Laurie Anderson Doesn't Have Any Answers
"You know the reason I really love the stars?" asks Laurie Anderson, in the electronically treated, increasingly resigned baritone alter-ego voice she's taken to calling Fenway Bergamot. "Because we cannot hurt them." It's an extraordinary moment (within the nearly-12-minute, hilariously dour "Another Day in America") on an extraordinary album: Homeland, the iconic New Yorker's first new record in nearly a decade, is a tough, engrossing swirl of avant-garde electro-pop and sociopolitically exasperated spoken word, tracing the greed and desolation and gnawing confusion of this brave new American era. "Only an Expert," in particular, is a shockingly propulsive putative dance-floor smash, excoriating the so-called problem-solvers who have driven us to ruin via the War on Terror, the financial crisis, global warming, and on and on. She'll add verses as necessary; the BP oil spill is a likely candidate.
Back from a long stint in Australia curating a festival with husband (and, in a first for the couple, Homeland co-producer) Lou Reed, Anderson chatted about her volatile optimism, her alleged predictive powers, her favorite rapper, and that concert she recently played for dogs. Here are some excerpts.
Most of the material on Homeland has been around a while—or at least was born during the Bush era. Does it take on a new significance for you now, with a regime change here, with at least the possibility that things are different, and could get better? Are you feeling more optimistic?
If you'd asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have said yes. I'm kind of worried right at the moment, to tell you the sad truth.
Is that oil-spill-related?
Yeah, it is. I have to say, I have a bit of a paranoid streak, I suppose. And I'm not sure whether to be paranoid about this or not.
I ask because there are some pretty cynical moments on the record. "Another Day in America" is fairly brutal—the old couple who hated each other but waited to get divorced "until the children died"; the visions of "broken-up parking lots, rotten dumps, speedballs, Styrofoam, computer chips." Is our future really as bleak as you sometimes imagine it to be?
Well, those are some of the pictures. Those are maybe the bleaker ones of the group. Like I said, I took most of the really dark stuff out—that's the cheerful version. I'm an optimist, I think, overall. In that kind of jump-cut style, which is the Fenway Bergamot voice I'm looking for, it's really how your mind works rather than what you would say. Fortunately, we don't say everything that runs through our minds—that would be kind of chaotic.
Probably like most people, I'm not so dependent on, or I think I'm not so dependent on, my identity is not so dependent on where I think I live. But I think it did get a little bit shaken when we started torturing people. That really got to me. It really did. And I thought, "Well, come on, you don't have to be where you live." But in a certain way, you are, and there's a lot of pressure to make that identity sort of shift.
That administration, the Bush administration, was a very story-savvy one. They knew what they were doing when they paired a ridiculous word like "homeland," which nobody uses—no American would say "homeland"; it sounds like something from a small Balkan country, and you wouldn't say that. But they sandwiched it between two very bureaucratic words—Department of Homeland Security—to make it somehow appealing or whatever. And there are a lot of those tricks that go on all over the place, in terms of identity. So shifting identities is really important to me in this record. How do you do that, and how does that work? Everybody, not just people in public, have to pick an identity and stick with it. You have to kind of talk like you did yesterday. Why? Sometimes just listening to myself talk, I think, "If I have to hear another sentence, I'm gonna die—it's, like, awful." So we do have the option to find another voice, and for me as a writer, it's really important to do that, just 'cause I don't necessarily think I'm seeing things so clearly if I just always have to put it in my own words. There's plenty of ways to look at this. So that's the device of Fenway Bergamot.
What is the darker stuff that you left off?
There was a song called "Bad Guys." That was really dark!
I can picture it.
Yeah, right? I'm sure you've got it. Along those lines. War songs. But I'm always—when we've swung to the right, I'm always writing things that are more political, and when we swing back to the left, poetry comes back. This is kind of one on the cusp. It's got a little bit of everything.
It's incredible to me to watch footage of you performing "Expert" in 2007—I would have sworn it was written explicitly in response to the financial crisis. Did you feel like a prophet, like your song was somehow turning into real life?
