Big Ideas vs. Small Details


“I certainly don’t feel that I know anything that resembles The Truth; and I’m really not that interested in it, anyway,” Laurie Anderson explained in 1984. “My first job as an artist is to make images. If I have a choice, I’ll always choose something that is beautiful over something that is practical.”

When engaging with the sociopolitical, there’s a preference for the artist to generate commentary out of metaphors: big ideas.

Laurie’s 1982 debut, Big Science, is political, but it approaches politics by magnifying and cross-referencing microcosmos: small details.

Laurie Anderson – Big Science

Big Science is an unusual proposition – it contains a few extracts from Anderson’s seven-and-a-half-hour performance art piece (United States I-IV) examining life within the most powerful territory on Earth, and the rest is a Warner Bros-funded “proper rock album” response to the fluke UK chart success of O Superman (number 2!).

But each segment of Big Science is perfectly concise, adding a weird clarity to these information sketches by a spoken word artist (and accidental pop star) which on the page should be deeply ambiguous.

Sweaters is as direct and unpretentious as anything Larkin put his pen to:

“I no longer love your mouth.

I no longer love your eyes.

I no longer love your eyes.

I no longer love the colour of your sweater.

I no longer love it.

I no longer love the colour of your sweater.

I no longer love the way you hold your pens and pencils.

I no longer love it.

Your mouth. Your eyes.

They way you hold your pens and pencils.

I no longer love it. I no longer love it.”

It Tango is an X-ray of cliches, an exchange between a man and a woman delivered in exaggerated repetition, where non-sequiteurs glide into odd lyrical portmanteaus.

“She said: It looks. Don’t you think it looks a lot like rain?

He said: Isn’t it. Isn’t it just. Isn’t it just like a woman?

She said: It’s hard. It’s just hard. It’s just kind of hard to say.

He said: Isn’t it. Isn’t it just. Isn’t it just like a woman?

She said: It goes. That’s the way it goes. It goes that way.

He said: Isn’t it. Isn’t it just like a woman?

She said: It takes. It takes one. It takes on to. It takes one to know one.”

It’s interesting that the male voice in the piece is only allowed one refrain, whereas the female voice shifts across a stuttering word association game.

It’s hard to say if the locus of It Tango is the absence of empathy that genderises male-female interaction (also addressed in Kate Bush’s A Deal With God) – the two hemispheres of society, fatally, forever talking at cross-purposes. But maybe the piece is less a critique of gender roles than of language itself.

“What I like about clichés is that they’re true, but you forget about how true they are because they’re so boring,” Laurie once said. “With clichés, if you can invent a way to see it in a new light, then you can understand why it’s a cliché.”

I really like the coda, which breaks the deadlock: “Your eyes. It’s a day’s work to look in to them. Your eyes. It’s a day’s work just to look in to them.”

From The Air is another linguistic prank, which turns the monotonous formula of a pilot’s address to his passengers into a game of Simon Says. The plane is crashing.

Big Science is fetishistic with the depersonalisation of voices in the pre-internet society, though this is never stated explicitly. Instead this theme forms a subconscious but queasily familiar album-length texture – the lyrics imparted to the listener over intercoms and answering machines, through EVP and encoded in requests for directions.

Why did O Superman (For Massenet) become such a huge pop hit? It’s the UK charts most beautiful anomaly. As a girl, a friend of ours received the single from her grandma, who had mistaken it for Black Lace’s novelty hit Superman.* Maybe a lot of befuddled grandmas did that. If so, then UK art-pop in the 2000s probably owes a huge unacknowledged debt to Black Lace.

Beyond the ear-catching aural gimmick of the vocoder, it’s hard not to be moved by something in O Superman.** Anderson’s linear vocal is often referred to as deadpan, detached, or ironic – but this isn’t accurate, because the listener feels practically brutalised, Lars Von Trier-style, by the emotion in the piece.

It’s especially difficult for people of a certain age to assess O Superman’s initial context. Specifically those of us who were too young to have experienced it as a pop hit, but old enough to have a vivid memory of one day in September in the infancy of the new millennium.

Because O Superman isn’t so much prescient of 9/11 as psychically-connected to it. It’s not even that the lines about the planes coming (“They’re American planes”) could be assigned as a kind of 9/11 metaphor, but more that the indefinable mood conjured by O Superman’s sparse poetry is a reminder of something that bled through every atom on the one day in our lives when it genuinely felt as though the world was ending.

The synergy wasn’t lost on Laurie Anderson, who performed a rare version of O Superman in New York the week following the attack.

The (For Massenet) suffix represents that the song is a ‘cover’ of Jules Massenet’s 1902 “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père” aria from his opera Le Cid. Anderson describes both her’s and Massenet’s arias as “war songs”.

The three voices in O Superman – Laurie, “the Hand”, and “Mom” (Superman, judge, and parent?) – converse through wires, but their narratives overlap and become entangled, they voice each other’s lines. It’s hard to tell if the heartbreaking closing lines are sung by Laurie or the Hand, or whether they’re in fact the same person: “So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms. In your electronic arms.”

The words in the song are red flags (“Justice… Force… Petrochemical… Military.”). They are words we’ve become more accustomed to than should be necessary. But it’s the condition of art that we’re ultimately not left with much more than beautiful, useless images. Redundant at enacting political change, but soul-staining.

* Written by Argento soundtrack composer and Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti!

** O Superman was topical – Anderson has retrospectively stated that it was written about the Iran-Contra crisis, but as this didn’t occur until several years after the release of O Superman she may be thinking instead of the Iranian hostage crisis.