“Hi, I’m not home right now, but if you want to discuss the relationship between man and machine, between an individual and his voice, between identity and alienation, just start talking at the sound of the tone.”
Laurie Anderson’s Big Science is meant for the masses. It should be played loudly in public squares, use samples of it for crosswalk signals, and be played at every major political event. It is an album of public communication ways, of intercoms, of airport announcement system, of answering machines and of mall speakers. Laurie fuses a withdrawn sentimental edge with a strong political stance and packages it into the repetitive minimalist spoken word pieces which make up Big Science.
What better way to start an album than with a song about a plane crashing? From the air shows Laurie speaking as an airplane captain, telling his passengers that they are about to crash. It’s a song about imminent death and technological failure, but what is essential is the fact that the feelings are shared, that they belong to a mass of people. From the air sets the musical tone of the whole album, showcasing Laurie’s calm voice, her vocoder and the repetitive samples which will always hang ominously in the background.
Big Science tries to work a lot with the limit between personal and public spaces, with the edge between the individual and the masses. O Superman, the central piece of the album and the most successful, manages to transform a missed call from your mother into a very subtle critique of the military-industrial complex, using the answering machine as a means of separating the individual from his voice while wanting to deliver a message. It turns you into the constant ha-ha’s which are the tracks pedal-point and Laurie weaves these stories around you about airplanes, American pride, how your intimate family space turns into social, public space and how your intimate fears become mass hysteria.
Then there’s the post hippie critique of the need for complete civilization and control over nature of the song Big Science which uses electronics, plays with massive synth sounds while also protesting against complete mechanization. Laurie’s protests are very tangible, but they are never angry. She seems to prefer a bittersweet, almost resigned, yet still powerful approach in which she tries to protest from within the enemy. Alienation if a major theme like in Example #22 where a voice explains what technologically modified voices mean in German and Laurie sings along in a cheesy manner. It only shows how the voice as personal identifier fails in such technologically advanced times (and remember, it was 1982!), but while it critiques such technology it also uses it to its advantage, as aesthetic means.
Finally, Walk the dog turns you into a dog and tells you to ignore the incoming calamities. Laurie keeps barking every now and then to really get you into character, and tells her usual calm stories of fire, comfort and destruction. After being an oblivious dog, you are asked to imagine a great party, with delicious food, an open bar and lots and lots of beautiful people. Laurie slowly makes you imagine this scene and when you really get into it she orders you to open your eyes and see that your illusions are always going to be interrupted by reality. Comfort is fleeting, safety is an illusion and salvation is close to impossible.
With these kind words, Big Science suddenly stops and leaves hanging above a big black void. Even if it doesn’t look it, Laurie Anderson’s album is as dark as it gets, but she makes sure to hide it behind layers of irony, sarcasm and other sweetening stylistic devices in order to make the medicine go down. But don’t be fooled, we are still doomed.