ve noticed that even [Neal’s 2012 show] Wicked Clown Love ends with: This is about God! Nobody ever said anything to me about that part of the show. We talked about the class aspects of the show and all sorts of other things. Nobody was ever like: “What the fuck was up with that ending?”
RG With performing there can be a conflation of emotional experience or expression, feeling your feelings and expressing them, and spiritual transcendence. Especially if you’re in a repressed kind of set-up.
NM In the case of the South’s spiritual tradition, a lot of it is, partially, entertainment. People would live in these far-flung rural places and then they would come together once a year for two weeks for these revivals. They’d all camp together and the preacher would come. It’s like you’re seeing your neighbors for the first time. It’s this weird communal experience.
RG The sexual energy must have been insane.
NM Yeah, you know Dolly Parton in her autobiography talks about one of her first religious experiences—she was really into this guy, they snuck into the church, and had sex there. She’s very sincere about it and says it defines who she is. I like the idea of having sex in a church and being like, “Yeah, this is who I am!” It’s like James Brown, who takes all this preacher stuff and has it be about sex—it works exactly the same way. The sweating and the reaching out and everything. In one way, you’re not acknowledging it, and in the other way, you’re making it super explicit.
RG Do you have Pentecostal hopes for the audience? Your shows have to be theater, they have to be live.
NM They definitely do. That’s what I’m doing; it doesn’t exist without the audience there. People can feel however they want to feel, but I always hope that they’ll get really wrapped up in it.
There was a time when I did the Beyoncé show at the New Museum and [director/choreographer] Dan Safer was in the audience. I was reenacting this concert DVD of hers, and there’s a part where she’s patting her head with a towel and says, ‘This whole time I’ve been wondering, who am I gonna give this towel to?’ People go crazy and then she throws it to somebody. Dan Safer was in the fourth row and he started screaming right then, so I threw the towel at him. Later he said, “I don’t really know what happened to me in that particular moment, but I kinda lost my mind and I had to fuckin’ have that towel.” That’s maybe the most awesome thing that ever happened—he got so . . . I don’t know what happened. It wasn’t about it being a great performance or whatever. That’s written into the code of the way that works. You just feel that kind of stuff. Even Miley Cyrus on the VMAs. There’s such a studied way that all those pieces make everybody flip out.
RG Michael Jackson is so not sweaty as James Brown. He’s some other extreme of self-possessed.
NM He’s so precise. Michael Jackson—it’s like he was trying to create this separate, baroque world that was decidedly unsweaty. Which is weird, because sexualizing him was such a big part of the Jackson 5. They had him sing all these heartfelt, romantic songs when he was like six. Once he gets to Thriller, the baroque fantasy world he was making becomes more and more elaborate.
RG Do you feel like your sexuality is on display, that you’re showing your particular sexuality?
NM Yeah, it’s always been there but it’s always also made me feel a little nervous. Which I think is part of what’s great about using these stars; it allows me to feel a little more comfortable. Being bisexual and being in-between things for me makes all that stuff resonate so much more. There’s men and women and being in-between and androgyny and all that kind of stuff, it’s all so present in pop music, particularly the pop music I’ve used in the shows. Certainly in the ’80s there was a real androgynous move.
RG What did you learn about Michael Jackson making this?
NM There was some emotional stuff about locating him in this group of people who are artists who idealize innocence. I read a lot of J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan. Nobody really knew what his sexuality was; he was this odd, small little man who adopted this family that he met in a park randomly. He spent a lot of time with the children, and it doesn’t seem like anything happened but who knows? The perversion, in a way, is not so much whether or not anything happened, what feels perverted is the idealization, the dehumanizing aspect of idealizing somebody or some group. When you look up to some group so much—children or men or women—it dehumanizes them. So it’s that weird push and pull of worship.
RG But do you feel like you worship these figures that you’ve worked on?
NM No, but emotionally, I have the tendency to worship people. Certainly romantically over the years I have this tendency to fall for people who seem so fuckin’ awesome to me; that’s my relationship with them. It comes with all these weird problems.
