Anderson’s Popularizes Performance Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Laurie Anderson helped to popularize performance art when she presented her mixed-media song cycle United States, which featured sharp commentary on modern technology and American life.

Summary of Event

When she first emerged from the welter of minor instant celebrities in New York’s SoHo artistic community to claim a national audience early in 1983, Laurie Anderson was greeted with enthusiasm by punk rockers and serious avant-garde musicians alike. Onstage for the performance of her mixed-media spectacular United States, Anderson cultivated a distinctly androgynous appearance. In an undersized black suit punctuated by an improbable spiky punk haircut, she might have passed for Stan Laurel on his lunch hour, a refugee from a Samuel Beckett play, or even a barely repressed anarchist about to detonate a bomb. Her first semiotic message to her audience was disturbing, sexually ambivalent, and highly complicated. United States (Anderson) Performance art Theater;performance art Music;performance art [kw]Anderson’s United States Popularizes Performance Art (Feb. 3, 1983) [kw]United States Popularizes Performance Art, Anderson’s (Feb. 3, 1983) [kw]Performance Art, Anderson’s United States Popularizes (Feb. 3, 1983) [kw]Art, Anderson’s United States Popularizes Performance (Feb. 3, 1983) United States (Anderson) Performance art Theater;performance art Music;performance art [g]North America;Feb. 3, 1983: Anderson’s United States Popularizes Performance Art[05120] [g]United States;Feb. 3, 1983: Anderson’s United States Popularizes Performance Art[05120] [c]Music;Feb. 3, 1983: Anderson’s United States Popularizes Performance Art[05120] [c]Theater;Feb. 3, 1983: Anderson’s United States Popularizes Performance Art[05120] Anderson, Laurie

In her performance of United States, which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York on February 3, 1983, Anderson was cryptic, understated, and emotionally neutral as she dispassionately rattled off apocalyptic horrors in the lines of her songs while disturbing slide images were projected behind her. In the mixture of conservative exaltation and liberal frustration that characterized the early years of the Ronald Reagan presidency, Anderson’s statements oddly captured the ambivalence of the American electorate: eager for conformity and control yet outraged and hungry for radical change. Amid the onstage clutter of instruments, she moved deftly from a Vocoder (a synthesizer that raised and lowered her voice by several octaves, allowing her to utter growls and birdlike squawks) to an electronic violin and some of her own inventions, such as a tape bow that emitted shrill and occasionally angelic sounds as it swept the strings of her violin.

Anderson delivered the despairing imagery of her poetry in a deadpan, unprotesting manner. Her poetry is filled with pilotless planes about to crash, with shopping malls and drive-in banks covering the earth’s surface, and with mothers who provide telephone answering machines as woefully inadequate substitutes for maternal warmth. Anderson reveals a world of vulgar materialism and a pointless obsession with technological development. Peopled by emotional cripples and ideological conformists, Anderson’s poetic world is devoid of grand emotional gestures or sensitive interaction; it is appropriate that there are no soaring melodies in her songs, only shards and fragments.

Anderson became improbably popular on the basis of her hit “O Superman” and her subsequent full-length album, Big Science (1982). Big Science (Anderson) Her work had significant implications for rock and minimalist music. From rock, she took the beat that has been the invariable staple of popular music since the 1940’s. From the politicized rock and folk music of the 1960’s, she took a deep social concern. The clear message of her music, when combined with slides of human degradation and nuclear warfare, is a deeply pessimistic, apocalyptic view. She is also indebted to such musical minimalists as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, with their obsessive repetitions of harmonic triads in deliberate, unprogressive patterns. Like the minimalists, she preferred the repetitions of Javanese and African music for harmonic development or melodic interest. Her music for United States was a trancelike, hypnotic combination of theme and sound.

Laurie Anderson.

(Deborah Feingold/Archive Photos)

“O Superman” depicts America as a mad, heartless, plasticized mother eager to crush her children with destructive technology: “So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. Your petrochemical arms, your military arms. In your electronic arms.” Ironically, “O Superman” is subtitled “For Massenet,” presumably as a gesture of homage to Jules Massenet, the nineteenth century French composer of such operas as Manon (1884) and Werther (1892), distinguished by their arching, heartfelt melodic expressions of love and desire. “O Superman,” however, like the songs of United States, gains its effect on the listener by its shocking inability to reach out or connect into healthy emotional wholes. It is as if Anderson were a battered child of a cruel culture. Her songs deal with failed gestures of communication: “I don’t understand the languages. I hear only your sound.” In the absence of love, political tyranny and impersonal maternal authority fill the vacuum created by the failure of love: “When love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force. And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!” Anderson’s poetic America is presided over by a smiling, cruel, manipulative, plasticine mother. Anderson’s future was not an Orwellian nightmare of ruthless bureaucratization but a horrific vision of the impersonalization that accompanies material prosperity and technological progress.

