When I first heard "Oh Superman" back in the 1970s I thought it was somebody's idea of a joke. In some ways it sounded like, at least to me, a take-off on the European electro-pop that you could occasionally hear on the radio from groups like Kraftwerk. But, than again, I had no idea who Laurie Anderson was or what she was all about either. It wasn't until late 1979 or early 1980 when I started to hear excerpts from what was her major opus at the time, United States, a collection of tales, songs, and performances, that I realized she was far more than what could be contained within the confines of a five-minute pop song.
Those were the days when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was still broadcasting interesting and diverse programming, and one of the best of those shows was called "Brave New Waves". You could hear everything from punk to avant-garde during the show, and it was here I first heard United States. One night the announcer came on the air and said, "Laurie Anderson was in town tonight" (Montreal), and she then proceeded to play it in its entirety. I had never heard anything like it before. It opened my mind to possibilities that I had never even considered when it came to the idea of performance. Unfortunately what I didn't understand at the time was that it required quite a singular talent to be able to realize those potentials, and since then have failed to find few, if any moments, to equal the excitement generated by that initial hearing.
The past 30 years have seen quite a few changes in my life but I've yet to lose the motivation to create inspired by that night and I still experience a thrill when a new Laurie Anderson release is announced. Although I long ago realized there is no hope of recreating my experience of all those years ago – it was a singular conjunction of events and circumstances that were as much to do with my age and where I was in life as what it was I heard that night – her work is still something special for its intelligence and ingenuity. You can honestly say there's really nothing else quite like what she does being performed by anyone else.
Although she has produced albums like other recording artists, a number of her recordings are actually records of performances she has been touring for some time. So instead of merely being a collection of songs that may or may not be interconnected, they are more like listening to a unified work along the lines of an orchestral piece or even a play. Unlike those structured pieces, though, her work in the past has been less formal in its presentation, and is more a collection of music and spoken word works designed to communicate with her audience her thoughts and feelings about the state of the world.
Such is apparently the case with her forthcoming disc on Nonesuch Records, Homeland, which is being released on June 15, 2010. While it's technically her first studio album since 2001, she has spent the last two years developing the music that will appear on it through touring a performance of the same name. According to the press materials from her label, while it will feature Anderson's distinctive violin playing and vocals – including the assuming of different persona as she has in the past – she will also be drawing upon a range of musical styles and working with musicians from as diverse backgrounds as Tuvan throat signers to experimental jazz players from New York City. However, the most unusual collaboration will be what's planned for the song "Only An Expert".
Taking advantage of the increasing sophistication of Internet technology, Anderson has made the source tracks from the song available to musicians all over the world to see who can come up with the best re-mix of the track. Using the services of Indaba Music, a site where musicians find collaborators for projects by uploading and sharing their music, she has opened the competition to anybody who wishes to make a stab at either re-mixing, or even covering, the song. From now until May 13 at 5:00 p.m. EST those wishing to participate can register at Indaba Music and then either download the tracks from the "Only An Expert" remix program page for use on their own equipment, or they can make use of Indaba's online studio instead.
While the winner won't have their track included on the hard copy of the CD, they will win $1000, be featured as an exclusive track on the iTunes release, have their track streamed on Nonesuch's and Anderson's web site, and receive a year-long Platinum membership to Indaba Music (A value of $250 – see their membership page for details). In addition to the grand prize winner there will be two second place winners who will have their track streamed on the Nonesuch web site and receive a year-long Platinum membership, and ten honourable mentions who will have their track streamed on Anderson's web site, receive a signed deluxe package of Homeland, and a Pro membership to Indaba Music. Both the grand prize and runners-up will be selected from all the submissions by the judges — Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, and Mantis Evar from Indaba — while the ten honourable mentions will be selected from the 25 re-mixes which are able to garner the most support through voting conducted at the web site. Once an entry is uploaded and entered it can start receiving votes, and entrants are being given the opportunity to promote their contributions with widgets they can post at personal web sites and social networking pages.
Judging from the tracks I've downloaded (my wife is a singer/poet/songwriter and percussionist so I'm encouraging her to enter) the song is a biting piece of political and social satire dealing with our love of problems and the experts needed to solve them. If it's any indication as to the rest of the release, Homeland promises to be as evocative and challenging as anything Anderson has put out in her career until now. While some might see this contest as merely a means of marketing the release, I'm of the mind that it's a genuine way on her part of encouraging people to express themselves and make their voices heard about issues important to them. A contest like this is bound to generate as much resentment as good will — people complaining about not winning, etc — and actually represents something of a risk in these mass communication, viral video messages gone wild days. All it would take would be one disgruntled competitor with a grudge and access to a server to generate enough bad publicity to hurt sales significantly.
Laurie Anderson is a unique talent who in roughly 30 years of producing music has only ever come to popular attention by accident. For the most part she has quietly gone about creating and performing her music, painting, and writing with little or no popular recognition. While it would be nice to think that this competition will draw more people to her work, the reality is that the majority aren't ready to deal with the issues she raises or the style in which she presents them. Intelligent, insightful, and awe-inspiring, she has the ability to take a listener places they might not have gone on their own. Unfortunately too many people aren't prepared to make that type of trip. For those who are, you have Homeland to look forward to and in the meantime check out what other people have been making of her music over at Indaba Music, or even enter yourself — you might just end up being surprised by what you can accomplish when inspired.