Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Laurie Anderson

Born June 5, 1947 in Chicago, Laurie Anderson went to New York after high school and in 1969 earned her B.A. in art history at Barnard College. She earned her MFA in sculpture at Columbia University in 1972, then taught art history at New York colleges. She recalls that she would forget the details of the subject she was teaching and would make stuff up, but especially valuable was the experience of standing in the dark showing pictures and talking.

Although starting out as a visual artist, in August of 1972 she conducted Automotive, a concert of car horns and slammed car doors performed by local residents of Rochester, Vermont. She modestly claims to be no more than a professional “storyteller.” She recalls making films but always arriving late to “festivals” and having had no time for soundtracks, so she would provide live musical accompaniment with her violin and tell stories: “soundtrack songs” (Gaar, She’s a Rebel 287), in which the musical accompaniment was never the focus.

Eventually she began to feel that the avant-garde was too insular and snooty about pop culture. She was bothered by the elitism, and who art ends up being for. “I really love records ’cause they’re cheap” (qtd. in Gaar, She’s a Rebel 291).

Her performance art pieces included technological violin innovations (e.g., the tape-bow), a contact mike attached to her sunglasses to make her head into a kind of percussion instrument, a gizmo inside her mouth that lights up her face and helps her emit otherworldly sounds with her voice. One piece involves Anderson playing violin while wearing a pair of ice skates embedded in blocks of ice; when the ice melts the show is done.

“O Superman” hit #2 in the British charts in 1981. She signed with Warner Bros. who fortunately refrained from too much meddling. Anderson’s first album, Big Science (1982), was culled from her 8-hour multimedia show United States. Her works often address issues in American society, or technology gone awry.

Anderson appeared on Letterman in 1984, but he was out of his league. After her performance the show cut to commercial and she was never asked back. She showed up on Saturday Night Live in the late ’80s, performing “Babydoll.” She has collaborated with Nam June Paik, Peter Gabriel, William S. Burroughs, and Lou Reed. In the late ’80s, she addressed the fallout from the Reagan/Bush years, conservatism in arts, and, into the early ’90s, censorship.

O Superman
O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
Hi. I’m not home right now. But if you want to leave a message,
just start talking at the sound of the tone.
Hello? This is your Mother. Are you there? Are you coming home?
Hello? Is anybody home?
Well, you don’t know me, but I know you.
And I’ve got a message to give to you.
Here come the planes.
So you better get ready. Ready to go.
You can come as you are, but pay as you go.
Pay as you go.
And I said: Okay. Who is this really?
And the voice said: This is the hand, the hand that takes.
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night
shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice.
And when justice is gone, there’s always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms. In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
In your electronic arms.

“O Superman” is subtitled “For Massenet,” an allusion to his opera Le Cid and the aria “O Souverain, O Juge, O Pere” — a piece concerning surrender to a worshipped authority. Rhythm is provided by the tape loop “ah…ah…ah,” and the music one would consider minor-key minimalist. The mechanized voices of the answering machine receive no answers to their questions and the restrained utterances are bland but sinister. Familiar phrases and mottos are defamiliarized in what might be considered akin to postmodern pastiche technique. The safety of a benevolent “Mom” ultimately is a deception; Mom has been replaced by Stepford technology.


From the Air

Good evening. This is your Captain.
We are about to attempt a crash landing.
Please extinguish all cigarettes.
Place your tray tables in their upright, locked position.
Your Captain says: Put your head on your knees.
Captain says: Put your head in your hands.
Captain says: Put your hands on your head.
Put your hands on your hips. Heh heh.
This is your Captain, and we are going down.
We are all going down, together.
And I said: Uh oh. This is gonna be some day.
Stand by. This is the time.
And this is the record of the time.
This is the time. And this is the record of the time.

Uh-this is your Captain again.
You know, I’ve got this funny feeling I’ve seen this all before.
Why? ‘Cause I’m a caveman.
Why? ‘Cause I’ve got eyes in the back of my head.
Why? It’s the heat. Stand by.
This is the time. And this is the record of the time.
This is the time. And this is the record of the time.
Put your hands over your eyes. Jump out of the plane.
There is no pilot. You are not alone. Stand by.
This is the time. And this is the record of the time.
This is the time. And this is the record of the time.

“From the Air” features Anderson’s use of the “male voice of authority,” which remains detached and calm despite the doom announced in a disturbingly smug, routinized manner. The “Captain” engages us in a Simon Says round of obedience training. The utterance “Stand by” is revealed as deeply weird when you think about it. And the distinction between this time and this being the record of the time seems Beckettian. “You are not alone”?


