PRIMER: Laurie Anderson

If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week: conceptual pop artist Laurie Anderson.

- Jul 20, 2012

If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week Dan Berube guides us through the work of conceptual pop artist Laurie Anderson.

he most distressing part of the recent documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present has nothing to do with the performance art icon’s ritualistic bodily harm. For me, the most viscerally upsetting moment comes about 3 quarters of the way in when there’s a clip of 2 Fox News anchors decrying Abramovic’s MoMA retrospective in a pandering, faux-puritanical rant about Lady Gaga’s then recent “Telephone” video. They equate a fluffy, interminable music video to Abramovic’s hard-earned career-spanning exhibit, and hearing this amidst clips of the really pretty touching “Artist is Present” performance left me stewing for the rest of the film about some troubling aspects of the post-post-modern pop landscape. Lady Gaga’s arbitrary appropriation of anything vaguely arty has allowed her (or rather her corporation of publicists) to imbue insipid Euro-pop with the aura of high art conceptualism. I mean, it doesn’t take an Art History grad student to recognize her “pastiche is the new originality” thesis as teenagery, especially when used as an excuse to circumvent intellectual work and meaningful expression.

However, performance art and pop are often, but not always, ideologically incompatible. A rare exception, the career of art-world mainstay Laurie Anderson, offers an exciting counterpoint to the “high fashion” posturing of so many Gaga-esque hacks. In Anderson’s six studio albums and umpteen compilations and collaborations, heady conceptualism and pop music exist in a beautifully strange symbiosis. With a longstanding record deal with Warner Music, and now, Warner Music subsidiary Nonesuch, she has achieved considerable chart success, and in 2003 was named NASA’s first Artist in Residence. In Anderson we find a poppy, yet uncompromising conceptualist for whom pop conventions are actually part of the concept. And better yet, a lot of her music is really fun!

Starting out with an MA in sculpture and a brief stint as an alternative comix artist, she arrived in the New York art-world in the early seventies and slowly gained notoriety for her performance and installation work. Early collaborators ranged from the pioneering absurdist comedian Andy Kaufman to the beat poet William S. Burroughs. This speaks to the flexibility of her emerging aesthetic, which was, at that point, channelled through a mix of spoken word performances and John Cagean sound experiments. A rare early pop song, “It’s Not the Bullet that Kills You (It’s the Hole),” was recorded in the late 70s for inclusion in an installation-art jukebox. It beautifully showcases her restless instrumental eclecticism and brainy, off-beat poetics. The track sets Cajun fiddle, harmonica, and bubbly vocals to reggae syncopation, resulting in a sunny pop jam that’s not far from the sounds of Joni Mitchell and 80s Paul Simon.


“It’s Not the Bullet that Kills You (It’s the Hole)”

It's Not the Bullet that Kills You (It's the Hole)


The culmination of her 70s performance art work was a sprawling, 2 night multimedia opus called United States. It contained what would become her first, and most successful single, “O Superman”, a nearly 8 and a half minute minimalist piece in which Anderson kind of has a half-sung conversation with herself. The song is a reworking of the aria from a nineteenth century opera, and makes extensive use of the vocoder. It was a startling success, reaching number 2 on the UK music charts, and basically making her a pop-star overnight. She followed it up with Big Science, a single LP featuring “O Superman” and more studio recorded United States material. In 1984 she released the 5-disc United States Live box set. It collects all of the primarily non-visual segments of the show, and offers a kind of encyclopaedia of Anderson’s themes and preferred techniques. Many tracks feature the tape bow violin, an invention that allows her to create live musique concrète effects by scrubbing a length of tape attached to a bow across the bridge of a violin rigged up with a magnetic tape-head. The result is often percussive and dissonant, and in tracks like “Sax Solo” Anderson uses it to playfully deconstruct the sound of a familiar instrument. The album, and basically all of Anderson’s work, thematizes death, semiotics, and the peculiarities of American life, often adopting, in an alternately creepy and hilarious deadpan, the voice of the “average American.” Perhaps the best example of this is “So Happy Birthday,” in which 2 of her band members trade inane comments about New York City, technology, and the American Dream over a gleefully go-nowhere synth line.


“O Superman”

O Superman - Laurie Anderson - as displayed in the MOMA, New York


If the sheer length of United States Live is off-putting to the prospective fan, the film Home of the Brave is not a bad alternative starting place. That is, if you can track it down on VHS or via electronic means of questionable legality. It’s sort of her answer to Stop Making Sense, the groundbreaking Talking Heads movie from 2 years previous, only instead of being a career-spanning “best of”-type set list, it’s more or less a self-contained conceptual work. It draws on material from her second studio release, 1984’s Mister Heartbreak, including a few tracks from United States, but also features new monologues and pop songs, and some wonderful animations, presumably created by Anderson herself. “Smoke Rings” is equal parts skit and rambly new wave dance tune, and features an awesome tape bow violin solo that showcases the instrument’s melodic potential.


“Smoke Rings”


Anderson’s next 3 records continued to expand on the ideas introduced in United States. The Brian Eno-produced 1991 album Bright Red has some standout moments, including the creepy industrial song “The Puppet Motel,” which also appeared in a spooky CD-ROM work  of the same name. In 2005 she released a spoken word album titled The Ugly One with the Jewels, with reflections on her career and some short fiction pieces drawn from her performance and book Stories from the Nerve Bible. A highlight here is “The Rotowhirl,” an elegiac recollection of her time as Andy Kaufman’s deadpan side-woman.


“The Puppet Motel”

Laurie Anderson - The Puppet Motel


Homeland, Anderson’s most recent album, bears many of the distinctive qualities that can be traced back to United States Live and Big Science: among them, long, unusually structured songs, a mix of spoken word and singing, comments on American modernity, and guest appearances by her supremely cool friends (this time John Zorn and Antony Hegarty stand out). But this record is exceptional for being not only more emotionally immediate, but more synthetic in its construction than her previous works. The instrumentals are patchworks of performances recorded in multiple studios in multiple countries and digitally grafted together during a gruelling several-year editing process. “Another Day in America is a haunting reflection on turn of the century North American life and the particular ways our experience of time is distorted by new technology. It also has some of her funniest lines to date, like “then there are those big questions always in the back of your mind. Things like: Are those two people over there actually my real parents? Should I get a second Prius?” At these moments it feels like a gloomier cousin of “So Happy Birthday.” Last year she performed an abridged and otherwise modified version of the track on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, along with indie darling Colin Stetson on baritone sax (around the same time that he featured her on the Polaris Prize nominated record New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges). In this clip she’s dressed up as her longest standing character, once called “the voice of authority,” and recently re-named Fenway Bergamot and given a dark moustache and unsettlingly lopsided eyebrows. She famously referred to this heavily modulated, cartoonishly masculine version of her voice as “audio drag”, which feeds into her almost posthumanist interest in the plasticity of gender. Remind anyone of Lady Gaga’s weaksauce Jo Calderone “alter ego”? Hmm… well, great minds think alike.


“Another Day in America (Live)”


AFTERTHOUGHT: A fun game would be to compare this performance to a recent TV appearance by her embarrassing old coot of a husband. One of them still has impeccable taste in collaborators and a keen ear for genre-fusion-strangeness and the other one is Lou Reed.

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