Morgan Bassichis’s Haunted American Songbook

Morgan Bassichis’s Haunted American Songbook

Morgan Bassichis’s Haunted American Songbook

The performer’s work presents a riotous vision of what an intergenerational left might look like.


Sitting at the piano midway through their performance More Protest Songs, Morgan Bassichis introduced their next number as “a protest song I would love to see, like, elementary school students do. Preschool? Super young.”

Everyone cracked up. Between verses, Bassichis drew out their fantasy of inspiring a youth insurrection: “A lot of little kids flooding everywhere.… They’re, like, tugging on people’s pants…overturning desks.”

The song itself was just two lines repeated between broken piano chords: “We cast you out / We send you away.” It might have been an incantation meant to expel an evil force, or a message from a community exiling a troublesome member—a children’s council, perhaps, deciding who would be the first to go.

Like much of Bassichis’s work, the power of “We Cast You Out” comes from its shivery mix of political feelings. Bassichis is not the only contemporary artist exploring the nature of everyday existence in such overwhelming times, but they are among the first to plumb the jumbled unconscious of today’s growing left social movements from within. Bassichis is a longtime activist with prison-abolition and Palestine-solidarity groups, whose performances call up the delight, despair, and dizzying contradictions that shape life on the (queer, Jewish) left. They are also a virtuosic improviser, able to free associate across moods from the petty to the oceanic; the thrill of marching in the streets, the relief of getting home to watch TV.

Bassichis—who’s amassed a devoted following in the art world—writes gorgeous, unadorned songs that would be at home in a haunted version of the American songbook. Their performances combine music and comedy to create surreal, unsettling, partly improvised, and very funny cabaret shows. In More Protest Songs, performed and recorded as an album in 2017, they reimagined an old-fashioned genre of musical dissent with strange, dark songs that began their life as lullabies. In The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions: The Musical, they co-created a theatrical adaptation of Larry Mitchell’s 1977 cult classic, an allegory about gay life in a declining empire called Ramrod. Damned if You Duet, a variety show Bassichis presented last fall with a series of collaborators, investigated the narcissism of collaboration itself. A Morgan Bassichis performance can feel like a night at the piano bar in the middle of a siege.

It can also feel like children’s theater for adults. Onstage, Bassichis, a mesmerizing presence, becomes a maddening, lovable, overgrown kid (and often works with actual young performers). They describe their persona as “delusional, childlike, somehow earnest, totally narcissistic.” (“Is it you?” I asked. “Yes and no. A turned-up, distorted version,” they said.) Artforum called them as a “millennial Candide.”

Bassichis could be envisioned making a cameo on Sesame Street, with a soulful singing voice that slips, for effect, into a tone reminiscent of Kermit the Frog. They are ungainly—again, perhaps deliberately—like a tall child or, well, a big bird. A running joke in Damned if You Duet involved them distractedly taking off items of clothing and putting different ones—stockings and ballet flats but no pants, for instance—back on. At one point they put a sock on the microphone, then asked why.

Bassichis’s alter ego can often be found creatively misappropriating leftist political concepts and the current lingua franca of community expectations—boundaries, consent, trust, self-care. At the performance of Damned if You Duet that I saw, they announced at one point that there were “too many faces” in the room. “Having a face is a form of uncompensated labor,” they said gravely as the stage lights dimmed, “and we’re going on strike.”

The embattled “we” in Bassichis’s songs often seems to be a radical or marginalized community—some version of the collectives that narrate traditional protest songs like “We Shall Overcome” or “We Shall Not Be Moved,” but usually, here, on the cusp of dissolution. In “The Porn Song,” Bassichis enumerates a list of things an unspecified ensemble has stopped doing—“We don’t eat anymore/ We don’t cook meals/ We don’t go to the library store anymore/ We don’t do those meditations anymore/ There’s no time”—before they get to the punch line that explains why everyone is so busy: “So much porn.” This is a dystopia that even we could fall for.

A theater kid raised by social worker parents in a progressive Boston suburb, Bassichis adopted their mom’s political fervor as well as her musical tastes, which ranged from jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughn to folk singers like Holly Near. For a decade after college, they worked as an anti-prison organizer and educator in San Francisco. In 2013 they moved to New York, initially intending to give Broadway a shot. “I got my headshot taken like, ‘Alan Cumming, when you’re done in Cabaret, here I am,’” Bassichis joked. Instead, they found a home among veteran performance artists like Jibz Cameron (known onstage as Dynasty Handbag) and emerging artists like the filmmaker Tourmaline; this spring, their work will be featured in the Whitney Biennial.

Bassichis remains “a real show person,” said Malik Gaines, a founder of the performance troupe My Barbarian and a professor of performance studies at New York University. In Damned if You Duet, Gaines joined them for a tribute to George Michael that ended with the two shrieking the Wham! song “Freedom” while leaping around the stage in socks and underwear. “I don’t want your freedom!” they sang, shaking their fists, like queer kids putting on a show in someone’s basement, or protesters who have turned on each other.

The video and performance artist Gregg Bordowitz compared Bassichis’s work to Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or learning plays, which created a jarring mix of affects intended to sensitize audiences to the contradictions governing their lives. Leaving a Bassichis show, he added, sometimes brought back memories of heading home from ACT-UP meetings in the 1980s: “energized and enervated; motivated but thoughtful about what steps to take next; preoccupied by how much one can do.”

My own fantasy about Bassichis’s work also takes place in the ’80s: I walked out of More Protest Songs with the weird sensation that I already knew the songs, that they were returning to me from my early childhood, as though they had long ago been recorded on a cassette tape that had just been lost, for many years, under a seat in my mom’s car.

Last month, Bassichis presented a new performance, Klezmer for Beginners, which included both an interpretation of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” that highlighted the klezmer roots of its sound, and a group singalong of an old protest song Bassichis described as “‘Fuck tha Police’ in Yiddish.” Like More Protest Songs and Damned if You Duet—a collaboration with the composer Ethan Philbrick—the show was an attempt, Bassichis explained, “to approach a genre with fresh eyes.” It was also another occasion for political and historical reflection, this time responding to the way that “the accusation of anti-Semitism is being used as an intense wedge in social movements,” Bassichis said.

There was a surge of interest in klezmer in the 1980s, they added, when leftist Jews responded to this kind of weaponization by “looking for forms of Jewishness that were purposefully diasporic and rooted in internationalism.” Many of the musicians behind that last klezmer revival—some of whom collaborated on Klezmer for Beginners—have remained active as performers and organizers for decades, a living riposte to the commonplace that only younger Jews affiliate with the

Artists run the risk of dabbling in nostalgia and sentimentality when they make work that explicitly invokes radical movements of the past or imagines those we might see in the future. But the children and older artists who appear in Bassichis’s work—whether in person or channeled by Bassichis—simply seem to belong there. Entering Bassichis’s world, we encounter a riotous vision of what an intergenerational left might look like—one in which everyone is loopy, but no one is alone.

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