Big Science

Coo coo it’s cold outside. Coo coo it’s cold outside.
Ooo coo coo. Don’t forget your mittens.
Hey Pal! How do I get to town from here?
And he said: Well just take a right
where they’re going to build that new shopping mall,
go straight past where they’re going to put in the freeway,
take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center,
and keep going until you hit the place
where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank.
You can’t miss it. And I said: This must be the place.
Ooo coo coo. Golden cities. Golden towns.
Golden cities. Golden towns.
And long cars in long lines and great big signs
and they all say: Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.
Every man for himself. Ooo coo coo.
Golden cities. Golden towns. Thanks for the ride.
Big Science. Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.
You know. I think we should put some mountains here.
Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?
And what about stairs? Yodellayheehoo. Ooo coo coo.
Here’s a man who lives a life of danger.
Everywhere he goes he stays a stranger.
Howdy stranger. Mind if I smoke?
And he said: Every man, every man for himself.
Every man, every man for himself.
All in favor say aye.
Big Science. Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.
Hey Professor! Could you turn out the lights?
Let’s roll the film.
Big Science. Hallelujah.
Every man, every man for himself.
Big Science. Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo.

“Big Science” has a lumbering electronic sound, and the drumming makes it seem almost Native American. This evocation is juxtaposed with phantoms of future sites of consumer cultural blight which serve as directions. “Hallelujah” is essentially a nonsense word, but expressive of religious joy. “Yodellayheehoo” is a nonsense word presented solemnly but undeniably goofy. And “Every man for himself” is an American macho assertion. There seems to be an arranging of a cartoon environment before we hear lyrics from the ’60s tv show Secret Agent Man, joined with some cowboy lingo. I hope in “All in favor say aye” Anderson intends a pun: “aye/I.”


Smoke Rings

Stand by. You’re on the air.
Buenos noches Senores y Senoras. Bienvenidos.
La primera pregunta es: Que es mas macho, pineapple o knife?
Well, let’s see. My guess is that a pineapple is more macho than a knife.
Si! Correcto! Pineapple es mas macho que knife.
La segunda pregunta es: Que es mas macho, lightbulb o schoolbus?
Uh, lightbulb?
No! Lo siento, Schoolbus es mas macho que lightbulb. Gracias.
And we’ll be back in un momento.
Well I had a dream and in it I went to a little town
And all the girls in town were named Betty.
And they were singing: Doo doo doo doo doo.
Doo doo doo doo doo. Ah desire! It’s cold as ice
And then it’s hot as fire. Ah desire! First it’s red and then it’s blue.
And every time I see an iceberg it reminds me of you.
Doo doo doo doo doo. Doo doo doo doo doo.
Que es mas macho, iceberg or volcano?
Get the blanket from the bedroom. We can go walking once again.
Down in the bayou, where our sweet love first began.
I’m thinking back to when I was a child,
Way back to when I was a tot.
When I was an embryo,
A tiny speck. Just a dot.
When I was a Hershey bar
In my father’s back pocket.
Hey look! Over there!
It’s Frank Sinatra sitting in a chair.
And he’s blowing perfect smoke rings
Up into the air.
And he’s singing: Smoke makes a staircase for you to descend. So rare.
Ah desire! Ah desire! Ah desire! So random So rare.
And every time I see those smoke rings I think you’re there.
Que es mas macho, staircase or smoke rings?
Get the blanket from the bedroom. We can go walking once again.
Down in the boondocks, where our sweet love first began.
Ooo I’m gonna follow you. Out in the swamps and into town.
Down under the boardwalk Track you down.
Doo doo doo doo doo. Doo doo doo doo doo.
Doo doo doo doo doo. Doo doo doo doo doo.

“Smoke Rings” features an idiotic gameshow and a nostalgic regression taken too far.


