Laurie Anderson’s ‘Big Science’ at 40

“It was a large room full of people, all kinds, and they had all arrived at the same building at, more or less, the same time, and they were all free, and they were all asking themselves the same question: ‘What is behind that curtain?’” The lyrical content (in full) of “Born, Never Asked,” from Laurie Anderson’s debut studio album, 1982’s Big Science, sums the essential nature of the artist’s body of work. The album is an immense structure, generously democratic, as approachable as it is enigmatic—and it sparks at the very least curiosity among anyone who crosses its path for the first time.

In other words, Big Science pop at its finest. Anderson herself said that she approached the prospect of becoming a pop star as just another artistic challenge. Up until the ‘80s, Anderson had been bouncing between post-Warhol New York City and Europe, striking up kinship with Marina Abramović and bringing her performance art to any venue that would agree to host her—or, just as often, setting up station on crowded throughfares, strapping ice skates onto the top of large blocks of melting ice, and playing one-woman concerts on her self-looping violin until the skates finished cleaving through the slabs.

Anderson’s breakthrough came in 1981, via the eight-minute single “O Superman (For Massenet),” which became an improbable smash hit in England. It was a classic case of right place, right time, but also—though Anderson’s humble, midwestern demeanor obscures it—the culmination of an artist who had been blazing her own path for a decade and a half, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

And catch up they did. Big Science is, even 40 years later, Anderson’s signature recorded work—one that, in his Oxford Keynotes monograph on the album, S. Alexander Reed notes exists in a permanent present-tense state. “This is the time, and this is the record of the time,” Anderson epigrams in the opening track “From the Air.” And if that song and “O Superman” are linked by eerie foreshadowings of things to come (the former is an unnervingly jaunty portrait of an impending plane crash, and the latter’s chorus of “Here come the planes, they’re American planes” remains inexorably linked with the events of 9/11), the entire album is uncannily and presciently plugged in. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome warned of a “new flesh,” but Big Science promised something, if not more germane, then at least more rife with possibility.

Despite its very no-wave cover art showcasing the androgyne Anderson in a stark white suit and opaque white sunglasses, Big Science is essentially benign, inquisitive where her closest pop contemporaries were more directly confrontational in that early-‘80s TV Party sort of way. Only someone with Anderson’s air of bemusement could meet the era’s sense of progress and jingoistic optimism and, in the title track, hand out directions to a location in an entire city yet to be built. “Just take a right where they’re going to build that new shopping mall, go straight past where they’re going to put in the freeway, take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank. You can’t miss it.” And the listener can’t miss the wink.

Despite its reputation as one of the great debuts and as Anderson’s keystone recording, no audio-only effort could ever be said to encompass her artistic output. Though she’s a fractured storyteller first and foremost, and Big Science has stories to spare (its entire tracklist was in fact culled from the 80 or so selections from Anderson’s expansive United States Live setlists), she resists the finality and strictures that recording requires, and Reed noted that Anderson herself had some reservations about preserving the nine tracks in vinyl.

Anderson is a proficient remixologist, stripping her own content for parts and recontextualizing herself in live performance mode. (Her recent installation at the Hirshhorn Museum featured her actively painting over her own paintings, creating new art in the moment vis-à-vis the act of obliterating her older work.) In fact, her 2015 feature film Heart of a Dog arguably comes closer than any of her albums to achieving the fullness of her artistic philosophy; her six-part 2021 lecture series Spending the War Without You arguably comes even closer. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the impact and utility of Big Science as a gateway drug, endlessly inviting the curious to speculate about what else may lie behind that curtain.

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