Her avant-garde performance art endeared her to the New York art world long before she dated, then married, one of the most influential men in rock and roll. Her work has at times been overshadowed by her more conventionally famous partner and collaborator, but after his death, she continues to make challenging, far ahead-of-its-time work and redefine herself as a creative force.
No, I don’t mean Yoko Ono, but the formidable Laurie Anderson. In addition to her experimental art, Anderson is a filmmaker, sculptor, photographer, writer, composer, and musician. Her surprise electronic hit “O Superman” (above) from her debut 1982 album Big Science, “warns of ever-present death from the air in an era of jingoism,” writes David Graham at The Atlantic.
Anderson herself explains the song as based on a “beautiful 19th-century aria by Massenet… a prayer to authority. The lyrics are a one-sided conversation, like a prayer to God. It sounds sinister—but it is sinister when you start talking to power.”
“O Superman” speaks, mockingly, to American military hegemony and to a particular historical event, the Iran hostage crisis. As such, it is representative of much of her work, melding classical instincts and musicianship with electronic experimentation and a darkly comic sensibility that she often wields like a critical scalpel on U.S. political attitudes—from her huge, five-record 1984 live album United States (with songs like “Yankee See” and “Democratic Way”) to her 2010 project Homeland.
One of Anderson’s most recent pieces, Dirtday, “responds,” she says above, to “a very tragic situation… a decade after 9/11… so much fear. Dirtday was really inspired by trying to look at that fear… almost from a point of view of ‘what is it when a whole nation gets hypnotized?’” Her art may be politically oppositional, but she also admits, that “as a storyteller, I find my ‘colleagues’ in politics, you know, a little bit closer than I thought.” The admission belies Anderson’s ability to incorporate multiple perspectives into her complex narratives, as all great writers do. And great writers begin as readers, their work in dialogue with the books that move and shape them.
So what does Laurie Anderson read? Below, you’ll find a list of her top ten books, curated by One Grand, a “bookstore in which celebrated thinkers, writers, artists, and other creative minds share the ten books they would take to their metaphorical desert island.” Her choices include great comic storytellers, like Laurence Sterne, and chroniclers of the lumbering beast that is the U.S., like Herman Melville. Other well-known novelists, like Nabokov and Annie Dillard, sit next to Buddhist texts and creative nonfiction. It’s a fascinating list, and if you’re as intrigued and inspired by Anderson’s work as I am, you’ll want to read, or re-read, everything on it.
- Within the Contexts of No Context, George W.S. Trow: “Hilarious and Dangerous. Dead-on analysis of what makes America so big.”
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead: “The most visual language of any book I know.”
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville: “The words were songs, the flow embraced the way we actually think.”
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne: “The ultimate shaggy dog story.”
- Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov: “Poetry disguised as prose.”
- Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson: “An epic poem. Plus very, very funny.”
- The Well-Tempered City, Jonathan F.P. Rose: “Deeply Inspiring.”
- Peter the Great, Robert K. Massie: “Immediately made me want to read all his other books.”
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard: “Reminds me to be in the present.”
- When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron: “Reminds me that disasters can be positive.”
Skip on over to One Grand to read Anderson’s complete, witty commentaries on each of her choices.
Also check out, UBUweb, which has a nice collection of Laurie Anderson’s early video work.