I remember seeing Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" video on MuchMusic. I had no idea what to think, and since I missed taping it I only had the vague memory of something weird. A few years later, in my grade seven music class, our very cool teacher (Mr. Zeigler) played us "O Superman" and "Big Science" to challenge our ideas of what "music" was. He got us to discuss what the songs were about. Us twelve-year-olds didn't have too many novel insights, but I was utterly hooked.
I've seen Anderson perform three times. Every time I catch one of her shows, she's doing a stripped-down performance instead of her traditional multi-media extravaganzas. I saw "Empty Spaces" (just her, a keyboard, a candle, and a huge bank of video screens), "Stories From the Nerve Bible" (just her, a violin, and a sampler), and her "Life on a String" show (part of a loose quartet, immediately after September 11th).
While I'm in love with her live shows, I'm less impressed with some of her albums. I think she excelled at odd, impersonal, cold, over-intellectual performance art. When she took singing lessons and brought in Bobby McFerrin and the conga players, things began to go downhill (though "Bright Red/Tightrope," her second-last album, was a return to form).
I love her coolness and her producer-imposed minimalism. I love her quirky stories and her confident-but-not-cocky personality. I love her vocoder and her primitive, buzzy keyboards. I love how she can wrap you up with technology, lull you into numbness, then stab you through the heart with a tiny piece of humanity.
To demonstrate this side of Laurie Anderson, here's the video for "O Superman." It's a long one and it may not seem to be going anywhere, but just turn out the lights and listen:
At the other end of the spectrum, here's "Beautiful Red Dress." It certainly is a glittering ode to menstruation, but I can't believe she sang a song about female empowerment while wearing those AWFUL LATE-80s TIFFANY KNOCK-OFFS. Plus she looks like Michael Jackson. This is the Laurie period I'm not so fond of, but the song is still lots of fun...in a "horribly dated" sort of way.
The record to buy? Either "Big Science" (vintage synths, odd experiments) or "Tightrope/Bright Red" (more organic but still chilly and broody, maybe thanks to Brian Eno). Albums to avoid? "Strange Angels" (the gems are buried among misguided unoffensive pop) and "Life on a String" (disjointed and thin). For fans only? "United States Live" (four and a half hours excerpted from her eight hour concert of the same name).