Meet Reverend Billy.
Fifteen years ago, he was known to the world as developing performance artist Bill Talen. Over time — and with the help of several friends — Talen developed a persona whose mode of preaching mirrored that of a televangelist; only this reverend styled his blond-highlighted hair in a pompadour, and his sermons couldn’t have differed more from his telegenic predecessors.
Now, bedecked in a white polyester suit and clerical collar, the Elvis-meets-Bill-Graham character and his Stop Shopping Choir are bringing their anti-corporatist, environmentalist mission to Bushwick’s own Market Hotel to launch his new book, The Earth Wants YOU, and album of the same name, via City Lights Publishers. This event, held on April 10, is the first of a nationwide tour to 20+ cities.
“Televangelism is a very old entertainment trope; it’s our symbol of hatred, misogyny, racism, war-mongering and all the rest of it… it’s our Donald Trump,” says Reverend Billy. “When I first developed Reverend Billy, I was more like a typical New Yorker: an agnostic, snarky commentator on those apocalyptic preachers. But I learned to love to preach, like how you learn to love to sing.”
And sing he does. Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir strut, croon, and occasionally masquerade as singing-frogs hopping through Chase Bank (read about it in his book) in order to spread their message about the importance of an Earth-led cultural revolution. “Stop shopping and sign up now for the struggle of our lives!” he sings. “Earthalujah!”
“The Shopocalypse is what we suffer from right now. It’s a mental condition, and psychological. We can’t understand or see it because we’re living the life of products, of consumers,” he tells me. “The consumer system is far more powerful than we realize, a serious kind of hypnosis, and we are walking through it.”
That being said, tickets for the 7:00 p.m. show will still cost you $12.00, and the book and album (both of which go public this Earth Day — April 22) retail at $14.00. But the anti-consumerist reverend believes that in this case, that’s a small price to pay to awaken us to “the struggle of our lives.”
“We all must be radicals. Very soon. You can’t have a few dozen people trying to stop a pipeline. We have to have thousands out there. All walks of life. The earth wants YOU. It’s very radical stuff and people just have to dance their way and believe it.”
Unconventional? Sure. But Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir have practiced their brand of creative direct action for the better part of the 21st century. Based in New York City, they’ve taken their activism from Occupy Wall Street to the St. Louis offices of Monsanto (and the police station in nearby Ferguson, Missouri) to the stage at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, and out into arenas opening for Neil Young. Reverend Billy was even the subject of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?
“To be radicals, and to survive this challenge, we’ve got to break out of this corporate system of living. We believe you have to do it with humor, and with music. Dance your way out of it, wiggle your hips a little bit. We’re not gonna do this by feeling guilty; we have to love life to do this. Lifealujah!”
So, even if you don’t end up undergoing a spiritual conversion at the show, your $12 will still grant you access to what promises to be an earth-driven and exceptional spectacle.
“The choir is great,” concludes Reverend Billy with a laugh. “Say what you will about my preaching.”
“The Earth Wants You” book and album launch at the Market Hotel (1140 Myrtle Ave. between Jefferson and Troutman Streets in Bushwick) on April 10 at 9 pm. $12.