HHere come the planes. They are American planes! Musicologists and the less young will recognize those lines, which are from Laurie Anderson’s unlikely 1981 voice synthesizer hit, O Superman. This song, if it’s one, try humming it in the shower, led to Anderson’s first multi-song album, 1982’s Big Science.
Big Science is being reissued at a very opportune time: America is reinventing itself again. It is a mission of self-rescue, and just in time: democracy, we are led to believe, has been snatched from the jaws of autocracy, perhaps. A New Deal, which will lead to a fairer distribution of wealth and an ultimately livable planet, is possibly on the way. Hopefully racism dating back centuries is being addressed. Hopefully these helicopters don’t crash.
I did not understand, in 1981, that O Superman was about the mission to rescue besieged Americans during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, in which 52 American diplomats were held by Iran for more than a year. Anderson herself has said that the song is directly related to Operation Eagle Claw, a military rescue operation that failed: a failure that included a helicopter accident. This catastrophe proved that the American military-industrial Superman was not invincible, and that the automation and electronics mentioned in the song would not always win. The helicopter crash, Anderson said, was the initial inspiration for the song or stage piece. When O Superman became a hit, first in the UK and then elsewhere, Anderson claims to have been shocked. What were the possibilities? Very thin, you would have said before.
You can always remember what you were doing at certain key moments in your life. These moments are different for everyone. Some of my moments have been linked to public tragedies: when Kennedy was assassinated, I was working at a market research company in downtown Toronto; When 9/11 struck, he was at the Toronto airport, thinking he was about to fly to New York. Some of my moments have been weather related: witnessing hurricanes, caught in ice storms. And some have been musical. He was four years old, he was sitting in an armchair in Sault ste marie ineptly sewing my teddy bear into his clothes, when I first heard Mairzy doats on the radio. blue Moon It came to me sung by a live band, as it oozed down a high school dance floor at the favorite clinch in those days. Bob Dylan revealed himself to me in 1964, curly-headed and open-mouthed, on a Boston stage with barefoot Joan Baez, the queen of folk.
Skip cut. It was 1981. Time had passed. As expected, I was older. Surprisingly, or it would have been a surprise to me in 1964, I now had a partner and a child, not to mention two cats and a house. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president, and the morning he promised for America was going to be very different from the new era of hippie and feminism that we had lived through in the 1970s. The religious right was growing as a political force. He had already had the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale and was struggling with whether or not to write it. Surely it was too implausible?
If I had met Laurie Anderson then, she could have said, “There’s nothing too far-fetched.”
Then 1981. We had the radio on while we were preparing dinner, when an eerie sound came pulsing over the radio waves.
“What was that thing?” Said. It wasn’t the kind of music, not even the sound, that you normally hear on the radio; or anywhere else now that I think about it. The closest thing was when, in the days of record players and vinyl, teenagers used to play 45 to 33 speeds because it sounded fun. A soprano could be reduced to a slow, zombie-like baritone growl, and often had been.
However, what he had just heard was not funny. “This is your mother,” says a cheerful Midwestern voice on an answering machine. “You come home?” But she’s not your mother. It is “the hand, the hand that takes”. It is a construction. It’s something out of a sci-fi movie, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers – it looks human but it’s not human, which is creepy and sinister. Worse still, it is your only hope, Mom and Dad and God and justice and strength have proven to be lacking.
“That thing” that had hypnotized me was O Superman. As you can see, I have never forgotten. She didn’t look like anything else, and Laurie Anderson didn’t look like anyone else, either.
Or anyone you would normally think of as a pop musician. Until her first single, she had been an avant-garde inventor and performance artist, initially trained in visual arts and collaborating with like-minded artists such as William Burroughs and John Cage. The 1970s, remembered not only for wide ties, long coats, and tall boots, and ethnicity, but also for active second-wave feminism, were a high-energy period for performing arts events. These were evanescent in nature, emphasizing process over product. They had roots dating back to Dada in the teens of the 20th century, to Grupo Zero, a late 1950s attempt to create something new from the rubble of WWII, and to Fluxus, active in the 1960s and 70s.
Anderson’s great project in Big Science was a critical and anxious examination of the United States, though not exactly from the outside. He was born in 1947 and was therefore 10 years old in 1957, old enough to have witnessed the emergence of new material objects that had flooded American homes in that decade, 15 in 1962 during a very active period of the movement for the civil rights, and 20 in 1967, when campus riots and anti-Vietnam War protests were in full swing. The alteration of the norms, for a person of that age, must have seemed normal.
But while New York became her home culture camp, Anderson was not a big-city girl. He grew up in Indiana, the heart of America’s heartland. She came in with her cheerful mommy voice and her honestly “Hello Stranger” tropes. She was a refugee, not from the United States but from within the United States: an America of mama and apple pie, an America of the past that was rapidly being transformed by material inventions and by the highways, shopping malls and self-service banks that were mentioned in the song. Big Science as landmarks on the way to the city. What could be shot down next? What part of the natural matrix would be left? Was the American cult of technology about to destroy it? And more broadly, what did our humanity consist of?
As the 20th century has transformed into the 21st, the consequences of the destruction of the natural world have become devastatingly clear, analog has been replaced by digital, surveillance possibilities have multiplied a hundredfold, and the relentless hive mind The Borg’s have been approached through online media, Anderson’s eager and disturbing polls have taken on a prophetic aura. Do you want to remain a human being? Are you one now? What’s that? Or should he be carried away by the long electronic petrochemical arms of his false mother?
Big Science has never been more relevant than it is now. Have a listen. Tackle pressing questions. Feel the chill.