The first officially grown-up thing I ever did was go to a Laurie Anderson concert by myself. This was in Vermont in 1984, and Anderson was touring behind her second album, Mister Heartbreak. I was 14. I'd been saving up pocket change, and I walked downtown and bought a ticket without telling anyone where I was going. I remember the sparseness of the crowd—filthy Burlington hippies, it seemed, had little use for robot art music. I also remember my confusion. I'd been to a few folk concerts with my parents, so I had some rudimentary ideas about what a show should be like. This wasn't it. Anderson's huge video projections, electronically processed voice, and tape-bow violin made it feel like I'd stumbled into the 21st century.
Here's the weird thing: Laurie Anderson actually did foreshadow the 21st century, but not in the way I imagined then. A quarter century later, there's still nobody who sounds like she does. But the world has caught up with her, so that her aesthetic no longer seems futuristic or alien—in fact she's something of a familiar fixture. Where she was once an artist, composer, filmmaker, musician, performer, and poet, Anderson has grown to inhabit a role better described as "being Laurie Anderson." The job seems to involve trotting the globe as a PG-rated goodwill ambassador, Avant-Garde Lite Division.
In 2003 she accepted a two-year commission as NASA's first (and last) artist in residence. The piece she's performing on her current tour, Delusion, she wrote for and premiered at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Though Anderson describes herself as simply "an artist" and "a geek," she enjoys privileges few art geeks can dream about. Powerful institutions, public and private, tend to treat performance artists as unruly, attention-starved children who can't be trusted not to pull something scatological or obscene. But at least a few of those institutions are perfectly comfortable with her.
Here's something else that's weird: Anderson's voice hasn't changed. Her Lisa Simpson hair is less spiky and unruly these days, but her speech has retained its soothing neutrality. She's as authoritative as a planetarium guide, part HAL, part GPS, with the faintest whisper of wry, amused detachment. Her pitch-shifted "male" voice, which can be genuinely creepy, has evolved into a consistent character she calls Fenway Bergamot—a name that evokes the corny bygone humor of A Prairie Home Companion—but its bizarre tone is exactly the same. Listening to Laurie Anderson today is a lot like listening to Laurie Anderson in 1984. How many conceptual artists go three decades without radically reinventing themselves?
Anderson's fans, on the other hand, seem to want to reinvent her, or at least to exalt her. Year after year they've ratcheted up the praise until, in 2011, she's a "tireless innovator" whose music is "daring," "legendary," "masterful," and possessed of "crushing poignancy." (Sounds dangerous!) Increasingly, Anderson is described in the kind of language you used to hear applied to Walter Cronkite—she's treated as a barometer of the national zeitgeist.
In the same spirit of empirical inquiry that pulses through so much of Anderson's work, I decided to put this correlation to the test. What, if anything, can five albums plucked from her three-decade discography tell us about the state of the union?
Big Science (1982). Let's call this one Morning in America. Anderson's debut LP, it put her on the map with its sixth track, "O Superman," which came out as a single in 1981. Many a friend inaugurated an answering machine by making that song its outgoing message. How you hear the steady, looped vocal pulse—as "ah" or "ha"—speaks volumes about your personality. Are you shocked at the savagery of the modern world or tickled by its excesses? It's a quirky, memorable song, and the closest she got to the one-hit notoriety of, say, the Flying Lizards' "Money." It also established Anderson's vocal signatures: the slight aura of dread; the breathy, understated punch line; the ability to convey emotion without actually expressing emotion. Q: Is it an artsy-fartsy lullaby or a laser-sharp assault on Reagan's foreign policy? A: Yes.
Strange Angels (1989). The End of History. Laurie Anderson's third LP arrived just in time for the conclusion of the cold war. A year after Enya's international breakthrough, a suspiciously similar airiness and lyrical sweep crept into Anderson's own voice, the result—according to sinister rumors—of singing lessons. It's certainly a record of its time; Bobby McFerrin pops up here, a year after assaulting the world with "Don't Worry, Be Happy," and the cover is a ghostly portrait of Anderson shot by Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photos Jesse Helms would soon declare an assault on all God-fearing eyeballs.
Bright Red (1994). Slick Willy O'Clock. Two years into the Clinton administration, Anderson addresses a bleak mix of subjects. "Night in Baghdad" tackles war, "World Without End" explores grief, and the title track imagines the sinister words of a child abductor as sung by precocious computers. If that still sounds too cheery for your tastes, don't worry; producer Brian Eno, who also cowrote several of the songs, glooms the whole thing up. This is the kind of record you might hear in the lobby of a hip funeral parlor. Maybe its pervasive sorrow was an anticipatory response to the short-lived Republican revolution of that November, which Anderson had to be able to see coming. Maybe she was discouraged by the artistic malaise of the grunge era. It was a tough time for everyone.
Live in New York (2002). Mourning in America. If there were ever a national moment that called for a dose of soothing Manhattan artiness, this was it. Anderson stepped up like a champ, and the 23 tracks here come from two New York concerts she delivered less then ten days after 9/11. The stark, antiseptic font on the album's cover (the word "live" serving as both descriptive adjective and defiant verb) belies the intensity of the performances. The inevitable recital of "O Superman," with its talk of "American planes," is worth a shiver or two. Wisely, "From the Air," with its more nihilistic cockpit speech ("We are all going down together"), is absent.
Homeland (2010). Present Day. Anderson appears on the cover of her latest studio album in Cindy Sherman mode, with a crude cut-out mustache and eyebrows glued to her face. Her left eyebrow is a tall triangle, as though it's cocked skeptically, giving her a quizzical, bemused look. It's playful, even silly, and certainly the least self-serious cover she's ever done, with the possible exception of Big Science—it makes an almost cheery statement about America in 2010. There's still plenty of overt political commentary, though, including facts and figures on homelessness and (just as in Bright Red) some dated jabs at a departed Bush. It's her first studio album since 2001's Life on a String, and the most remarkable thing is how consistent she's stayed. So maybe what this album is saying about our own era has something do with perseverance. The crystal ball is a bit murky.
Then there's Delusion, which she'll debut in Chicago at the Harris Theater this Tuesday. The performance, according to an interview with Anderson posted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, will address dreams, sleep, and "duality," create a "trancelike situation," and include lots of short stories, including one about the mystic origins of the Russian space program. Eyvind Kang, who's worked with the likes of John Zorn and Mr. Bungle, will add viola to Anderson's violin; Colin Stetson, best known as a touring member of the Arcade Fire, will play a variety of horns. In short, it'll be a Laurie Anderson show. If you think you know what that means, congrats—you've certainly got an advantage over the 14-year-old me. You are officially living in the 21st century. Even when you can't tell what Laurie Anderson means, you know what "Laurie Anderson" means.