Hplanes are coming. These are American planes! Musicologists and those less young will recognize those lines that originated from Laurie Anderson in 1981, the unlikely synthesizer of the voice of O Superman. This song, if one – try humming it in the shower – led to Anderson’s first multi-song album, 1982’s Big Science.
Great science is betrayed at a very timely moment: America is being rediscovered. It is a mission of self-salvation and just in time: democracy is, perhaps we have been led to believe, torn from the jaws of autocracy, perhaps. A new job, leading to a fairer distribution of wealth and a planet that can finally be lived, is soon on the way. I hope the issue of racism dating back centuries is addressed. Let’s hope these helicopters don’t crash.
As far back as 1981, I did not realize that O Superman was a mission to pull out displaced Americans during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis, in which Iran held 52 American diplomats for more than a year. Anderson herself said the song was directly related to Operation Eagle Claw, a military rescue operation that failed: a failure that involved a helicopter crash. This disaster showed 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 performance. When O Superman became a hit, first in the UK and then elsewhere, Anderson claims he was stunned. What were the chances? Very thin, you would say ahead of time.
You can always remember what you did in certain key moments of your life. Such moments are different for everyone. Some of my moments are related to public tragedies: when Kennedy was killed, I worked for a market research company in downtown Toronto; when it hit Sept. 11, I was at Toronto airport, thinking I was going to fly to New York. Some of my moments are related to time: I witnessed hurricanes, hit by ice storms. And some were musical. I was four years old, sitting in an armchair in Sault Ste Marie, incompetently sewing my teddy bear into his clothes, when I first heard Mairzy Doats on the radio. Blue Moon came to me sung by a live band as I peered across the high school dance floor in a clinch that was a favorite at the time. Bob Dylan revealed himself to me in 1964, with a curly head and a groomed mouth, on the Boston stage with barefoot Joan Baez, the queen of folk.
Jump cut. It was 1981. Time passed. No wonder I was older. Surprisingly – or that would be a surprise to me in 1964 – I now had a partner and a child, not to mention two cats and a house. Ronald Reagan has just been elected president, and the morning he promised for America will be much different from the new age of hippiedom and feminism we experienced in the 70s. The religious right was on the rise as a political force. I already had an idea for The Maid’s Tale and was struggling whether to write it or not. Surely it was too imaginary?
If I had known Laurie Anderson then, I could have said, “There’s not too much imaginary.”
So, in 1981, we had the radio on while we were cooking dinner, when a creepy sound pulsed over the airwaves.
“What was that?” I said. It wasn’t the kind of music, or even the sound, that you usually heard on the radio; or anywhere else, think about it. It was closest to him when, in the age of records and vinyl, we teenagers played 45s at 33 speeds because it sounded ridiculous. The soprano could be reduced to a slow, zombie-like baritone growl, and that was often the case.
However, what I just heard was not funny. “This is your mother,” a chirping voice in the west says on the answering machine. “Are you going home?” But it’s not your mother. It’s “a hand, a hand that takes.” It’s a construction. It’s something from a sci-fi movie, like Invasion of the Body Hijacker: it looks human, but it’s not human, which is both creepy and sinister. Worse, it is your only hope, mom and dad and God and justice and power have proved flawed.
“That thing” that fascinated me was O Superman. As you can see, I never forgot that. It wasn’t like anything else, and Laurie Anderson wasn’t like anyone else either.
Or anyone you would normally consider a pop musician. Until her breakthrough single, she was an avant-garde performance artist and inventor, initially trained in the visual arts and collaborating with like-minded artists like William Burroughs and John Cage. The 1970s – remembered not only for wide ties, long coats and high boots and ethnic looks, but also for the active feminism of the second wave – were a period of great energy for artistic performance. They were transient in nature, emphasizing the process over the product. They had roots that went back to the dad of 20th century teenagers, the Zero group, an attempt in the late 50s to create something new from the ruins of World War II and into Fluxus, active in the 60s and 70s.
Anderson’s big project in Big Science was a critical and disturbing examination of the U.S., though not exactly from the outside. She was born in 1947 and was 10 years old in 1957, old enough to witness the influx of new material items that flooded American homes in that decade, 15 1962 during a very active period of the civil rights movement and 20 years 1967 ., when campus riots and protests against Vietnam were in full swing. Overcoming norms for a person of that age had to look normal.
But even though New York became her cultural base camp, Anderson was not a girl from a big city. She grew up in Indiana, the heart of the heart of America. She came in with her cheerful mother’s voice and her “healthy stranger” honestly jumps. She was a refugee, not to America, but from America: America from mom and apple pie, America of the past that was rapidly transformed by material inventions and highways, shopping malls and banks run in the quoted poem Great Science as landmarks on the way to the city. What could be a bulldozer next? How many natural matrices would remain? Was American worship of technology supposed to destroy America? And, mostly, in what consisted of our humanity?
As the 20th century grew into the 21st, as the consequences of the destruction of the natural world became devastatingly clear, so much analogue was replaced by digital, as surveillance capabilities increased 100-fold the trials took on an aura of prophecy. Do you want to be a human being more? Are you now? What is it anyway? Or should you simply allow yourself to be held in the long electronic petrochemical arms of your fake mother?
Great science has never been more appropriate than it is now. Listen. Face the urgent issues. Feel the shiver.