I first saw Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” in 1981 on the Kenny Evert Video Show. It was great, so witty and with the art sensibilities of the best of new wave music. I’ve been listening to her music ever since. But this post is not just about being a fan of Laurie Anderson but a way of understanding what is broadly called alternative music.
I felt that “O Superman” had destroyed the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow pop music. It was a turning point in uniting contemporary performance art with alternative music. (Instead of worrying about the distinction between high and popular culture/serious and middlebrow culture it is more interesting to see when and why good art and popular culture intersect.)
Alternative music was a Gesamtkunstwerk, the unified art form of the late 20th Century. It was not just the music but also the music videos, the performance, the image of the band in photos and interviews, all of that as a total work of art. I hoped that music videos would be a new forum for alternative film-making.
The history of art and rock music became permanently interwoven in the 1960s when Andy Warhol managed the Velvet Underground and conceptual artist Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles. Performance art and rock performances had been growing steadily closer. Consider: Gustav Metzger and auto destructive art and The Who’s performances where they smashed their instruments, the stadium sized displays of the Japanese art movement Gutai and stadium rock, how the record cover became a popular medium for visual arts from Peter Blake, Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton and David Hockney and how Malcolm McLaren changed the role of the rock manager into an art form.
That contemporary art and music on the same aesthetic grounds is fundamental to my understanding of art. Art not longer confined to galleries, it could be anywhere, on TV at home. That art was not a single thing but could consist of multiple things, actions, ideas and images.
Over the years I became more aware of Laurie Anderson’s background in sculpture and performance art from random articles that I would find in old art magazines and more recent articles. Was she visual artist, a writer/poet or musician (singer/songwriter); whatever combination of these things Laurie Anderson is she is very clever – and she is very funny. That’s always a good thing and learning to crafting that comedy must have come from her time with the comedian Andy Kaufman.
Anderson’s performances/songs are lyrical, they are focused on words, but so much art in the 1970s were focused on words. Anderson’s sayings and aphorisms are similar to those by the American artists, Jenny Holtzer and Barbara Kruger. Things that are said are very important that generation of artists.
As a musician working with synthesizers and other electronic music I was always impressed with Anderson’s music technology, including the ones that she invented. As an artist I wanted to record more music.
Watching Laurie Anderson dancing with William Burroughs on Home of the Brave was the start of my addiction to Burroughs (I’m getting around to writing about Burroughs as another person of influence). And finally I saw her perform live in 2007 doing Homeland at the Melbourne Concert Hall.
The soundtrack to my biopic would have to include some Laurie Anderson. On my first day on campus the doors of the lift at La Trobe University taking me up to the Philosophy Dept. closed revealing the familiar words of Laurie Anderson written in marker pen: “Paradise is like right now only much, much better.”
For a detailed analysis of O Superman read Isaac Butler’s essay “Here Come the Planes” on The Fiddleback.