Where the Big Apple is concerned, Laurie Anderson's work has often had an eerie prescience about it. In an Encyclopedia Britannica essay on New York City she authored last summer, Anderson speculated about how far the World Trade Center towers would fall if they collapsed. (The encyclopedia's editors opted to keep the passage in, but have asked for an additional, "after the fall" piece to publish on their Web site.) On her most recent album, Life on a String, several songs set in Manhattan hint at tragedy, like "Slip Away," about the death of a loved one, that includes lines like "Big white building where your body lies." And then, of course, there are those lines from "O Superman," the big hit record that first brought her to national attention in 1981: "Here come the planes/They're American planes/Made in America/Smoking or Non-Smoking." And "Neither snow nor rain/Nor gloom of night/Shall stay these couriers/From the swift completion/Of their appointed rounds." Then again, maybe that's stretching it.
Visitors to New York last summer might have wondered if Anderson's career had really bottomed out if they'd spotted her working the McDonald's on Canal Street. In fact, she was gathering stories for Happiness, a new work that she'll bring to Scottsdale Center for the Arts this weekend.
"Selling hamburgers was not what I expected," she says from a hotel room on the road. "I went in with a really cynical, slightly snotty attitude: 'I want to see how mass production works.' I expected to find all the clichés about service work to be true: that the job would be a drag, that the workers would be underpaid and miserable. And I had a great time. It was absolutely the opposite of what I expected. The people I worked with were genuinely happy, and we were good at what we did. We were fast and we were proud. And the best part was we were able to give people exactly what they wanted, which is not something you get to do often, working in the arts."
That may be true, but Anderson, who helped create the performance art scene of the 1970s, has managed to deliver work that always pleases critics and fans. Her pieces fuse music, spoken word, dance, theater, visual art and technology into a warmly eccentric aesthetic that has helped her survive the damning categorization of "performance artist."
Happiness is a low-tech collection of stories about Anderson's recent experiences in various work situations (on an Amish farm and at that McDonald's, for example), stories that are often about obtaining a new perspective on life. "Or they're about looking for that perspective, anyway," Anderson says.
The stint at McDonald's reminded her to abandon her expectations "and live life in the present," she says, a decision driven home by the September 11 attacks. "After that day, none of us knew what to expect from moment to moment. So I'm using that, trying to keep my eyes open more these days, and not always be expecting how things should be, or could be."
But about that job at McDonald's: Didn't people recognize her? "I saw people I knew," she admits. "I'd say, 'Good morning, welcome to McDonald's,' but they didn't see me because I shouldn't have been there. I was out of context, and so I wasn't really there. I was invisible. Besides, it's complicated to make an order. You have to decide if you want the fries, the big coffee or the small coffee. So they never saw me. I didn't mind. I liked being invisible."
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