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Interview: Laurie Anderson

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As Laurie Anderson waited outside of the gate for her first flight to North Carolina in—as she puts it—a long time, she spoke about Homeland, her multi-media rumination on American diplomacy, society and our collective sense of self. Like much of her best work, Homeland occupies simultaneous spirits of artistic adventure and social advocacy, meaning it's both musically and thematically challenging. Naturally, two months before a presidential election, she had plenty of fodder for reflection. Well, at least until her plane began boarding.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: It's been about a year since the premiere of Homeland. How has the piece changed for you?

LAURIE ANDERSON: Well, it's changed a lot. It's something that was made on the road. It was all improvised. You see how things go and pick the ones you like and leave the rest on the floor, and off you go. You build something like that. It's better than sitting in the studio and going, "Hmm, blank page. I should start." I didn't do that. It was a much more organic process.

What was the original impulse for the piece? When did the idea of looking at your sense of place and belonging begin to evolve into it?

It's probably a way that music and words can relate to each other, just figuring out different ways that can work. What it's about is looking at daily life and more than daily life, at our contemporary culture—although that sounds a little too pompous—through filters of love and war. It's just trying to come up with some kind of picture.

Also, I was feeling something—and a lot of Americans felt then and still feel—which is disassociated. It has to do with some national identity, really. What are your ideas about where you live? How do they affect who you are, your sense of self? What does that mean to your sense of place? It's original impulse was when I was working on a film in Japan. It was a film of collected visual fables, and each one of them had a short story associated with it, a 25-minute film that was made to be screened on the biggest screen in the world. It was like a big postcard. There were all these short stories, and one of them was about, "I lost something, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was." This feeling of how, you know, when you feel like you lost something, but you don't know if it was your car keys or your girlfriend. You're frisking yourself, going, "Wait a minute. I feel like I lost something. What was it?" It was a story about that feeling, and the Japanese translator was asking me, "Well, what did you lose?" And I'm like, "No, no, it's not about what. It's the feeling of losing something." And she said, "Well, when did you lose it?" And I'm like, "Oh, no, I'm being psychoanalyzed by the translator." I said, "Well, let me think, let me think. When did I write that?"

I wrote it when we were beginning the invasion of Iraq, and what I lost was my country. Stuff started happening like that, and a lot of other things that I didn't think had much to do with what this country was about. And I started thinking, "Well, how much does my own identity have to do with where I think I came from?" That was the original impulse, and that's why it's called what it's called, which of course is kind of a weird word. For American ears, the second word is "Security," because it's not really an American word. People don't talk about "my homeland." It's very sentimental. It sounds like fatherland. It sounds fascist. It sounds like [in a stunted German accent] "Fatherland." I think Americans talk about how they feel about their country, but they don't talk about their homeland in that exact phrase.

One thing that is really true is we have a very, very story-savvy government. They know exactly what they're doing when they called something "Homeland Security." It's a very, fuzzy, warm, sentimental word made into a bureaucratic department. Homeland is about how stories work. That's what it's about more than anything else. Sometimes they're sung. Sometimes they're spoken. I find it an amazing time to be working with stories because you realize everything's built on that right now. Every candidate has a story about the past, story about the future, story about who you are, who you think you are, who we are. It's pretty fascinating. Then they try to convince you that story, that the way they see the world, is true. There's a lot of story analysis going on now.

These new narratives we've been hearing from the presidential candidates: How do they sit with you?

Well, the first thing that strikes me is that it's not based so much on policy, frankly. [Laughs.] It's based on stories. I watched, last November, George Bush spin a story when there was all that saber-rattling going on about Iran—"Oh, let's invade Iran."—and his story was that Iran had an evil dictator and weapons of mass destruction. And people are going, "Well, please. Wait a second. Are you joking? You can't be bringing that out again after what happened with that story." But a lot of people went for it. I realized with a lot of shock that it doesn't have to be a true story. It has to be a good story. With an evil captain, hidden treasure, all the stuff that gives the story an engine, that gives the story a meaning. People like stories like that.

It's almost like a Disney story, or some high-stakes fantasy.

