Talk Show

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Anderson further reports that she wasn't frustrated by the "anthologizing" process, which presents individual tracks quite outside of the overall context of albums like Big Science, Mister Heartbreak, Bright Red, or (most notably) the five-album set United States Live, a document of the mammoth multimedia show Anderson assembled during the early 1980s. Likewise, though many of the pieces represented on Talk Normal were originally designed to accompany visual elements, she doesn't see those selections as incomplete in their recorded form.

"It didn't frustrate me at all, really, because I've always been interested in what you're left with when you take something away. Like when you remove what you think is the best element of a piece; often you come up with something better. Most of those songs on the anthology were written for visual accompaniment, but the shape of that accompaniment still remains when you take the original center out of it."

This awareness of the missing center, the hole that remains when a relied-upon element is removed, informs a great deal of Anderson's work, which, for all its serious grappling with complex ideological issues, is some of the most accessible performance art ever produced precisely because it's composed of the utterly familiar. For the same reason, it has the power to disturb on the level of our most basic experiences. The lost traveler at the beginning of United States asks plaintively, "Hello, excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?" only to be met with an ominous voice: "You can read the signs. You've been on this road before." The caller who receives fractured and disembodied answering machine messages on "O Superman (For Massenet)"--Anderson's 1981 single, which began her career as a recording artist--cautiously repeats "Who is this really? Is anybody there?" but receives no satisfactory answer. Even her uproarious reworking of the tale of "The Monkey's Paw" on 1989's Strange Angels, her most pop-oriented album, warns that "Nature's got rules/And nature's got laws"--a small but essential caveat in the midst of a seemingly lighthearted tune.

But Anderson's body of work is also playful and good-natured, often laugh-aloud funny, and completely unpretentious (a too rare quality, to speak charitably, among artists as serious as Anderson assuredly is): "I see myself," she reports telling a group of Los Angeles music executives in the song "Yankee See," "as part of a long tradition of American humor...Bugs Bunny...Daffy Duck...Yosemite Sam." Anderson's humor is fully in evidence on Talk Normal, with its inclusion of "Walk the Dog," the joyous "Babydoll," and the classic "From the Air," which narrates an emergency crash landing as a Simon Says game ("Captain says put your hands on your knees, put your hands on your head/Heh heh heh"). But as with Andy Kaufman, for whose public guerrilla-comedy experiments she sometimes played straight man (movingly recounted in the song "The Rotowhirl," anthologized here), Anderson's brand of unsettling comedy requires an audience's emotional investment in order to complete its function; to listen to Anderson's tales passively is to rob yourself of their most beautiful and awe-inspiring elements. In fact, her most essential artistic strength might, like Kaufman's, be her refusal to create performances that separate artist from audience or to engage in any kind of distancing in order to provide a safe zone in either position. Coming to Anderson's art requires us to be as open as she is. For that reason, the shock we sometimes feel in reaction to her work is almost invariably the shock of finding ourselves in formerly banal settings rendered unfamiliar by way of an added or amplified element.

"It takes years to catch up with a person like Andy," Anderson says in terms that would also serve to describe her own body of work. "I saw him for the first time in this Latin club in Queens, and he was doing his act where he'd play the bongos while he was sobbing, openly sobbing. It was so fantastic. It woke everyone up, and you sat and listened and eventually you thought, 'Wow, yeah, this is really sad.' And it terrified me. It excited me and it terrified me because there was absolutely no context for it. That's also what I loved, what I love, about the avant-garde, that there's no precedent or context. Eventually, the real spirit of what he was doing won't be absorbed because he was so terrifying. With the movie [Man on the Moon], they kept asking, 'Couldn't you be a consultant or something?' but I couldn't bring myself...it was difficult enough for me to imagine watching anyone pretend to be Andy, because Andy himself was so much about pretending. And Andy was a friend, which made it hard.

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Eric Waggoner

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