Not really. The song "O Superman," right after 9/11, people were going, " 'American planes, smoking or nonsmoking,' what is this? So weird!" It's just that people forget about what's around all the time—you just really do. And you get so distracted because there's lots of distractions. Our culture—it's a cliché—it's about distraction. You forget that things are not so different, year to year, day to day. They're not so different. Even though it has to be sold on the fact that it's really different. Because, otherwise, no one would buy anything! It can't be the same old thing.
At one point, I started writing down every question you ask on this record.
That's what it's about! You got it! That's what it's about. There are no answers and no polemics. It's a bunch—just a list of questions. How many questions did you come up with?
I stopped at, like, 10. Do you have any of the answers?
Nope! I don't. I really don't. And if I did, I probably wouldn't say. Because that's not what I'm interested in doing, at all. In all the shows I've done, things that I do, they're not about that. And they're not about saying, "Look at me," either. It's not like, "Check this out." It's about, kind of, "Look over there—what do you think that is?" That's what it is.
Given the robot-voiced similarity between "O Superman" and a lot of contemporary hip-hop, is it fair to say that some rappers out there owe you some money?
Oh, god, that's crazy. I probably owe them a bit as well. I don't think of "O Superman" as a robotic voice. I think of it as a pretty human voice that has some chords around it. It's not in techno-speak: "Hey, Mom," you know. Well, it has some sloganeering in it as well.
I love rap. If I'm close to any art form, it's rap. Language used like that is one of my favorite things. One of the things that I like most about being a musician is that ideas and images and ways of doing things are really free-floating—it's very different from the art world, where people have to get a style and defend their territory, and nobody can do anything like that, or else they're copying. . . . The music world is a lot looser, thank god.
What rappers do you like?
Well, just about, he's not real—he is a rapper—King Khan is one of my favorites. We had him at our festival in Sydney. And he became a really good friend. You know what happens also at a music festival, when people really are asked to play together and they're in each other's music, it's a whole different thing. You just get to see what they're really about, not what their PR is about. What do they want that song to sound like, and how can I help make it sound more like that? He was one of my favorites.
And then, of course, there was the dog symphony.
Oh, god. We did like 30 really beautiful shows, and then that was the one that kind of went a little viral, but you know what, that was like, such a dream.
It must have looked pretty incredible from your perspective, from the stage.
It was amazing. It came from last year. I was hanging out with Yo-Yo Ma backstage at some place—we were wearing mortar boards, so I guess we were gonna give some talk to graduates or something, I even forgot where. But it was really boring, really hot, and we were waiting forever, and I was saying, "My fantasy"—we were talking about fantasies—"My fantasy is I'm playing the violin at a show, and I look out, and the whole audience is dogs." And he said, "That's my fantasy, too!" And we both said, "OK, if we ever get a chance to do that, we're gonna do that. And you can play on mine, or I'll play on yours." He couldn't come, but I did that. And it was on my birthday, and it was such a dream, literally.
Was it how you pictured it, in the fantasy?
No, because I didn't imagine there'd be so many dogs. I thought maybe 100 dogs. There were thousands and thousands of dogs! It was insane! But it was such joy—really, I've never done something that had so much joy in it, ever. And people are saying, "Oh, my dog likes classical music." I doubt it. There were so many rockers there, they were just dancing around, they were so proud to be somewhere with all these dogs. A bunch of great dogs in the mosh pit, and then a bunch of droolers in the front row: Ullllll, what is this? It was great.
I realize it's been more than two years now, but congratulations on your marriage. Can I ask, in a way more cheerful way—why did you wait so long?
Well, I was walking down the street—I think in California—and I was thinking of all the things I hadn't done in my life: I haven't learned German, I haven't learned physics, I haven't spent a year in Rome, and I was talking to Lou on the phone and was saying, "Yeah, and I've never gotten married. We talked about getting married, but we'll probably never get married." And he said, "Well, how about tomorrow?" And I said, "Don't you think tomorrow's a little soon?" Anyway, he flew out to Colorado, where I was gonna be, and we got married. It was like an impulse marriage. Also, I think there should maybe be another name for it, when you get married to, like, your best friend, someone you've know forever. Just have a different name.
I was gonna ask what the first dance was, but maybe that's not applicable to this.
Well, it was just Lou and me and the tree, and somebody who'd never performed a marriage ceremony. But we did dance under the tree. We did.
Laurie Anderson plays (le) poisson rouge July 13
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