I related to [Michael Jackson’s] striving for this unrealizable world. When he made the album History, which was what I ended up feeling drawn toward, he was the same age I am now. It’s that idea of having worked so hard all those years to make this world and being happy about it and obviously having the money and the ability to continue doing whatever he wanted. But then also, there’s lots of things that he didn’t get to do. Now feels like the right place in the story of the series [Lionel Richie Opera, 2005; Coming in the Air Tonight, 2006; Unpronounceable Symbol, 2007; Her’s a Queen, 2009; Brave New Girl, 2010; and Wicked Clown Love, 2012) for him to go last. Also, stars getting older, they’ve been doing this thing for a while now. It’s not really where I’m at, because Jackson is a humongous star, but I can see myself in that same area, as somebody who’s been doing this particular thing for a while now.
RG So you’re not approaching it from worship or with the kind of ambiguity that drag has: half-worship, half-making-fun. In some ways it’s method acting? Getting into the vibe there?
NM Yeah, I got really creeped out about three shows ago when I realized that my emotional life was really much more similar to the shows than I thought it was. Then I got really creeped out trying to figure out whether it was because I was working on the shows. I remember reading so much about Britney Spears, and my life kind of went to shit for a little while . . . Or did I choose Britney Spears because my life was going to shit?
They have felt very personal since the Prince one. All of them. Because the Lionel Richie one felt like exactly what was happening to me at the time. I was doing all these elaborate things, just me, by myself, with a bunch of plastic bags, and nobody cared. The idea of doing this big opera set to this easy-listening stuff that nobody was gonna see was really where I was at emotionally.
RG It sounds like you had something of a popularity explosion, coming to New York.
NM Yeah, after the first five years of being by myself.
RG Do you feel like your stuff interacted with hipster culture in a weird way, because that culture’s so ironic?
NM Definitely, when I first started out, the only way that I felt like people were going to read what I was doing was ironically. That was nerve-wracking. People are more nuanced about things now. Younger people listen to Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry and also read Lacan and that can all coexist in people’s minds. But when I started out people were like, “No, anything pop culture-related is beyond the pale, not cool.” They were like, “It’s only okay if you’re just making fun of it or being super ironic.”
Even now there are a lot of people who probably think what I’m doing is very ironic. It’s not because there’s no distance. It took me a long time, even living in New York, to understand this concept of distance. Here’s you and here’s what you’re talking about, and there’s this space. That space is critical distance.
RG In a way it comes down to: Do you mean it? That’s why I was wondering if you like karaoke, where, where I feel like people sing their hearts out and really mean it.
NM You didn’t write the song. There’s distance. You’re using the song in order to express this thing. And that’s what I think is fascinating: . To me that’s the whole thing that’s interesting, that you really mean it, but it’s not you, and you probably don’t even know that person, and they live a life that you’ll never know about.
RG That makes total sense though—that’s acting. You come from acting,. You didn’t write it, but you mean it. You find a way to mean it.
NM Yeah, if you do Hamlet, and then people are like, “Well, but it’s very ironic that you’re doing Hamlet, because obviously you’re not a 14th-century Danish prince.” Well, of course I’m not. Why would that even be a part of the conversation?
RG You rap under the alias Champagne Jerry. I come from the suburbs of New Jersey, and one of the big funny jokes of these middle-aged white moms is to say things in a kind of “hood” way, a way they think is “Black.” I assume your politics are different from mainstream American suburban culture. We all replicate things differently and an idiosyncratic replication is different?
NM One of the things that I like about hip-hop is that there’s always or has often been an emphasis on realness. Realness in terms of your own mythology, because some of the things you’re talking about are not real at all. That realness builds around whatever your little mythos is. Fidelity and not trying to pretend that you’re something else is such an important part of it.
When Houston people started out, they were like, “We all drink cough syrup and drive cars, so we’re going to talk about our cars and cough syrup all the time.” And then Insane Clown Posse . . . They talk about Faygo, which is like cheap supermarket soda, because they’re poor and they live in Detroit. They’re not gonna rap about Hennessy cause they’ve never had it. I mean, they probably have now. I’ve always really appreciated that part of it: this is who I am, this is what’s around me, this is what I’m thinking about.
RG But you’ve never felt like, “I’m gonna do the Neal show? I’m Neal from Texas?"
NM That’s what I’m doing with Champagne Jerry. The songs really are all about me. I like to read books, so I mention that in the songs. I’m from Texas, so I mention that too. I like to get crazy, so I rap stuff about that. It’s like the shows, but now the source material is who I am. I think [CNN anchor] Erin Burnett’s attractive, so I write a song about Erin Burnett. I watch a lot of news, so I mention NY1 a lot.
Rosa Goldensohn is a journalist and has performed with New York City Players since 2009.