Talk Show

Funny, erudite, and accessible, Laurie Anderson has redefined performance art for the past two decades

Laurie Anderson, you will not be surprised to learn, is a downright charming conversationalist. Furthermore, to the delight of anyone who has appreciated her 20-plus years of storytelling art, she often strays from the trajectory of the central topic to indulge in illustrative narratives that somehow provide the perfect foil for her observations on art, comedy, politics, and life in these United States.

In the middle of a tangentially related thought, for instance, she stops herself short: "What time is it there?" she asks from Canal Street Communications, her New York-based office, two days after the U.S. election. "Do you know who's president?"

It's 7 a.m., and nobody knows anything yet. And the way it looks on that fateful day, we might not know for a long time. Anderson sighs. "You know," she begins, "I never realized how much I cared about this election until I didn't know."

“Language Is a Virus,” and she’s Patient Zero: Few contemporary artists have tested the abilities of the human voice—its tempos, its cadences and registers, and its ability to preserve and mutate our common history—as Laurie Anderson has.
Annie Leibovitz
“Language Is a Virus,” and she’s Patient Zero: Few contemporary artists have tested the abilities of the human voice—its tempos, its cadences and registers, and its ability to preserve and mutate our common history—as Laurie Anderson has.
Live in the United States: the multimedia artist in her element
Live in the United States: the multimedia artist in her element

Mutual frustration over the election brings us slowly back around to American iconography and mythology, the subject we'd begun with. The signs and symbols of U.S. nationalism and patriotism have informed Anderson's work from her very beginnings as a performance artist in the early '70s, in New York's nascent "Downtown" scene. "I'm interested in those things because, in a way, it's a project that's so widespread. People everywhere work on the American mythos, whether they realize it or not. Not that I'm too concerned about mass culture, or about things spilling over into mass culture, but big cultural things interest me. They affect me; they affect all of us. Our basic assumptions are impacted on that level. I've been working on understanding that throughout all of the work I've done. And when I found that I was actually worried [about the presidential race], I started thinking about my own motivations, political motivations. I started to examine my assumptions, the reasons why I feel the way I do about certain issues, and I thought, 'OK, um...well, I don't like frat boys.'"

She laughs. But, as in Anderson's performances, her humor serves as a springboard for a larger, crucial question: "It's that basic, that clichéd, the way we tend to respond to these questions about national leadership. And the more I realized that, I thought, 'Wow, you're one big mass culture all on your own.'

"I have this friend who studies dolphin language," she continues (in that so-familiar voice), "and one of the things they found out early on about dolphins is they talk constantly, all the time; they even talk in their sleep. All day, swimming around in circles and going, 'blah blah blah.' So my friend studied this for about three years, you know, 'What are they talking about, what are they saying?' And what he found out was, they were all talking about status: 'Who's the top dolphin? Who's No. 2 dolphin? Who's going to be top dolphin? Who's the last dolphin?' And my friend said to me, 'Think about it: 90 percent of all your interactions, when you really take stock of the way you're connecting with people, begin from an awareness of status.' Not the words you use, necessarily, but the way you speak to certain people in certain positions. And I thought, 'No, not me, I'm democratic and all.' But I tried it, and it was true. You talk to the cab driver a certain way, the ticket taker, the salesperson...most of your interactions, not what you say but the way you speak, have to do with status. So it's not just a human narcissism or egotism; we want to eat, we want to know who's in front, who's going to provide these things for us, food and whatever. That awareness, and that level of communication, is all about survival.

"And then I realized [my worry] about the election, and I thought, 'Well, no wonder I'm scared.'"

Few contemporary artists have tested the abilities of the human voice--its tempos, its cadences and registers, and its ability to preserve and mutate our common history--as fully as Laurie Anderson has. From her experiments with voice modulation and patterns of speech in songs like "Walk the Dog" and "Say Hello" to her music and spoken-word collections The Ugly One With the Jewels and Stories From the Nerve Bible (a companion to the likewise-titled book), Anderson's art has rigorously examined the ways we speak to one another, the ways we use language in our attempts to communicate--or, just as often, to obfuscate those thoughts we'd rather not hear spoken aloud. A new double-CD collection on Warner Bros./Rhino, Talk Normal: The Laurie Anderson Anthology, provides a remarkably coherent overview of her musical work, considering how resistant to excerpting Anderson's art might initially seem.

Anderson kept a hands-off approach to Talk Normal. "The record company actually picked the songs. They offered to let me have input, but...ooh, that would have meant I'd have to go back and listen to everything all over again, which would have put me in a state of utter despair. It was eerie to hear it in the final stages, for the sequencing; they picked things I wouldn't have picked...you know, I'd be listening and a song would come on, and I'd think, 'What's that doing there?' I find that I like the simpler stuff more, when I go back and listen to it now, the more minimal songs. There were a couple of tense moments; I can kind of hear the '80s sound, that heavy production period, go by all at once. Oof. [Rhino] did a really good job with the selection, I think. They're great people."

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