Laurie Anderson's political art
Laurie Anderson performance of Homeland at this year’s Spoleto Festival was similar to a couple of other performances: They felt a little late in the game.
Drag queen and performance artist Taylor Mac and the Nottingham Playhouse’s performance of Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes had political overtones, too. But while one maked fun of the absurdities of the past eight Bush years (airport security, etc.), the other underscored the tragic elements of those years (the social and political dangers of nationalism and xenophobia).
In neither, however, was politics essential to what they are. They had more to offer.
For instance, Mac, the transgressive, cross-dressing trickster and fool, is a master shape-shifter, able to manipulate and charm any kind of audience. Though some of his material has lost its frisson (i.e., jokes about “unattended bags”), he elicited an amazing range of emotions — from mirth to sadness to pity to respect.
On the other hand, Thebes was a spartan and ingenious production that spoke to timeless themes of concern to all of us — death, duty, honor, family, and religion. King Creon himself was an oblique allusion to George Bush, but one could completely ignore that allusion. Creon is a tragic figure that has stood on his own since Sophocles wrote Antigone.
The same couldn’t be said of Anderson’s Homeland. It depended almost entirely on politics and current events that aren’t as current as they used to be. It felt stuck in time.
Homeland is perhaps best understood as a spoken-word political satire with songs and music serving as interludes to pithy and didactic musings on war, corporate corruption, terrorism, torture, American consumerism, American imperialism, global warming, bureaucracy, Evangelicals, and on and on.
Some musings were funny. Anderson joked about malpractice insurance, underwear advertising, and about the English language: how you don’t have to memorize the sex of every object in the room. Some of these musings were striking in their imagery: “My eyes are black like nail heads popping out of the wood waiting for the hammer.”
But most felt stale, like reading a newspaper from a couple of years ago.
The music simply wasn’t strong enough to overcome the weakness of the message and the cuteness of the poetry. If Anderson had delivered Homeland in 2005 or 2006, it would have felt more powerful, as if she were saying something that badly needed saying.
As it is, it’s already been said, many times over, and our collective attention is now elsewhere. Despite its avant-garde antecedents, Homeland, which is Anderson’s first Spoleto gig since 1999, seemed a bit passé.
“Are you young enough to have enjoyed that?” asked an older man outside Memminger Auditorium after the show. He and his friend were baby boomers. The remark implied that Homeland was an outgrowth of a kind of artsy-fartsy fare that the kids like so much these days.
But it wasn’t that at all. Homeland sounded to my ears like a product of a creative mind forged in the counterculture of the 1960s. The question might be are you old enough to have enjoyed it?
Anderson attempts to satirize American imperialism by singing a happy song about a young girl joining the armed forces. It’s a kid’s war, Anderson sings, but business is good.
“We keep calling them up” is the tuneful refrain.
The language suggests that she equates joining the army with the draft. The song feels like yet another attempt by a baby boomer to apply the values of her generation to the problems of mine. But those values don’t fit.
More than Homeland seemed stuck in time. Anderson does, too.
Originally reported in Charleston City Paper’s award-winning Spoleto Buzz.
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