Laurie Anderson’s United States 2

One of the great evolutionary leaps in the history of modern en¬tertainment was the invention of the microphone. The microphone is more than a convenience, and it is more than a prop; it is an extension of the body. It expands the space the performer can com¬mand by reducing that space to the dimensions of intimacy It turns the stadium into a bedroom; it murmurs softly into the ears of thou¬sands. And then there is the object itself—this long, sleek, juiced- up thing just begging to be caressed with sounds, to be kissed and teased and masturbated. It is the instrument of vocal seduction and its very image. That the microphone looks the way it does is no acci¬dent: the ghost of the body is hidden in the forms of everything we create. Many images in United States were designed to make this point: for example, an enormous blown-up photograph of an elec¬tric wall socket. It looked, twenty feet high, with its two vertical slots and the little hole underneath, just like a face, frozen in an expression of permanent astonishment, an electronic Mr. Potato Head.

All the hardware in United States was prosthetic in just this way. Anderson programmed her synthesizers with human voices (like the breathy “hah hah hahs” in “O Superman”); she projected her own silhouette onto a vast screen and made shadow puppets with her hands. She inserted a miniature speaker into her mouth and manip¬ulated the sound by moving her lips. She recorded her own voice on a strip of audiotape, fixed the tape to a bow, and “played” it on a vio¬lin with a pick-up mounted on it in place of strings (the “self- playing” instrument she had devised for Duets on Ice). She wired her head and performed a drum solo on her skull. She turned her¬self, in short, into an instrument. She didn’t sing the body electric. She was the body electric.
The monologues in United States mostly expressed a mild neuro¬sis about living in a world filled with airplanes and answering ma¬chines; but the work itself exuded control. A petite androgyne, done up in punk chic—black suit, red socks, Vaseline-spiked hair—and manipulating her voice to sound, alternately, like a Midwestern in¬genue and a solemnly goofy Ronald Reagan, dominated the room for eight hours. Contingency was banned for a reason: In two evenings’ worth of songs and stories about how things tend to go wrong, nothing was supposed to go wrong. And the gamine persona was plainly designed to point up a contrast: the more waiflike An¬derson seemed, the more mysterious and impressive was the con¬trol she exerted. The show was wired, and there was a woman in a punk hairdo throwing the switches. Feminism was not exactly the center of Anderson’s material, but it was part of the message.
Well, as the song said, that was the time, and that was the record of the time. People like me, coming out of the sixties, once dreamed of a fusion between something like pop music and something like conceptual art. We longed for an expressive form that would com¬bine the urgency and excitement of a musical concert with the cool detachment of an art without illusions. We wished for energy and imagination without pretension, for entertainment that did not pan¬der and art that was not antagonistic to commercialism, merely in¬different to it. I suppose we hoped to strike such a balance in our own lives. Glimpses of what that sensibility might have been like were pretty rare. United States was one of them.

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