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If You Preach It, They Will Come: Reverend Billy and the Gospel of Anti-Consumerism

08.16.2000 | ACTIVISM

Reverend Billy has a posse, and unlike the Andre the Giant sticker campaign of the late 90's, it is no hoax. This is a congregation of the devoted and the eccentric, ranging from Pacificia radio to the owner of the local Coffee Pot brew spot. In the context of New York City, where size breeds apathy and advertising shapes identity, this diverse and down to earth fold of the Church of Stop-Shopping is truly a miracle.

With an Obie ("The Voice's" theater award of distinction) and expanding media attention under his belt, the mad genius behind these mock religious revivals, Bill Talen, has a lot to be thankful for. His "Starbucks Ate My Neighborhood" campaign is spreading through the many neighborhoods invaded by a green Mermaid logo. This May, Reverend Billy took action against this plague by declaring "a franchise-free zone" in the heart of Hell's Kitchen. "Because the Disney empire once known as Time Square is just around the corner, because the first Starbucks on a block is the first sign of infection", Talen's guerilla theater has hit the performance spaces, Disney stores, and streets since its origins in 1997.

Reverend Billy talks in tongues part facetious, part serious, and all contagious. The political preacherman is an amalgamation of Talen's "Mount Rushmore of influences", including Antonio Boal's "Theater of the Oppressed" and the Judson church's artistic activism. With insidious insights on pop culture echoing Mark Russell's political piano rags, Talen is a self-ordained orator for the cynical and sidelined. "It's a hybrid", Talen muses, with sweat dripping into the eyes of this overly caffeinated, overtly zealous stand-up preacher. "Just when you think its theater, it's political action. Then it's a rock concert. I invoke the rising glissandos of jazz improvisation more than something really Pentecostal."

Talen believes in his crusade, and he believes in Reverend Billy. His intense vocal timbre, flagrant gesticulations, and stylized bouffant cross the personas of Tammy Fay Baker and Richard Simmons. The audience is anointed as "the brothers and sisters of the Church of Stop Shopping" in Talen's first spirited swagger across the stage, eyes bulging and teeth bared. Silence, and reticence, are the mortal sins of this magic show. In one trick, the Reverend takes the consumerist bull by its plastic horns: the audiences credit cards are solicited and demagnetized in a flurry of exorcist convulsions. The next minute, the crowd chants: "We believe in the return of the small bookstores, community gardens, ma-and-pa apothecaries... We believe in the god that people who don't believe in god--believe in."

It will take more than belief to slow the expansion of "petit-bourgeois graphics" and "the safe suburban" feeling of the 101 Starbucks in New York City alone. As stated in activist Meagan Wolf's history of consumerism walking tours, Starbucks continues "in the Astor Family tradition of New York City robber barons". Despite the size of its expansion or profits, Starbucks has let only 12 of its 2885 stores unionize, employs environmentally damaging monoculture farming, and fails to provide living wages or suitable standards for its plantation workers. The Reverend Billy revolution rails against the many giant ventures in this omnipresent "cancer of expansion". Talen practically foams at the mouth in slandering the many agents that are "wearing away at authenticity and longevity, the stories being lost, and the names being forgotten." The Duane Reades, Barnes and Nobles, and other chains put the squeeze on little, long-standing establishments. As their doors close, so closes the city's character, and characters, with them. Such aisles of standardized merchandise replace local owners, icons, and a warm greeting at the door. Talen bemoans this trend with full-body tremors, screaming "There is something very wrong about the dead silence of Starbucks patrons in those orgasmic moments right before the climax of caffienation!" Reverend Billy's sermons shows us that we are what we see, or what we are forced to see. From the happy faces of Tommy Hillfinger's Americana to the "winey, mossy, seaweedy" cookie-cutter interiors of Starbucks, New York is fast becoming the "sea of identical details" that suburbia has pasteurized and homogenized, sealed and delivered. The ever-tactful Rev declares that "I knew I had to do this preaching when packaging, the land of mechanical production, has invaded every last frontier. When sex becomes tailored by Polo Deck-ware or by Reebock; even nature has been stripped into a demystified weightlessness."

It is the scope of this violent invasion of "bankrupt terms and bleach toothed actors" that keeps Talen on his blitzkrieg of Church sermons over a "The Voice" box pulpit. Audiences, activists, and at random follow his steps and his conviction not necessarily for the sanctimonious or sacred reasons, but for the sense of a quirky and concerned community. Voices at his revivals are united in the uplifting hymn that "we must not be divided, we must lift our voices and sing, let us not be tempted, we must not buy anything." Continuing to canonize this community, a motley crew of "saints" are immortalized with a Polaroid picture and a round of Hallelujahs belted from the Macky Dees gospel choir. This "praise-beed" brethren of unsung celebrities included the Gardinis (as owners of the local apothecary store), a canned Starbucks employee, and Ricardo Dominguez, member of "The Electronic Disturbance Theater", as cyber activists supporting the Zapatistas and fair-trade coffee.

Excluding the fact that the Gardinis never showed, and a row of spectators left on the Friday run, the union created among the theatrical flourishes lasted. Bill beckoned for all to follow him to the closest Starbucks, and follow him they did. Mass took to the streets in a public demonstration and communion ceremony "a la carte", with H & H bagels and Equal Exchange coffee as the body and the blood. Even after all had wet their lips, and the Starbucks locked its doors, the crowd only dispersed when Billy's voice faded. Turning to me with doe eyes of awe, one women confessed that, "This had been my first communion. Thank you for moving my spirit!" As Jason Grote, local leader of the Lower East Side Collective noted, "Half of the people going along these spontaneous protests come to watch. But this is a real route to activism. We don't even understand what democracy looks like, and its not that we are afraid of it, but it is something that we not even used to."

Reverend Billy is taking his galvanized role as missionary to the children of the urban jungle with unassuming stride and a quickening pace. Talen shrugs off any conjectures of cult status, stating "I'm just being useful." Yet this utilitarian attitude is more in keeping with the trailbazing, and hairaising, path of Joan of Arc than John Stuart Mill. His artful antics harness the multi-sectorial political energy of late, from the IMF protests to the organizing on the Internet, serving to tackle global issues through their local manifestations. Evoking a moral commitment to city pride, Talen states with the utmost seriousness: "We are all so damn different. Starbucks tells us that Tiazzi's equal Fridays. But is happiness really so readily achievable from cheap, burnt beans and standardized experiences?" And furthermore, are we eccentrics really going to fall for such cheap tricks?

The momentum of this movement speaks a resounding "no". Talen is providing an appealing outlet for commercial angst, while not preaching an extremist Luddite gospel.. One convert confessed, "When the choir sang of the temptations in shopping, my heart leapt because that was me. I had to ask, What can I do to stop the obsession?" Acting as a support group for the lost and tempted inner child in us all, the Church of Stop Shopping points towards a new trinity: shop local, avoid chains, and raise hell.

Reverend Billy is a bad-ass bugle boy. His entertaining activism trumpets the Rhapsody In Blue.. As "living in New York feels like walking through a glossy magazine.", Talen sounds the alarm call that "we have a responsibility to become absolutely threat-takingly original". Who knows what commercial ubiquity is next on his hit list, or when a revival will come to a Starbucks near you. (see for a clue). But given the growing numbers of dour skeptics crumbling into smiles at Talen's talent for both the absurd and the purposeful, and his duel philosophies that "compromise is bullshit" and "if we lead with momentum, people will follow", this revolution has only begun to break through the ranks.

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