Big Science – Laurie Anderson
I could probably write a book about all the ways that Laurie Anderson has affected my life, but, as this is only a blog and I own at least two more of her albums, I’ll try to focus on Big Science for now.
I was twelve or thirteen and away at summer camp when I first heard “O Superman.” Dwight was my teen counselor and a secret punk-rocker with an extensive and eclectic music library on cassette. At night just before bedtime, all the boys in my cabin would gather in our bunks as Dwight would play some of his favorite tracks to us on a small, handheld tape player. Thus began my introduction and lifelong interest in underground music.
I can’t remember all the songs he played for us now, but I’ll never forget Laurie Anderson and “O Superman.” I would lie in my top bunk, eyes closed, feeling simultaneously moved, amused, and creeped-out. The song is deceptively simple, led mostly by an infinitely repeated “Ha” vocal sound as the melody and spoken-word-through a-vocoder parts dance around it. It was one of the few songs I asked him to play repeatedly, falling asleep to its strangely soothing repetition.
Years later, I was brought back to the album in the oddest way. Not long after 9/11, I the answering machine message part of the song came to me, especially the lines: “Here come the planes. So you better get ready,” and, later, “They’re American planes, made in America.”
The song is like a message from the past that we picked up two decades too late. The first track, “From the Air,” hits similar apocalypse-by-way-of-aviation themes. The lyrics all consist of a pilot speaking to the cabin as the plane goes down, often repeating the phrases “This is your captain,” and “We are all going down.” In my dream DJ gig, I get a crowd to dance to this song.
There’s also humor in the hopelessness. The pilot busts into a game of Simon Says. In “Example = 22” the love song chorus about the sun and the birds and the “one and only” ends with the line: “So pay me what you owe me.” In “O Superman,” when everything – love, justice, force – has vanished from the earth, there’s still always: “Mom… Hi Mom!” And then there’s the chorus of the title song, essentially a religious hymn in which God is Science.
All over, there are those quintessential Laurie Anderson pearls of wisdom, these mini-Zen parables, which always leave me amazed no one thought of this before. Like the entirety of “Walking and Falling,” which defines the act of walking as constantly catching yourself from falling, true on a literal level, but also in a poetic kind of way, too.
I haven’t even really gotten to the music part, its cool vintage keyboard sounds, random bits of percussion, handclaps, droning violin, and even bagpipes! What struck me most on a recent listen was its minimalism and the blend of acoustic & electronic instruments that both carried melodies and added textures and sound effects when needed (not to mention a perfectly placed bird sample here and there).
Perhaps it’s only her later partnership with a certain rock star, but, listening now, I was struck with what, musically, the album had in common with early Velvet Undergrund. In a way, its like what might’ve happened if, instead of John Cale, Lou Reed had left the band and took the rock and roll with him, leaving only the arty parts.
There’s another element at play here that’s always been a part of her work even by its absence: gender. Here was a woman who cut her own hair, who wore suits (sometimes with piano-ties that she could play like an actual keyboard), who defined gender on her own terms, who was artsy and weird and subversive, and yet still managed widespread appeal. She was never “pop” enough for mainstream success, but also never too-cool or obtuse for non-artsy types to appreciate. She was an artist on her own terms. Her music was feminist, in that it didn’t always have to address gender, but, when it did, it was slyly observant. The last song on Big Science, “It Tango,” is essentially a dialogue between a man and a woman, in which every response of the man goes: “Isn’t it just like a woman?”
I’m proud to say: my early love of Laurie Anderson is what helped make me not only a freaky performance artist, but a feminist for life.