Who: Laurie Anderson
Where: The Moore
When: Thursday, October 16
Laurie Anderson has been a critical observer of American culture and politics since the word go. While plenty of musicians—I would argue too damn many—have “gone political” since 2001, Ms. Anderson has been doing it for decades, creating satiric and cynical works that are halfway between art music and stand-up comedy. Her latest, “Homeland” even has a lot in common with “United States I-IV”, a multimedia piece of hers from 1983 (take that, Steve Earle!)
The spiky-haired Anderson performed in her signature way—standing behind a big electronics device that is both her musical instrument and her podium of sorts. Her electronic vocal processor allowed her to play characters, alternately speaking and singing like an evil male motivational speaker, or an angel-voiced choirgirl. Joining her was a liquid-y and spare chamber-rock ensemble consisting of keyboardist Peter Scherer, bassist Skuli Sversson, and cellist Okkyung Lee. But the real treat for Seattleites was the addition of obscenely talented violist and Vashon resident Eyvind Kang.
As Michael Alan Goldberg wrote in this week’s issue “Homeland” essentially deals with the state of our Union—the loss of freedom post 9/11 and the Iraq war. Though it was decidedly anti-war and anti-Bush, Anderson was more concerned with what we’ve become as a society over the last eight years. Have we devolved? Whose fault is it? It was more Devo-meets-Zappa than Joan Baez. Electronica for cycnics, in other words. One of the evening’s best numbers dealt with the popular belief that “only an expert can deal with the problem”. Delivered in her signature speak-sing way, her lyrics were both a riddle and a lecture, simultaneously asking and telling the audience what defined a “problem” and who was capable of handling it. For instance, we all agree that rising water is going drown our city, she said…until an expert tells us it isn’t a problem. Naturally, she criticized the conservatives who deny climate change exists. But more effective was her jab at how it took Al Gore to make most of America wake up and scratch their heads. I swear I saw a few uptight Seattleites shrink in their seats (see, even liberals are suckers for celebrity.)
That song was the stickiest of the bunch, its chorus recalling a dreamy 50s ballad. Other songs dealt more directly with the war, while others offered commentary on cultural phenoms such as underwear models on billboards, the loss of dignity at airport security, and the insanity of enlisting in the military because you can’t afford a college degree. Compared to past works, “Homeland” contained few memorable drum patterns or hypnotic rhythms. Instead, the songs floated along ambiently with moments of narcotic swelling. At first, I thought maybe “Homeland” was not one of her stronger efforts because of this. But then I realized it could be part of her intent: To musically numb the audience and reflect the overall dulling of our collective conscience. After all, if media studies of the last eight years have taught us anything, its that subtlety is a powerful tool.