Language is a Virus

Paradise
Is exactly like
Where you are right now
Only much much better.
I saw this guy on the train, and he seemed to gave gotten stuck
In one of those abstract trances.
And he was going: “Ugh…Ugh…Ugh…”
And Fred said: “I think he’s in some kind of pain. I think it’s a pain cry.”
And I said: “Pain cry? Then language is a virus.”
Language! It’s a virus! Language! It’s a virus!
Well I was talking to a friend, and I was saying: I wanted you.
And I was looking for you. But I couldn’t find you. I couldn’t find you.
And he said: Hey! Are you talking to me?
Or are you just practicing for one of those performances of yours? Huh?
Language! It’s a virus! Language! It’s a virus!
He said: I had to write that letter to your mother.
And I had to tell the judge that it was you.
And I had to sell the car and go to Florida.
Because that’s just my way of saying (It’s a charm.) that I love you.
And I (It’s a job.) had to call you at the crack of dawn (Why?)
And list the times that I’ve been wrong.
‘Cause that’s just my way of saying that I’m sorry. (It’s a job.)
Language! It’s a virus! Language! It’s a virus!
Paradise
Is exactly like
Where you are right now
Only much much (It’s a shipwreck,) better. (It’s a job.)
You know? I don’t believe there’s such a thing as TV.
I mean, they just keep showing you the same pictures over and over.
And when they talk they just make sounds
that more or less sync up with their lips. That’s what I think!
Language! It’s a virus! Language! It’s a virus! Language! It’s a virus!
Well I dreamed there was an island that rose up from the sea.
And everybody on the island was somebody from TV.
And there was a beautiful view, but nobody could see.
‘Cause everybody on the island
was saying: Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!
Because they all lived on an island that rose up from the sea.
And everybody on the island was somebody from TV.
And there was a beautiful view, but nobody could see.
‘Cause everybody on the island
Was saying: Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!
Why?
Paradise
Is exactly like
Where you are right now
Only much much better.

“Language is a Virus” originates in a William S. Burroughs quotation: “Language is a virus from outer space.” The Buddhist implications struck Anderson too: “In Buddhist thought, there’s the thing and there’s the name for the thing and that’s one thing too many” (qtd. in Gaar, Talk Normal 27). People’s cheesy sanctimonious excuses for harassment are delightfully satirized. The bit about tv images and voices synching up involves a musical hocket effect one hasn’t heard since the Middle Ages. And of course the show with celebrities on an island became a “reality,” as it were, in 2003.


Babydoll

I don’t know about your brain, but mine is really bossy.
I come home from a day on the golf course
and I find all these messages scribbled on wrinkled up scraps of paper.
And they say thing like:
Why don’t you get a real job?
Or: You and what army?
Or: Get a horse.
And then I hear this voice comin’ from the back of my head. Uh huh. (Whoa-ho.)
Yep! It’s my brain again, and when my brain talks to me, he says:
Take me out to the ballgame.
Take me out to the park.
Take me to the movies
‘Cause I love to sit in the dark.
Take me to Tahiti
‘Cause I love to be hot.
And take me out on the town tonight
‘Cause I know the new hot spot. He says:
Babydoll! Ooo oo oo Babydoll Ooo. He says:
Babydoll! I love it when you come when I call.
Babydoll! You don’t have to talk I know it all.
Babydoll! Ooo oo oo Babydoll Ooo.
Well I’m sitting around trying to write a letter
I’m wracking my brains trying to think of another word for horse.
I ask my brain for some assistance.
And he says: Huh…Let’s see…How about cow? That’s close. He says:
Take me out to the ballgame.
Take me out to the park.
Take me to the movies
‘Cause I love to sit in the dark.
Take me to your leader,
And I say: Do you mean George?
And he says: I just want to meet him.
And I say: Come on I mean I don’t even know George!
And he says: Babydoll! Ooo oo oo Babydoll Ooo. He says:
Babydoll! I love it when you come when I call.
Babydoll! You don’t have to talk I know it all.
Babydoll! Ooo oo oo Babydoll Ooo.
Babydoll! Babydoll! Ooo oo oo.
Babydoll! Babydoll! Ooo oo oo.
Babydoll! Babydoll! Ooo oo oo.

“Babydoll” is remarkably upbeat with its Brazilian-flavored horns for a piece about alienation from oneself to the point of being patronized and goaded by one’s own brain. One may question the identification of “brain” eventually. Is it your brain who can’t think of a synonym and who wants to go to the movies? And why does my brain want to meet George Bush?


She also examined the tolerance of violence in American society:

One of the reasons violence doesn’t get that much attention is that / this government respects violence. It uses violence, and censoring violence would mean censoring itself. (433-434)

The claim that censorship groups wanted to ban “harmful” materials in the name of protecting women and children from the violent crime that rock music was alleged to promote she also addressed:

We make a really big deal here in America about how much we love kids. Disneyland, Pampers — industries are built around how much we [ostensibly] love kids. In fact, in the United States, we have the worse record for child abuse of any country in the Western world. We abandon them, we sexually abuse them, and starve them. We hate kids. We hate women. We hate black people, gay people, and don’t forget old people. We don’t have that much use for them either…. (434)


Works Consulted

Gaar, Gillian G. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll. Seattle: Seal Press, 1992.

Gaar, Gillian G. In Talk Normal: The Laurie Anderson Anthology. Warner Bros Records Inc., 2000. R2 76648.