George Starostin's Reviews



Become a Certified Commentator today by following this link!

!!Before adding new comments, please check the GUIDELINES. Don't say I didn't warn you!!


No reader comments yet.


Nick Scholtz <> (20.05.2003)

Let me begin by saying, again, that your review of Laurie Anderson is an example of what I appreciate about your reviewing style. While you admit a confusions about the "meaning" of the songs you nevertheless sit down and deliver a balanced, informative, and perceptive response to the music itself. I have nothing to add to that.

I would, however, like to explain why I would personally describe Laurie Anderson as one of the most important artists working in music in the 80s.

Laurie Anderson is probably a minor figure in the history of music. It would be difficult to describe her as musically influential (and many people writing about her work feel the need to add the disclaimer that she is more of a "performance artist" than a "musician"). At the same time I think United States Live is a masterpiece.

In the 80s a lot of artists in different fields tried various ways to address the ways in which technology, identity, and gender were put in flux in an increasingly "wired" world. I think that Laurie Anderson is one of the most successful people at addressing those issues in any medium and that she succeeds in using music as an important part of that artistic statement.

Consider, from that perspective, the lyrics to the song "Mach 20"

"Ladies and Gentlemen. What you are observing here are magnified examples, or facsimiles, of human sperm."

"Generation after generation of these tiny creatures have sacrificed themselves in their persistent, often futile attempt to transport the basic male genetic code. But where's this information coming from? The have no eyes. No ears. Yet some of them already know that they will be bald. Some of them know that they will have small crooked teeth. Over half of them will end up as women. Four hundred million living creatures, all knowing precisely the same thing. Carbon copies of each other in a Kamikaze race against the clock."

"Now some of you may be surprised to learn that if a sperm were the size of a salmon it would be swimming its seven inch journey at five hundred miles per hour. If a sperm were the size of a whale, however, it would be traveling at fifteen thousand miles per hour or Mach twenty."

"Now imagine, if you will, four hundred million blind and desperate sperm whales departing from the Pacific Coast of North America, swimming at fifteen thousand miles per hour, and arriving in Japanese coastal waters in just under forty five minutes. How would they be received? Would they realize that they were carrying information? A message? Would there be room for so many millions? Would they know that they had been sent for a purpose?"

The basic humor here is the way in which Science's tendency to abstract and mathematize the world (and I say this as someone who was a math major) lends itself to category errors. The question, "how fast would sperm swim if they were the size of a whale?" Is not one that anyone would think of based simply on direct experience with sperm. It makes it clear distant scientific thinking "once we have an equation we can plug in whatever values we want" is from day to day experience. (Note: for more information on a related topic I highly recommend Walter Ong's book _Orality and Literacy_). From the point of view the fact (as far as I can tell) that Laurie significantly overestimates the swimming speed of sperm, doesn't interfere with the humor at all -- rather it emphasizes how easy it can be to introduce order of magnitude errors. If we think of Mathematics as a language this results in the equivilent of nonsense words -- another Laurie Anderson theme.

What's impressive, however, about this song is the way in which it is simultaneously evocative and allusive while still having a point. The lyrics allow for a multitude of references without devolving into being just references to other things. Is it, for example, an exaggeration to see the word "bald" working partially as a reference to the absurdity of the fact that for all of the power of modern science/medicine so much time and money has been put into trying to solve male baldness with so little results. Or consider the comments ". . . all knowing the same thing" and ". . . carrying information? A message?" as references to the "atoms vs. bits" debate. Are human beings just information? Is human understanding and "knowing" logically similar to information encoded in genetic material? Those examples suggest that the song is coldly and analytically critical but I think it's poignant as well. The way Laurie sings the song the images of the race against the clock and the "blind and desperate" sperm are given weight as well. The sperm that she sings about are both mathematical abstraction and, at some level, still living cells.

These allusions have power because the central image -- the eye of science (mathematics?) turned on the most human of subjects treats it as simple matter, is strong enough to support them. That image is not drowned in the other ideas and emotions (contrast, for example, Warren Zevon's "Transverse City". A song that I love but that is nothing more than images. It has no core idea).

Perhaps I have worked too hard on what is, ultimately a throw-away song. But I do think Laurie Anderson succeeds in giving us a musical language to express these ideas. It is both technological and human (an analog synthesizer sampling the human voice on "O Superman," both distant and personal. The music alternates between anxious and playful -- both of which seem like reasonable responses to encroaching technology.

I'm not sure that Laurie Anderson's music is noteworthy for any reason other than it's ability to express and reflect the content of her work (though in the right mood her songs can be beautiful) and that, perhaps, is why she is more of a performance artist than a musician. But she is an artist who explores important themes with a confidence and creativity that is difficult to match.

I would end by giving another reference. While searching for Laurie Anderson lyrics I found the following link. I think it's a well written essay that, if anyone is interested, offers someone else exploring Laurie Anderson's significance. I have quoted a section that speaks to what I appreciate about her, but the complete essay is much longer.

"United States opens with a tape of the surf crashing against an empty shore, projected images of the sea itself, and Anderson's reciting this text:"

A certain American religious sect has been looking at conditions of the world during the Flood. According to their calculations, during the Flood the winds, tides and currents were in an overall southeasterly direction. This would mean that in order for Noah's Ark to have ended up on Mount Ararat, it would have to have started out several thousand miles to the west. This would then locate pre-Flood civilization somewhere in the area of Upstate New York, and the Garden of Eden roughly in New York City.

Now, in order to get from one place to another, something must move. No one in New York remembers moving, and there are no traces of Biblical history in the Upstate New York area. So we are led to the only available conclusion in this time warp, and that is that the Ark has simply not left yet.

. . .

"Anderson compares her parable of the Ark to "a familiar occurrence":

You're driving alone at night/And it's dark and it's raining./And you took a turn back there/and you're not sure now that it was the right turn,/but you just keep going in this direction./ Eventually, it starts to get light and you look out/and you realize/you have absolutely no idea where you are.

"This image frames the entire work: after seven hours we return to it, in a finale called "Lighting Out for the Territories." And though, at the end, it is not so threatening a situation­"You've been on this road before. / You can read the signs. / You can feel the way. / You can do this / in your sleep"­the possibility that we are traversing what Deleuze calls "the icy subterranean streams" of the unconscious remains a distinct possibility."

"Wherever we are, it is undecidable terrain. "Long Time No See," the score Anderson reset for her collaboration with Trisha Brown, is itself ambiguous: Are we meeting someone we have not seen for a long time, or have we been, for a long time, blind? In United States, the phrase occurs in this context:"

Over the river/And through the woods/Whose woods these are/Long time no see/Long time no see

"Here the intertextual evocation of Christmas carol and Robert Frost maps the psychic landscape of the American winter season, a concomitant sense of homecoming ("to grandmother's house we go") and perpetual wandering ("miles to go before I sleep"). It is perhaps not too much to suggest that Anderson manages to "deterritorialize" the United States, to give her audience a sense that they are in some measure outside­or wanderers within­the very place they live."

Return to the main index page