Reverend Billy is leaning against the counter of a Starbucks in Northridge, California. Dressed in a white suit and clerical collar, his gelled, dyed-blond hair swept skyward in a John Travolta pompadour, he could pass for a real man of the cloth–until he opens his mouth.
“They are coming into our neighborhoods like space aliens!” he says in a booming televangelist voice. Then he intones a litany of sins: “The union busting, the genetically engineered milk, the fake bohemianism!”
A store manager pushes through the crowd and risks catching spittle by trying to put her hand over the reverend’s mouth.
“I ask for the god who is not a product to please nullify, neutralize this cash register now,” he cries, seizing the machine, “and kick this Starbucks out of this neighborhood!”
A congregation of a dozen supporters yells “Hallelujah!” as an ex-marine, deciding to act as store security, clutches at the reverend’s jacket.
“Let’s go, children! Starbucks is over. Amen and change-e-lujah!”
Reverend Billy, the charismatic leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, is the creation of New York performance artist and avant-garde theater veteran Bill Talen. His Jimmy Swaggart-like persona may be rooted in parody, but Talen–who draws inspiration from ACT UP, the Guerrilla Girls, Lenny Bruce, and Abbie Hoffman–approaches his work with unusual seriousness. The reverend is his main focus year-round; he even earns a modest living from the character, doing lectures and residencies with arts organizations. When his choir belts out lyrics like “So it’s Christmastime, now let’s stop our shopping / Consumer confidence, yes oh yes it’s dropping,” it shows off vocal chops honed in weekly rehearsals. And when Talen delivers his sermons he is genuinely red-faced and beaded with sweat.
“We really are trying to figure out the addiction of consumerism,” Talen says. “Why do Americans shop this way? The advertisements persuade us that consumerism itself is democracy. They persuade us that it’s normal. But we think it’s unprecedented.”
Talen’s anti-corporate critique is part labor rights, part petroleum conservationism, and part aesthetics. He charges the big-box outlets with sweatshop practices. But more often he invokes a vision of “real neighborhoods,” of a Jane Jacobs-style urbanism that has been undone by gentrification, advertising, and franchising. He calls Starbucks “the uprooter of old diners.” In his 2003 book, What Should I do if Reverend Billy is In My Store? Talen decries public spaces where supermodels tower on billboards but where there are “fewer stoops for human words.”
It seems doubtful that many latte sippers are converted by witnessing the Church of Stop Shopping’s “retail interventions.” Bewilderment is a common response, and some customers grow defensive. But Talen claims that others add their own hallelujahs to the choir, and that he has even seen employees clapping. Starbucks headquarters has taken notice: the title of Talen’s book is lifted from a memo the company circulated to employees unsure of how to respond to the pageants. (Needless to say, it did not recommend applauding.) At a Disney Store in Times Square–a favorite target of the church–a manager once tried to warn off troupe members by saying, apparently without irony, “If you’re not shopping I can have you arrested.”
Talen estimates that he’s been arrested 30 to 50 times as Reverend Billy. Though he’s typically released without charges being filed, he did spend three days in a Los Angeles County jail last year after a post-Thanksgiving action. “I got in over my head that time,” Talen says. “It’s a rough, rough place.”
Now Talen is hitting the road with 30 fellow activists and performers for the “Shopocalypse Tour,” a month-long cross-country trek that started a few days after Thanksgiving in New York City and ends with an anti-consumerist Christmas celebration December 25 in Los Angeles. He hasn’t publicly announced the exact route–to avoid tipping off corporate security–but events are planned in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dallas as well as a slew of smaller towns along the way.
In Chicago the congregation plans on “twisted caroling” down the Magnificent Mile on December 7–and it’s bringing 100 extra robes so locals can join in. That evening he’ll read excerpts from his book at Left of Center Bookstore. Mess Hall in Rogers Park will host a Reverend Billy revival the following day.
“We’re going right at Christmas shoppers and saying, ‘You’ve got to come to. You’ve got to wake up,’” Talen says. “It doesn’t make sense to express love this way.”
Do such actions have an impact? Given that mass protests targeting Starbucks have been scarce of late, it is unlikely that the chain’s sales will suffer much in the short term from Yippie-inspired theatrics. On the other hand, WalMart, another nemesis of Reverend Billy, has been taking some serious lumps recently. Notably, its efforts to erect stores in Queens, New York and Inglewood, California, a Los Angeles suburb, have been derailed by coalitions of anti-big-box community groups.
“From the protests against store construction, to ‘slow food,’ to fair trade, which is really hitting its stride in Europe, resistance to consumerism is coming in different forms,” Talen says.
Is Talen, then, a sacrilegious ironist or his own manner of true believer? When asked about his religion, he explains that he and his supporters are “trying to put the ‘odd’ back in God.” He says he feels a connection with the mermaid trapped in the Starbucks logo, a siren modeled from a centuries-old engraving, whose once-bare breasts were air-brushed in the course of the corporation’s expansion. Talen exhorts customers to “take out your red lipstick and put those nipples back on that goddess!”
Yet just when it all seems like a joke, the mania in his voice stills and Talen touches on a dilemma that many mainstream theologians grapple with as the holiday season grows ever more commodified: that, in our frantic rush for last-minute purchases, the mall can become its own glittering deity.
“I don’t believe in that god,” Reverend Billy says. “Do you?”