Yeah. Well now it's much more like ... I don't know. I find it pretty disheartening. I'm not sure how people are reacting, what combination of factors have to do with how you feel about the candidates. It often has other dimensions than what you think about their policies. It has to do with authority, sex, gender... A lot of things about how you feel about the world. It's on the level of gossip. That's nothing new in American politics. It's always been that way. You're not necessarily going, "What's the good of the country?" It's like, "Is he going to win? What are the numbers like?" I'm not saying it's anything new at all.

And for women at the moment, too, you have this candidate put up really because she's a woman. And then you have people realize, "All right, what part of this candidate am I going to vote for? That she's a woman or that she wants to drill for oil?" Who knows? Like you, I'm kind of obsessed with what's going to go on. It seems pretty dire right now. It's a really big choice. It seems like a pretty clear definition of each side, no?

You talked about true stories. There are some very recognizable images in Homeland, the baby-faced soldier and the undergarment billboards among them. Do you often write from images you gather while traveling?

Yeah, I do. I try to keep my eyes open. A tour like this is really fantastic. My job is, I'm a spy. I'm watching people—what they do, listening to them. For me, moving through a bunch of different towns quickly gives me a perspective on what's going on, and it's pretty fascinating. You meet a lot of people on tour, from regular people to people in the music and art world. It's a really great world to get perspective on... sometimes you think you know the scene and then you realized you know really only your tiny part of it. I still only know my tiny part of it, but at least traveling and touring get me a few other pieces of the puzzle that I wouldn't have by sitting in New York going, "I wonder what people really think?" So I get out and eavesdrop, you know?

Anything you've seen or overheard recently?

Let's see: I overheard an argument between a man and a woman about Palin that taught me a lot about the clichés involved. She had been a Hilary supporter. It was almost an argument about... They must have been married, and it was an argument about the two of them, rather than Obama and Palin. There's a lot of projection going on in this, so it's really hard to say who you're voting for—your husband or a candidate. [Laughs.] What's going on here?

It's like the idea that, as Americans, we're now more interested in someone we can identify with, or someone we could hang out with, than we are a thinker, a philosopher, a diplomat.

Well, it depends on how you see politics. When I was a kid, I was a fanatical Jack Kennedy fan, and I wrote him a letter saying, "I'm running for the president of my student council, and I admire the way you're running your campaign. Can you give me any tips?" What a brat, you know. He sent me a really long letter, and it said, basically, "Find out what the students want and promise it." In other words, be a representative of people. Don't try to force your own ideas onto people. Find out what they want. I really tried to do that.

When I won the election, I sent him another bratty letter saying, "I won the election. Best wish in your own endeavors." Then he did something incredibly smart: He sent me twelve long-stemmed red roses and a telegram of congratulations. So, of course, it's on the front page of our little local paper: "Local girl receives roses from Jack Kennedy." And I'm sure every woman in town voted for him. I'm sure largely because of that. It was like, "What a romantic guy! And he likes this little girl. How great!" They were just really impressed that he cared enough about one little kid to do all of that. Of course, he had a giant staff or whatever, but he projected romanticism. One of the things that shocked Obama supporters is that there can be one-ups-manship because Palin appeared on the scene, and she was like, really appealing, too. And then it's like, "Wait a second? What am I really supporting? What is this election really about? Is this some kind of weird popularity contest or who's cooler than the other one?"

And in some ways it is because you don't want to elect somebody who's totally out of touch. You want to elect somebody that's got energy and ideas and so on. It really makes you look at yourself, this election. And your own stories. What you tell yourself to get along about who you are and what you're about.

Maybe this has an obvious answer, but—in November—how do you vote for?

I'm a Democrat. Votin' for Obama. I'm a Democrat all the way. I treasure democratic ideas about helping other people and being a government that really supports... My flight is boarding. Maybe I see it in a slightly cartoonish way, but I have always felt that democrats had more empathy for people and that counts for me more than anything else. More than being smart, more than being rich, more than being famous, more than any of that stuff. It matters that you care about other human beings, and I find that's just my impression. You could have an endless argument about the meaning of that, but it's how I feel. It's how I feel and what I think, a little bit of both.

Laurie Anderson plays Duke University's Page Auditorium tonight, Thursday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5-$38 and are still available through Duke Performances at dukeperformances.duke.edu.

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