Thursday, February 18, 2010

Let X=X


BY: Laurie Anderson

PERFORMED BY: Laurie Anderson

APPEARS ON: Big Science (Nonesuch); United States Live (Warner Brothers); Live in New York (Nonesuch)

I remember my first encounter with Laurie Anderson’s music quite vividly. I was in a “Religion & Art” seminar at the University of Vermont, a class co-taught by two excellent professors. One of them said he was going to play a song that he believed was relevant to themes we’d been discussing: the song was “O Superman” from Anderson’s Big Science album—the lines "Cause when love is gone, there's always justice / And when justice is gone, there's always force / And when force is gone, there's always Mom,” as well as the eerie lines about “Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Made in America” moved me in a way few songs have; & within hours if not minutes of that class ending, I had purchased the Big Science album.

Those who’ve read any of my previous posts here, which have all sprung from my keen interest in old blues & old-time country, may be surprised me to see me write about an artist who relies so heavily on electronics & who—despite what I see as very considerable music talent—tends to be identified primarily with performance art. This isn’t just a case, however, of me reviving musical tastes from earlier in my life for nostalgia’s sake. I listened to most of the first three discs of United States Live this week & found them just as compelling as ever.

The song “Let X=X” is a great introduction to Anderson. Probably more accessible than a number of her pieces, it still contains a number of characteristic gestures: the exploration of language & signification in lyrics presented with deadpan & absurdist humor, the minimalist music, the use of the vocoder to distort her voice.

As a poet myself, I’ve long since rebelled against the poetic theory in which X=Y—that X is not real in itself, but only a stand-in for Y; I don’t care for “symbolic” reading. On the other hand, as we know from Magritte, a painting of a pipe is not a pipe, nor for that matter is the word “pipe” the thing itself. They are pointers—they direct our attention, whether in imagination or in tangible reality to the thing they signify. This is rather heady theory for a song with such deceptively simple lyrics. But we should direct our attention to the equivalencies in the lyrics: the “guy” looks like he “might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink”—a rather absurd description, except for the fact that, according to the song, it’s a fact—or at least an equivalency. The “sky” is “sky-blue”; again, an equivalency in descriptive language; the “future” is a place “about 70 miles east of here.”

How does this relate to the long string of small-talk banter? For one thing, it makes this sort of typically meaningless chatter—such as “Thanks for putting on the feed-bag” gain a more direct equivalency to the literal. Yes, it seems vacuous, but it also signifies—it points beyond itself. The same can be said for the final image of the burning building. To “feel like” one is in a burning building is one thing—a feeling of urgency & panic, of course—but it is not the same as being in a burning building—there is a displacement thru the simile—the use of “like”; still, the entrance of the horns at this point build a musical climax from the earlier tranquil background that in some sense contradicts the distance of the “like” in the figure of speech.

There is real depth in Anderson's music & lyrics
—combined with musical effects that to my ear sound as fresh & revolutionary today as they did in the 1980s; & you can dance to lots of her songs! Hope you enjoy this truly amazing piece of music.

Let X=X

I met this guy -
and he looked like might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink.
Which, in fact, he turned out to be.
And I said: Oh boy. Right again.

Let X=X. You know, it could be you.
It's a sky-blue sky. Satellites are out tonight.
Let X=X.

You know, I could write a book.
And this book would be thick enough to stun an ox.
Cause I can see the future and it's a place - about 70 miles east of here.
Where it's lighter. Linger on over here.
Got the time?
Let X=X.

I got this postcard. And it read, it said:
Dear Amigo - Dear Partner.
Listen, now - I just want to say thanks. So...thanks.
Thanks for all the presents.
Thanks for introducing me to the Chief.
Thanks for putting on the feedbag.
Thanks for going all out.
Thanks for showing me your Swiss Army knife.
Oh and uh -
Thanks for letting me autograph your cast.
Hug and kisses. XXXXOOOO.
Oh yeah, P.S.
I - I feel - feel like - I am - in a
burning building - and I gotta go.
Cause I - I feel - feel like - I am -
in a burning building - and I gotta go.


  1. Ah, I love Laurie Anderson's stuff. I've been following her since the '70s, which was even before "O Superman"; she was associated with the Warhol crowd, along with people like Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, and I had some good friends involved in some of Andy's projects. What I've always liked about Laurie Anderson's music is how she layers things; you can almost watch her "build" a piece of music. In that aspect she shares a lot with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, both of whom she's collaborated with.

    And you're right, you're probably the last person associated with this blog that I'd expect to do a post about Laurie. I guess it just shows how complex we all are. So who does one on the Kronos Quartet next? (And yes, they've worked with Laurie, too.)

  2. Hi Roy: Yes, I don't know her stuff pre 80s, but I do know she was active for a considerable time prior; after all, I think she was in her mid 30s by the time "O Superman" was a hit. As I understand, her initial artistic training was as a sculptor.

    I have pretty eclectic musical tastes overall, & since lately I've been more involved with my poetry than with performing music (don't like hauling equipment in the winter, & recently published a book of poems I wrote while living in San Francisco in the 90s), some other music has been much on my mind. I like the Kronos Quartet!

  3. I am a little bit surprised at your posting on Laurie Anderson, but after reading your article, it really makes sense, after all. Your non-symbolic approach to your own poetry is very much like Anderson's from what I can tell.
    I'm not too familiar with her, but I have been a fan of Talking Heads for a long time and I couldn't help but think of two songs in particular as I read this: "Heaven" and "Burning Down the House".
    I believe this new blog can go a long way to informing my own poetic efforts. Thanks.


  4. Hi Kat: I really liked Talking Heads back in the day, & I like both of those songs you mention. One Anderson/Talking Heads connection is that Anderson & a least a couple of the TH started out as visual artists. I actually play "Heaven" occasionally myself!

  5. Here's the origin of "Heaven": David Byrne came home after a particularly trying day and said to no one in particular that "heaven is a place where nothing happens." The jam band Widespread Panic performs a fine cover of "Heaven."

  6. Thanks for posting this. I loved that song. I saw Laurie perform it in Manhattan in the early 80's. I remember she segued into it with a line something like this: "Why can't they just ... let X = X".

  7. Laurie Anderson's visual performances & lyrical puzzles got me the through the "Reagan Years." Thanks for this flashback from the future.