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Later performance artists, from the pop icon Madonna Madonna to the feminist protester Karen Finley, Finley, Karen owe a major debt to Laurie Anderson, who rescued performance art from the lofts of the East Village in New York and found a national audience for her distinctive brand of social commentary. Although best remembered as a visual artist and creator of a striking stage persona, Anderson merged audacious visual and lighting techniques with a distinctive musical voice and poetic commentary and even briefly worked her way onto the popular music charts.

It would have been difficult for Anderson to keep a large audience for such a complicated work as United States. It would be difficult to describe the Anderson of United States as a feminist, since the women depicted by her songs are scarcely more caring or less obsessive than the male figures. In the “It Tango,” a man and woman hurl crisp, truncated slogans at each other instead of needed, healing confessions: “He said: Isn’t it. Isn’t it just. Isn’t it just like a woman. She said: It’s hard. It’s just hard. It’s just kind of hard to say.” Anderson’s America was obsessed with meaningless commandments and prohibitions, and Anderson could thus be seen to concur with the popular will, as expressed in the Reagan mandate, to get government off people’s backs. As an impersonal stewardess’s voice explains in one of Anderson’s songs, “We are about to attempt a crash landing. Please extinguish all cigarettes . . . Put your hands over your eyes. Jump out of the plane.”

In his chapter on Anderson in All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (1984), John Rockwell Rockwell, John speaks admiringly of Anderson’s roots in the loft-art community of New York’s SoHo and the antecedents of Anderson’s brand of performance art in Dada, surrealism, 1960’s “happenings,” and rock. Rockwell notes how Anderson first earned attention by performing familiar gestures in unusual situations such as playing her violin while encased in a block of ice. Like many efficient mixed-media artists, she wrote poetry, recorded songs, and provided SoHo galleries with conceptual installations; Rockwell comments that Anderson “presents a landscape of the ordinary made extraordinary through unexpected juxtaposition.”

The program notes for one of Anderson’s performances described United States as “The Ring of the Nibelungen of our time.” Even the most shameless of performance artists, which Anderson was not, would have been uncomfortable with such hype. For one thing, Anderson would have needed to display a wider range of human emotions before she could lay claim to the mantle of Richard Wagner as artist and social critic. Wagner, who was famed for his skill in composing soaring, expansive melody, would certainly not have been impressed by Anderson’s stunted, malnourished fragments of tunes.

Like the pop artists Christo, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koon, Anderson clearly kept her eye on the flotsam and jetsam and trash of modern culture. When blown up to gigantic proportions, a simple three-hole wall socket (an image used as the sleeve jacket photo for the Big Science album and as one of the slide projections in United States) looks like a despairing divine image from an abandoned temple.

Despite the exaggerated claims about the Wagnerian depth and complexity of Anderson’s artistry, her material was characterized by a very narrow range and quality. It was hard, while admiring Anderson’s work, to be certain whether her pessimism was deeply felt or merely a hip concession to her audience. In 1983, United States came as a breath of fresh air, as a distinctive and disturbing voice; from a longer perspective, however, Anderson seems like a figure in direct line of succession from 1960’s happenings and the insular SoHo tradition of self-certifying avant-garde art.

Ironically, Anderson’s own stage image the apparently repressed, sardonic personality mixed with Nordic good looks, a too-small black suit, and spiky haircut rather than her visual, poetic, and musical skills, may have been her greatest contribution to performance art. Her image contributed to the public personae of such distinctive figures as Madonna and Pee-Wee Herman.

The ambiguity and fierce intelligence of Laurie Anderson made her a memorable figure in performance art for a small but loyal audience in the 1980’s. She has continued to produce relevant work into the twenty-first century, including the poignant Live in New York, performed just days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. United States (Anderson) Performance art Theater;performance art Music;performance art

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duckworth, William. Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999. An excellent collection of interviews with artists ranging from John Cage to lesser known artists such as Pauline Oliveros and Glenn Branca.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979. Surveys performance art of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kardon, Janet, ed. Laurie Anderson: Works from 1969 to 1983. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. This catalog is an early collection of writings and information about Anderson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, Byron. “A Disturbing Voice.” Pittsburgh Magazine (December, 1982): 77-78. Emphasizing her poetry and her stage manner, this article responds to the excitement generated by Anderson’s tour with United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rockwell, John. All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. Generous survey of the varieties of serious American music, from academic serial composers to jazz, rock, and salsa bands, provides a provocative snapshot of musical life in the early 1980’s. Devotes a chapter to Anderson and the emerging performance art phenomenon.

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