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National Insecurity

September 16, 2009
by Steve Silberman
photograph of Laurie Anderson playing the violin

Laurie Anderson’s new show is an ambitious, yet enjoyable, exploration of the American narrative.

A week after the 9/11 attacks, Laurie Anderson played two concerts at Town Hall in New York City. Fires were still smoldering under the rubble at Ground Zero, the Brooklyn Bridge was closed to traffic, and Anderson’s own downtown neighborhood—just north of the vast area dubbed “the Frozen Zone”—was cordoned off by police. The city and the nation were in shock.

After the deaths of more than 2,700 people in the World Trade Center, many of Anderson’s songs took on eerie new resonances. “Here come the planes, so you’d better get ready, ready to go,” she sang over ghostly bird song and a pulsing vocoder in “O Superman,” a song that had become an unlikely radio hit in 1981. It wasn’t the first time that Anderson had anticipated the future. One of the most engaging and prolific performers to come of age in the NY avant garde, she has made a career of observing the textures and dynamics of day-to-day life for tectonic hints of what’s to come.

Her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak cross-pollinated the sounds of synthesized vocals, folk instruments from Japan and Cameroon, and funk beats, prefiguring the ethno-electronica hybrids of the 21st century. For her concert film Home of the Brave in 1986, Anderson framed her puckish stage presence in the kind of animated icons and decontextualized film clips that have become the visual lexicon of the World Wide Web.

“Freedom is a scary thing—so precious, so easy to lose,” she sang that dark September at Town Hall, challenging her audience to live “with courage and with compassion…in a completely new world.” Anderson’s latest show, Homeland—commissioned by Cal Performances, currently on tour, and coming to Zellerbach Hall on October 24 and 25—is her map of the psychic underbelly of the post-9/11 world, in which the defense of American freedoms has been tested in ways even she didn’t imagine.

Anderson takes on a lot in Homeland—from the Bush administration’s PR blitz to “sell” the war in Iraq, to the creeping erosion of civil liberties at home, to the compliant silence of many of her peers in the arts and media, to glitzy consumerism. But the show never becomes tiresomely polemical or partisan. Anderson’s gifts for wry humor and haunting melody are intact, and her account of a nation veering off course is tempered by abiding respect for the grand experiment of American democracy. The visceral impact of Homeland is a shock of recognition, like the breakthrough of long-suppressed grief in a family that has become dysfunctional.

The problem with 9/11 and its aftermath as a subject for art, Anderson tells me in a café in Toronto after a performance there, is that “it went right from the unspeakable to the ironic,” becoming fodder for the likes of The Daily Show before the long-term implications of unilaterally declaring a “global war on terror” had been closely examined. In one of the most poignant tragic/comic moments of Homeland, Anderson employs a stock scene from classic westerns—the grizzled old man interrupting a poker game at the saloon to announce that “There’s trouble at the mine!”—to register her feeling that the country has gotten into trouble in places like Guantanamo Bay, in ways that have not yet been fully understood. Anderson’s primary subject has always been the power of storytelling to shape experience, and the key to understanding how critics of the administration were successfully marginalized as far-left wingnuts or terrorist sympathizers, she says, is the administration’s micromanagement of the stories that we tell ourselves about the war and the nature of the enemy.

“Stories are magic. They’re the most powerful things in the world. You can start a war with a story,” Anderson observes. “This is a very story-savvy government. It doesn’t have to be a true story, it just has to be a good story, with all those strange old ingredients, like an evil dictator and hidden treasure.”

Significantly, the first stories to capture Anderson’s imagination as a child were a series of World War II-era recordings called Letters from Daddy. “They were probably based on real letters from a soldier to his children, and were about how much he loved them and what happened to the platoon, with cheesy sound effects,” she recalls. “They were probably really sentimental, but to a five-year-old, they sounded like high tragedy. They were so personal, so full of danger and adventure, and were about love and war—as Homeland is.” Adding to young Anderson’s dread of war was an uncle who had been shell-shocked in France and lived in the family attic, where he screamed and sobbed all night, though no one talked openly about it.

In the late ’60s, Anderson joined the fertile downtown arts scene in New York. Her first magnum opus, an eight-hour epic performed in 1983 called United States, featured soundscapes created with instruments of her own devising—like a “tape bow violin” that enabled her to sample fragments of sound like a hip-hop DJ—and satirized such topics as the hectic social lives of her fellow bohemians. As Anderson’s compositions evolved, she took voice lessons and began employing world-class musicians like bassist Skuli Sverrisson, who will be joining her at Zellerbach. With Homeland, the whimsicality of her early work has deepened into something more focused and profound.

As we chat over breakfast, we’re joined by Anderson’s husband, Lou Reed, co-founder of the Velvet Underground and a rock star in his own right. The night before, he had brought the house down by joining Anderson’s band for the closing numbers of Homeland—but right now, he’s having trouble with his digital camera. Anderson handles the problem with the soothing manner of a patient teacher, and the cozy familiarity between them is obvious.

Part of what Anderson learned by working with visionary music producer Brian Eno on her 1994 album Bright Red is the virtue of not freaking out when things go wrong. “One of the real pleasures of working with Brian,” she says, “is that he loves to fail. ‘Failure? Great! Didn’t work as we expected it to? Wonderful!’ And he can shake it up, look at the thing from another angle, and make something else out of it. That’s pure joy.” The redemptive message of Homeland is that acknowledgement of what happened in America in the long shadow of 9/11 offers an opening for healing our democracy in the post-Bush era.

“The thing that didn’t work out how you thought it would,” says Anderson, “what story are you telling yourself about how it should work out? What’s your plot? What are your expectations that are so horribly crashing? You have to look at what you wanted and then say, ‘It’s OK that it works out another way.’ Try not to sit in the grief part for too long, because there are lots of other things in there that are going on. When things are broken, it’s all about potential.”

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