Wednesday, June 14, 2000

The Gospel According to Billy

Reverend Billy and the Stop-Shopping Gospel Choir
are “putting the Odd back in God.”

By Sara Bruya (c) 2000

Brothers and Sisters, I’ve been born again, Hallelujah!

Yes, and I want to invite you all to my church.

Wait. Where are you going? At least let me tell you about my miraculous conversion...

You see, I had strayed so very far from the truth, caught up in my material world--a spiritual wasteland, lost in a sea of false idols and credit cards. But one man brought me back to the fold with two simple words: “Stop Shopping”...and I was SAVED, praise be!

In the tradition of the infamous evangelists, Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen), larger than life with his hair standing on end in a bleached coif, gyrating and possessed by the Spirit, greets his audience in his signature white tuxedo jacket and preacher’s collar as the choir belts “...we will ne-ver shop agaiiiinn, forever and AMEN!” And The Reverend begins the service with a prayer:

“Let’s pray now. I’m gonna BEG-ah. I’m gonna de-MAND-ah! We don’t know how to do it, but we are in-TENT-ah...on discovering STOP...fucking-ah... SHOPPING-aaahhhh!!! I wanna STOP...ohh...ohh...ooohhh...Hallelujah!!”

‘Stop Shopping’ you ask? That’s cute, right? Children, let me tell you a little story about David and Goliath. Reverend Billy is single-handedly taking on the multi-national corporations--the Starbucks, the Disneys, the McDonalds--that have infiltrated our public consciousness, squeezing out the mom & pop shops, the family diners, the eccentric small businesses that add character and charm to our neighborhoods.

And his message from the pulpit is clear. With a performance that’s part Revival, part sketch comedy, part political rally, Reverend Billy joshingly reminds us what it feels like to think for ourselves.

“People have a set of prejudices that are preempting the personal experience. I’m really dedicated to keeping people, in the first 10-15 minutes of my show, away from a label,” Talen says. “There’s force in not having a context--it’s not precisely religion, it’s not precisely theater, it’s not precisely politics. If you keep the three spinning, then it becomes very powerful for them because they can’t ‘product’ it. They can’t package it.”

Talen, actor/activist, arrived in New York with dreams of success on The Great White Way. What he found was a New York landmark, 42nd Street, soon to be monopolized by a Mouse. Since then, appropriating the character of a Times Square street-preacher, Reverend Billy has spread his anti-consumerism gospel to paying audiences and unwitting shoppers in Disney Stores and Starbucks alike all over Manhattan.

“There is a mall-izing of the entire city going on that is, in itself, violent,” Talen says. “Consumerism is a kind of violence that is not seen, it’s not obvious. It’s psychological violence...because it limits our humanity. It’s getting so extreme now that recent studies show that in the average day we’re participating in 9000 advertising events. We’re becoming surrounded, stranded in a kind of violent, encircling vibe...until we forget that we have the privilege of making our own identities in this world. As long as our consensual hypnosis continues, there WILL be 15 chain stores on Astor place, and your neighborhood WILL turn into a mall. It’s going to take a revolution.”

Every revolution has its tenets. Back at the service, the congregation is warming up a bit, and Reverend Billy’s leading the vespers, while the choir and audience sing along:

“We believe in the God that people who don’t believe in God--believe in.

We believe in shopping the way that people who never shop--do they’re shopping.

We believe in the logos that people who paint faces on logos--believe in.

We believe in putting the Odd--back in God.”

The choir’s got everyone on their feet, clapping and singing along with the next rousing hymn: “Let me turn my head, let me lift my hands...from the coy supermodels to a sex life that I feel...” Are you feelin’ the Spirit?

OK. So you thought I was being facetious earlier--all that talk of being saved? Not quite. It doesn’t take long to really feel (yes, in your soul) that something special is going on here. Reverend Billy reminds us of our lost vitality, he shows us how we’ve willingly surrendered to forces that wish to own our souls and prevent us from original thought and action. He calls us to awaken to our own, unique experience of beauty, joy and self-expression. And ironically, this isn’t so far from what church is supposed to do.

Like a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a parody, Reverend Billy uses a comic and ironic form to come right back around and hit you with a very tangible spiritual (and oh yes, political) message: Be Yourself.

Talen’s genius is in his ability to give a name and a face to the vague cultural malaise we all experience (and try to assuage with $5 lattes). He reminds us that, oh yeah, our desire for a meaningful existence is more authentic than the desire for a new GAP jean jacket. Duh. We knew that. But sometimes the most radical ideas are the ones born of something we already know deep down inside.

“I think anti-Consumerism is just beneath the surface of the consumer,” Talen says, “because ultimately an anti-consumer is a human being. A consumer is a statistic. You can’t really consume the way they want you to consume and maintain an idiosyncratic, exciting self.” Amen, Reverend!

If this ain’t “Revival,” I don’t know what is.

Check out Reverend Billy’s website at where you can find the Starbuck’s Invasion Kit and other useful information about the Church of Stop-Shopping.

Reverend Billy and the Stop-Shopping Gospel Choir will perform:

July 14th at Smackmelon as part of the Red Blue Green Fest

August 24th at Central Park Bandshell

November 4th at Town Hall for “Neighborhoods Take Back New York

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