Striking a Nerve

Laurie Anderson riffs on fame, death, and the political landscape

Still, neither approaches the mythic heights Anderson scales in The Ugly One With The Jewels, her spoken-word collection of reminiscences to be released next week. If Anderson fanatics suspect their idol would be a brilliant conversationalist, The Ugly One proves it. This one-woman show recorded live in London last year covers a sad-scary-funny lifetime of experiences--everything from the zealous missionary efforts of her evangelical Christian grandmother, to Anderson's early '70s visit to a tiny Pacific island where a herd of dogs are killed for a mass funeral ceremony ("their bodies turned, still breathing, on spits"), to her travels in Israel under the sponsorship of a promoter who was also a part-time bomb expert. ("Terrorists may be the only true artists left," Anderson breathes, "because only they are capable of surprising us.")

When asked about the personal direction her work seems to have taken, Anderson explains she's at a crossroads. "I see it more in my live performances than anywhere else," she says. "Everything around me is so personal now. Really profound issues like 'What constitutes a family?' get played out in the public arena. Politics is personal, the media concentrates on stories that used to be considered private, off-limits."

A pattern emerges even in a short conversation with Anderson--question her about the motives behind her multilayered work, and she slips, seemingly by reflex, into the role of cultural commentator. For her, a sense of community seems to be inextricable from a sense of identity. Without prompting, she riffs on a number of current American obsessions--the O.J. Simpson trial, public funding for the arts, a national swing towards the right prompted by last November's mid-term elections.

Her biggest criticism--expressed with a profound diplomacy--relates to a certain debasement of universal concerns that used to be celebrated and explored with some sophistication in the popular arts.

"Take the O.J. Simpson trial," she offers. "What you have on display are a fascinating array of classical themes--revenge, the relationship between men and women, a fallen hero--but it's all being treated on the level of gossip. As you watch all these things unfold at a tabloid pace, you have to ask: in what direction are we headed as a culture?"

A related worry seems to be the stunted quality that characterizes American political debate in general.

"We have this grand controversy ongoing about the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS, but have you noticed there hasn't been much in the way of serious inquiry into the real issues? The scenario has stayed the same, only the players have changed. Newt Gingrich is just a preppy version of Strom Thurmond. Nobody has pushed it to the next level and asked, 'Why is art important? How does it relate to our everyday lives?'"

It is this question that fascinates and perhaps even disturbs Anderson the most, the way in which art reflects--and, perhaps finally, reduces--the individual's life. On Bright Red and The Ugly One, she is fascinated with the transcendent potential of myth, and when asked what she considers our most compelling contemporary mythology, she answers without hesitation, "Fame."

"So many people [in America] have been made to feel small and insignificant, they project their ambitions onto the TV and movie screen," she says. "We experience these actors living in the two-dimensional world, and when we see them in three dimensions, we think, 'Wow! The gods have come down to earth.'

"I was at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony a few weeks ago, when they inducted Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, Al Green, The Orioles. Frankly, it felt like a conference of shoe salesmen, everyone pumping up their own deeds. There was only one surviving member of the Orioles, but he accepted the award very graciously for the whole group.

"Then they played a videotape Frank Zappa made at the end of his life. He said he'd known about many famous people who'd expended a lot of money and energy to ensure they'd be remembered forever. His message was: 'I don't care if you remember me. When I'm dead, I'm gone.'"

Anderson chuckles, savoring yet another contradiction that's fallen into her ever-curious sights. "Everyone looked really disturbed. They were like, 'But you have to care! This is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!' On the one hand, there were the deceased Orioles staring down from heaven, and on the other, there was Zappa, declaring his mortality for all time."

Laurie Anderson performs March 4 at 8 p.m. and March 5 at 7 p.m. in McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus.

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