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A Downtown Diva Does the '90s : Laurie Anderson gave '70s performance art a pop music twist in the '80s to huge acclaim. After five years of lying low, she's making records again. The question is--can the queen of multimedia hip find a place in the new decade?

October 23, 1994|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — One of the first things you notice about Laurie Anderson, offstage, is the lack of . . . The Pause. She speaks plain ly, pleasantly, sometimes drifting off onto tangents, only to swerve back suddenly to the point at hand.

But you half-expect . . . The Pause. Her signature pause, lining the path to some incisive or mock-naive observation, or a cheeky non sequitur, has become a personal signifier. The Pause, co-opted from both stand-up comic shtick and chic '80s art-world irony, is central to the oft-imitated operative Laurie Anderson vocabulary.

The Pause lets you know that what you're hearing may or may not be the gospel truth. It lets you know that behind that dimpled and spike-coiffed image may be an incurable trickster taking you for a ride.

There's a danger of self-parody that Anderson, now in her late 40s, faces as she rejoins the cultural scene with the Tuesday release on the Warner Bros. label of "Bright Red," her first album in more than four years ( see review, Page 92 ) . Not only has she had many imitators, but she's repeated her act so often herself that her trademark idiosyncrasies threaten to become cliche.

Anderson burst into the '80s as a new kind of accessible conceptualist, with the surprise hit "O Superman." Then came various projects that established her as the rare bird who leaped from the art world to the pop world.

Her large-scale early-'80s multimedia piece "United States: Part I-IV" combined song, projections and surreal theatrics. The music portion of the show became a landmark five-record set for Warner Bros. (1984). She also recorded "Big Science" (1982), "Mister Heartbreak" (1984), "Home of the Brave" (soundtrack to the 1986 film) and "Strange Angels" (1989) for the label.

Anderson carved an impressive swath through the '80s. But the question now: Is Anderson ready for the '90s--or vice versa?

Anderson's place in SoHo is a spacious spread in a building overlooking the Hudson River. In timeless house-upstairs, shop-downstairs tradition, she lives on the sixth floor and works in her fully equipped home studio on the floor below. Her hardwood-floored flat is Spartan in decor, making such artifacts as a photo of the Dalai Lama, a koto on the wall and a pinata all the more conspicuous.

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Wearing jeans and a gray vest over a button-down white shirt, Anderson displays only one hint of flamboyance this day: her Neapolitan-hued sneakers. She smokes filter-less cigarettes and serves visitors cappuccino while unveiling the just-finished new album in the comforts of her home studio. A restless sort, she interrupts the interview to answer the phone and to deal with a number of guests dropping by.

A view of the river peeks out from behind her mixing console. Boats slice silently through the water below, almost dreamily. Listening to the freshly mixed new album, coated with the gauzy, ambient overlay that producer Brian Eno is known for, one can easily imagine the creative environment feeding the art.

In conversation, Anderson comes off candid, earnest, especially when discussing the nuts-and-bolts aspects of her work. But she also seems to have a keen ability to swerve off the subject, perhaps to maintain control of an interview. When the question of her hiatus from recording comes up, she skillfully brushes it aside, rambling about the lack of venues for video artists, or the promise of better living through the Internet.

In fact, she spent a year putting together a book, "Stories From the Nerve Bible," which came out this spring, and has been doing various film projects.

Though Anderson's roots are in the shock-tactical performance art scene of the '70s, her presentation has always been less about confrontation or archetype smashing than about an almost childlike wonder. She's all about connections of dots, parts and ideas not normally linked. She plays violin but has filled the instrument with water or replaced strings with a tape head that played spoken bits of language.

She is never about one thing at any given time. She lives in the hyphens that inevitably pop up in descriptions of the real Laurie Anderson, as performance artist-pop singer-storyteller-poet-author-violinist-postmodern deconstructionist-multimedia conjurer. Androgynous, topical and yet universal, Anderson covers a lot of bases at once without ever getting stuck in one place.

Does this slippery tendency boil down to an aesthetic statement, a defense mechanism or both? Anderson seems to revel in her role as a hard-to-categorize cult heroine in pop music.

"If pop is the mainstream, I'm an offshoot," she comments. "Maybe I'm a slightly parallel, smaller stream. In a way, I still feel like I'm someone from the art world who happens to be occasionally making records. I'm not exactly cranking them out," she says, laughing.

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