The American Music Show, Channel 12, People TV, 1981 – 2005, Atlanta

From 1981 to 2005, The American Music Show craved a space in do-it-yourself media and embarked on a remarkable journey towards becoming a seminal figure in television and moving image history. This Atlanta-based variety show became an emblem of creative autonomy, offering a platform for queer expression, satire, and countercultural movements that defied conventional television norms. The genesis of The American Music Show is a tale of the unexpected, merging Civil Rights history, Atlanta’s conservative political landscape, mixed gay and straight social networks, and musical subcultures into a vibrant grassroots tapestry. I always refer to it as the Atlanta I hoped to have moved to. 

At the heart of its inception stood James Bond, a co-founder, co-host, and Atlanta City Council member. His connection to civil rights was not merely professional but familial, with his brother, Julian Bond, a prominent activist. Their collective influence was pivotal in securing public access to cable television for Atlanta in the late 1970s, setting the stage for a cultural phenomenon. Alongside Dick Richards, Potsy Duncan, and a circle of talented performers and musicians, The American Music Show was born and was taped in Richards’s Inman Park home with a weekly budget of five dollars (the price of a VHS tape). The show was a humble affair, yet it encapsulated the DIY ethos defining its legacy.

The inception of TAMS was not merely an entertainment venture but a bold political statement, leveraging the newly minted public access platform to challenge traditional media standards. Its blend of humor, musical talent, and avant-garde performance art became a hallmark of Atlanta’s cultural landscape, particularly resonating with the queer community.

The Reagan era, marked by conservatism and a shift away from the progressive movements of the 1960s and 70s, created a backdrop against which TAMS shone brightly. Atlanta was such a different place back then. The city had already been associated with the slogan “a city too busy to hate” for twenty years. It was desperate to further distance itself from its history of racism and a shift towards a more cosmopolitan and capitalist future. In the 1980s, Atlanta underwent a transformation that brought unprecedented openness to identity and expression; however, it remained a Southern city deeply rooted in a strong cultural emphasis on conservative Christian values. TAMS came in to thumb its nose at those ideas. The show’s anarchic humor, often infused with political undertones, offered a counter-narrative to the mainstream, embodying the spirit of resistance and independence. Their ability to intertwine humor with serious political commentary, all while celebrating queer culture, set a precedent for public access television and queer representation in media.

DeAundra Peek, photo: Paula Gately Tillman, 1995

Each week consisted of various combinations of segments that ranged from drag and musical performances, interracial Twister games, parodic sketch comedy, dirty jokes in French, interviews, and field reports from around Atlanta (think political benefits, nightclubs, trailer parks, and tours of the gay cruising trails in Piedmont Park). Central to the ethos of The American Music Show was its embrace of camp aesthetics, a celebration of the absurd. This aesthetic choice was not merely for entertainment but a form of resistance against conventional media production values and societal expectations. The show’s creators leveraged their limited budget and resources as a creative challenge, resulting in a distinctive style that resonated with audiences seeking alternatives to mainstream television. This approach mirrored broader trends within queer subcultures, which often used camp as a means to subvert traditional narratives and create spaces for alternative identities and expressions.

Lady Clare, photo: Paula Gately Tillman, 1992

Several years ago, TAMS had this revival in interest primarily due to their most famous alum. Still, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention a number of other influential personalities that passed through this world. There was Lady Bunny, a renowned drag queen and the creator of Wigstock, Jayne County, the pioneering trans rock star with a significant impact on David Bowie, and the DJ and producer Larry Tee, who coined the term ‘electroclash.’ And that’s not to mention all the local heroes here in town. Then, in 1981, a twenty-year-old devoted viewer named RuPaul Andre Charles sent the show a fan letter. In keeping with their policy of flexibility and spontaneity, Dick Richards invited RuPaul on, making it their first television appearance in 1982. At first, the appearances were primarily bit parts, a hand model, a basement fishing trip, and a make-over of the NY videographer, Nelson Sullivan. However, in 1987, a segment they aired was remarkably serious and dangerous. That January, TAMS sent two drag queens, Lahoma and Lizette, to cover a march against racism in Cumming, Georgia. During the peaceful march, they faced violent opposition from local Ku Klux Klan members, leading to a halted protest turned impromptu Klan rally. This is always odd; public access shows had the footage, showing the raw realities of the events, two reporters in full-drag attire, shedding light on the racist and homophobic sentiments prevalent at the rally. 

Undeterred, the marchers returned a week later with a formidable presence of twenty thousand participants, ensuring the march’s continuation. This time, TAMS sent Wanda Peek (Molli Worthington) and Starbooty (RuPaul) to file a field report. Their presence, especially Worthington’s comedic genius and RuPaul’s undeniable charisma, turned the march into a momentous episode, with RuPaul facing both admiration and aggression from onlookers. Dick Richards seized the opportunity to frame the entire event, including the darker elements of Klan rituals and cross burning, as subjects of satire. This bold approach to covering such a serious and potentially dangerous topic underlines The American Music Show’s commitment to being defiant in the face of hate.

I think of TAMS as occupying these two parallel tracks: this incredible documentation of a great work of durational performance art and a historical archive, capturing a transformative period in Atlanta’s and America’s cultural and political landscape. I had the privilege of working with this archive twice, once showing a selection of episodes and various clips in the screening room for Atlanta Contemporary’s 2019 Atlanta Biennial and the 2018 edition of the Paris Internationale art fair. In Atlanta, the exhibition served as a reunion of sorts, bringing together various players and fans who remember those old days fondly. The audience in Paris was enthralled, charmed, and sometimes, maybe a little confused. They had so many questions about time and place… Was that really RuPaul? 

TAMS is a masterful work of art, but it is also this incredibly important chronicle of communities’ lives, struggles, and celebrations often left out of the mainstream historical narrative. Before his passing, Dick Richards donated recordings of the show– 745 VHS tapes– that contain hundreds of hours of footage to the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University, where they digitized the entire collection. The preservation offers future generations a window into the complexities of queer life, activism, and artistic expression in the late 20th century, providing a valuable resource for understanding artists that asked no permission, that played by their own rules, that were never afraid to challenge the establishment. And by capturing moments of joy, resistance, and creativity, TAMS serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of Atlanta’s queer community.

As we look back on the twenty-five years of The American Music Show, we are reminded of the enduring power of community, creativity, and resistance in shaping our collective narratives and pushing the boundaries of what media can achieve. Through its blend of humor, artistry, and advocacy, they entertained, challenged, and reshaped societal norms. The American Music Show is a testament to the power of community-driven media to create spaces for underrepresented voices and foster a culture of inclusivity and creativity. Its legacy is a reminder of the importance of preserving and celebrating these spaces, not only for their historical significance but for their ongoing impact on culture and society.