Courtesy of Reverend Billy and Stop Shopping Church
For more than 20 years, the performance artist known as Reverend Billy – real name Bill Talen – has led a crusade against consumerism in New York and abroad. I first met him in the early 2000s when I recorded his attempt to exorcise a cash register in the Disney Store in Times Square.
“People, tourists, listen to me,” shouted Reverend Billy in the flagship store. “Mickey Mouse is the antichrist. He’s the devil!”
Chain stores, particularly Starbucks, were the targets of Reverend Billy’s anger as he rose up against “the sea of identical details.” He blamed them for destroying family businesses across America. At the time, Talen was known to enlist members of the public in political actions. I followed members of a crowd as they walked to a Manhattan parking lot, where a billboard deemed an affront to the neighborhood was defaced with paintball guns.
After the economic crisis of 2008, Talen focused on the climate crisis. The false ecclesiastic remains the spiritual leader of the Church of Stop Shopping and in November celebrates 20 years of anti-consumerist musical crusade during a concert in New York with his choir Stop Shopping. But he now refers to Earth as “our religion”. He started a podcast and, in a video posted to YouTube, he stands at a lectern in the ocean, preaching about extreme weather conditions.
Reverend Billy and the StopShopping Choir
“The globe is heating up and it’s man-made!” he preaches, water up to his knees. “This wet, white and blue rock spinning in the space that is our home is in grave danger.” As the sermon progresses, so does the sea, rising to his waist, then his chest.
Companies like British Petroleum are now acting as foils for the Reverend. At Tate Modern in London, he exorcised BP, who had purchased an exhibition. Protesters dumped gooey black theater oil on his Elvis pompadour, and it dripped down to his trademark white suit.
“Climate change! Climate change! Climate change!” he cried in a cavernous section of the museum, his voice echoing with urgency. Although he intentionally smeared a BP logo on a wall with black mud, Talen was not detained. He says he has never been arrested in the UK, although he says police constantly followed him on a tour of nine cities earlier this month.
Talen, 71, estimates he’s been arrested elsewhere more than 50 times over the past two decades, still wearing his office collar, with a casual costume wardrobe expanded to include shades of neon pink, d ‘orange and green. His longest stay in prison was three days in California. During the pandemic, he was arrested for trespassing at a Central Park field hospital set up by an anti-gay religious group.
Sometimes Talen keeps the office collar even when he’s not playing. Over the years he began to take on pastoral duties, presiding over hundreds of weddings, baptisms and even funerals. “People trained me in rituals,” he says. “At first I was just following what people told me to do, in a kind of astonishment state. But now I just help wherever I can.”
Talen has a knack for conveying spiritual sincerity both to her audience and to the dozens of people at the Stop Shopping Choir, says Alisa Solomon, a veteran journalist and professor at Columbia University, who edited the 2011 book. Reverend Billy’s Project.
“At first there’s a tendency to look at Reverend Billy and say, ‘Oh, yeah. We know that joke, here’s a guy making fun of Jimmy Swaggarts,’” Solomon says. “But he doesn’t just laugh at the role of preacher; he uses it. Reverend Billy is not a role he just plays and plays: he is Reverend Billy. “
Courtesy of Reverend Billy and Stop Shopping Church
Salomon quotes Talen’s wife, Savitri D. – Talen calls her the director of the Church of Stop Shopping – for the dramatic shaping of the group’s public actions. “Their events are very choreographed,” notes Solomon. “There are plans for where the choir is going to be, when they are going to sing, when Billy is going to give a sermon.”
The fact that up to 25 members of the Stop Shopping Choir continued to rehearse in Brooklyn during the pandemic, says Savitri D., prepared the group well for its recent British invasion. “During COVID, we met on a rooftop and sang with masks for three hours, week after week, in all weather,” she says. “We were able to tour in the UK and be a really cohesive ensemble because we never stopped singing together.”
The choir was supported by several members of its UK satellite choir and supported by a grant from the British Arts Council. The tour ended in Glasgow at the COP26 summit, although its final performance was canceled after a member tested positive for COVID.
Reverend Billy & The Stop Shopping Choir
Some members of the Stop Shopping Choir have sung in the group for a decade or more, according to music director Gregory Corbino. Veterans say it’s like a second family. The set includes an opera singer, as well as a Tony nominated actor, Amber Gray, who currently stars in Hadestown on Broadway. (Gray, notes Savitri D., is one of the many participants who met their fellow students in the choir.)
“Some people end up in the choir because they are deeply invested in direct action activism,” says Sunder Ganglani, who wrote several of the choir’s more recent songs. Others do it simply for the love of the song. “There are a lot of roads to get in there,” confirms Ganglani.
For Talen, activism is clearly a serious principle of faith. In order to minimize his carbon footprint, he flew to the UK and donated part of the British Arts Council funds to a bicycle delivery group and a community garden. By all accounts, the locals seemed open to hearing from New York’s bogus clergyman. Talen appeared on the BBC and preached outside the British Museum, wearing a pink costume and wearing a matching pink megaphone.
Immo Klink / Courtesy of Reverend Billy and Stop Shopping Church
His megaphones were regularly seized by New York City police when he began speaking out against consumerism in Times Square in the late 1990s. Reverend Billy does not forget that his current way of conveying apocalyptic environmental concerns has something to do with it. thing in common with the sidewalk preachers that he ridiculed all those years ago.
“I feel like I’m going back to a part of fire and brimstone when I scream about fires and floods,” he laughs. “Sounds a lot like those Old Testament people’s cries that I would satirate 20 years ago. And here we are with all this fire and sulfur that’s really going on in our lives.”