[Metroactive Arts]

[ Arts Index | Santa Cruz | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

[whitespace] Laurie Anderson
Photograph by Noah Greenberg

O Happy Superwoman

Laurie Anderson's new work plumbs the mysteries of McDonald's, Buddhists in canoes and Amish farmers

By Steve Palopoli

IMAGINE YOU'VE DUCKED into Mickey D's for a quick McHeartAttack to go. You're so caught up in the glory of the everyday value menu that you don't notice anything strange at first, but slowly it dawns on you that the voice asking you if you want to "supersize that" is vaguely familiar. Oh yeah, of course, it's ... Laurie Anderson?

Yes, she loves to see you smile. But no, Lou Reed is not in the back working the fry pit. And no, you haven't walked into some kind of bizarre performance art piece.

Or have you? After all, working on a McDonald's crew last year was part of the research Anderson did for her latest solo show, Happiness, which UCSC Arts & Lectures presents this weekend. The title may seem ironic in connection with such minimum-wage, burger-a-thon circumstances, but for Anderson her time under the golden arches was another eye-opening moment in her quest to take a good, hard look at the world from other perspectives.

"It's such a cliché that it's, like, 'a happy place' ... but it actually was," she says. "It was a shock. I had a great time working there. We definitely were very proud of what we were doing, and it wasn't this dreadful thing that I'd been expecting. I went in with, I guess, this kind of snotty intellectual thing to see how mass production works. How do you make stuff that everybody likes--CDs, hamburgers--how does it work? And it was just too intellectual a question, because it really was about how we worked together and how we felt about it."

Other research trips for the project included a stint on an Amish farm and a two-week canoe trip with Buddhists. Just when it seemed that Happiness was on track, however, a nasty shock arrived: Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks left Anderson reeling. The planes that hit the World Trade Center not only struck at the heart of the city she has called home for 35 years but flew over the very street where she lives, 10 blocks from ground zero.

"It really changed me a lot. It really hit me very, very hard in a lot of ways that I actually really appreciate now. It was like waking up," she says. "Plus, it was this sensation of really living just for a while in the absolute present. Not really knowing what was going to happen. And also appreciating how incredibly beautiful all these places were--we were traveling through a lot of cities in the United States, and each one seemed more beautiful than the last one."

Identity Crisis

Immediately after the attacks, Anderson put aside many of her plans for the project and eventually pared it down to something far more simple and true to her own feelings--a heavily improvised solo piece in which she was practically DJ-ing her performance.

While a lot of the content of Happiness was still focused around the questions of perspective and identity she had originally wanted to tackle, the form now reflected that same uncertainty about the future that she felt in her own life. In another twist of irony, the piece that she had gone into desperately wanting to escape her own perspective became possibly her most personal work ever--certainly it incorporates more stories from her own life than anything she's done in the past.

Strangest of all, perhaps, is how much the general perception of Anderson herself has changed on this tour. Famous for breaking performance-art-rock on the radio with 1981's eight-minute "O Superman" (in Britain, it hit No. 2), Anderson has long been regarded with suspicion by the keepers of pop culture. Her multimedia work is normally as complex and highbrow as it is landmark, from 1983's seven-hour, four-part monster United States to 1995's Stories From the Nerve Bible to 1999's Songs and Stories for Moby Dick.

Adding to the artsy mystique is the fact that Anderson's voice has often been digitally treated on her songs (including on "O Superman") and that she has consistently tackled abstract themes of technology, alienation and identity. What tends to be forgotten is that she's also written some great pop songs--such as 1989's "Babydoll" and the haunting "Poison," which is as close to classic blues as any former teacher of art history and Egyptian architecture should be asked to come. She toured with a bare-bones three-piece band, and consistently approached her art from a place of genuine sincerity.

Rock and Romance

Anderson's long romance with Lou Reed--who is, let's face it, perhaps the most brutally human of all rock icons--had fans and former skeptics alike wondering if they really had her figured out after all. And the eloquence and feeling with which she's spoken about Sept. 11 in recent months has sealed the deal, with rock journalists seeming to treat her and her art a whole lot more personably.

All things considered, this is the perfect time for the live-without-a-net structure of Happiness.

"I don't know how DJs really feel about this, but for me, this thing is much more of a collaboration with the audience," says Anderson. "It's less of a 'show,' and more like 'what do you think of this?' It jumps around the way I think people's minds tend to jump around, more than a story. Quite a few of them are stories, but they go from one to the other in odder ways than in the past. That's the way I find my own mind working, like associating this to that, or that reminds me of that."

She admits there's something a little scary, too, about putting herself out there like this. "But I like it," she says. "I'm able to be there, instead of so much worrying about 'Is that film cue going to come up?' There's no cue, and there's no film."

There's also no assurance that every improvisation is going to come off. But that's the last of Anderson's worries--incredibly, the woman who has been hailed in recent years as a pioneer of performance art as well as electronic, spoken word and even riot grrrl music sees herself as "an utter beginner."

"And the things I get the most out of are failures, because that's when I learn the most. It's not like I'm trying to fail ..." she begins.

After a moment's reflection, she reconsiders. "Maybe I secretly am trying to fail. I always try to remember what Brian Eno says about failure: 'It doesn't do what you expected it to do. But what does it do?' I'm not trying to think about the way things could be or should be, but what are they?"

Laurie Anderson performs 'Happiness' on Sunday, March 10, at 8pm at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30/adults; $25/seniors and students with ID; $20/UCSC students. Tickets are available at the Civic box office, 831.420.5260.

[ Santa Cruz | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the March 6-13, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate