The year 2022 marked the fortieth anniversary of multimedia artist and composer Laurie Anderson’s first studio album Big Science (1982). Nonesuch Records commemorated the milestone with a flashy red vinyl re-release, sparking renewed interest in and re-examinations of the album’s persistent relevance both as a strikingly insightful account of American politics and as a commentary on emergent communication technologies’ alienating effects and expanding corporate power in the late 1970s and early 1980s. S. Alexander Reed’s engaging and informative Laurie Anderson’s Big Science is one such re-evaluation that addresses the political and creative contours of Anderson’s multimedia practice.

Throughout eight chapters, Reed’s book weaves together detailed analysis, new archival gems, and convincing theoretical framings that offer fresh perspectives on the album and Anderson’s career more broadly. This book was published as part of the Oxford Keynotes series that features publications dedicated to a single composition or album. Reed situates Big Science in the here and now, following nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg’s conceptualization of “big science,” through a historical lens.1 Reed deftly connects narratives of progress, early manifestations of capitalist realism, and the objects that exemplify this neoliberal shift in the 1980s. Those objects include the proliferation of big data, the constant engine of corporate America, and its concomitant power to anonymize both individuals and any possible sense of a public or collective. Reed considers Big Science according to scale, by analyzing how Anderson structurally taps into the vast, corporate—the “big”—structure of Big Science as well as through individual musical characteristics and sonic processes.

Reed commits to a methodology of description, following Anderson’s complaint that critics and scholars rarely describe her work in detail and instead often offer interpretations or shoehorn her work as examples into arguments about literature and philosophy. The book provides careful and extensive descriptive analyses of each track, pulling together the conceptual and analytical construction of each piece. For example, Chapter 3 provides an overview of the album’s minimal harmonic structure and goes into detail about the various rhythmic entrainments of “From the Air.” By highlighting the piece’s shifting accents and Anderson’s aversion to downbeats more generally, Reed demonstrates how Anderson deploys various orientations and competing or shifting rhythmic structures to attune our bodies throughout the album. Laurie Anderson’s Big Science is a rich resource of materials that pulls together interviews, uncovers archival documents, and pins down specific details that will no doubt excite fans and historians and encourage them to learn new insights about the album’s origin stories.

In one example, Reed shows that the source materials for “O Superman” came from Anderson’s earlier 1980 orchestral piece Born, Never Asked. Throughout the book, he traces musical materials through Anderson’s body of work, showing what’s been recycled and re-articulated throughout her career. In Chapter 5, Reed identifies the exact concert where Anderson heard American lyric tenor Charles Holland perform “O souverain, ô juge, ô père” from Massenet’s Le Cid, one of the foundational inspirations for Anderson’s “O Superman.” Holland had only recently returned to U.S. stages, having made a successful and groundbreaking career in Europe while avoiding the more blatant racial prejudice he faced in the United States as a Black singer.2 Anderson later wrote that Holland’s performance “almost stopped [her] heart,” and that the aria was “a prayer about empire, ambition, and loss.”3 Holland’s concert took place the same weekend as news outlets began feverishly sharing details of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue mission to retrieve 52 hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, that killed eight U.S. service members. In his description of Anderson’s process, Reed indulges readers in some speculative fabulation by imagining what Anderson might have seen or read the same weekend of the performance by including a Santa Cruz Sentinel review of Holland’s performance alongside an article about the failed rescue mission. Reed proceeds to zero in on Holland’s performance and Operation Eagle Claw to provide a refreshing and persuasive analysis of “O Superman” that examines themes of home and return within the context of empire. Reed’s analysis and critique highlight how Anderson’s political analysis traverses technological, social, and scientific boundaries. By building on Sara Ahmed’s criticisms of post-modernism’s tacit practices of exclusion and othering, Reed’s creative hypothesis taps into one of the most compelling aspects of Anderson’s work: the performance of critical and imaginative questions that discern understandings of institutional, technological, scientific, and social apparatuses by exposing the fragile ground on which these boundaries are drawn.4

One of the more challenging aspects of Reed’s analysis is his attempt to reconcile the faceless, bodiless, cold, corporate nature of the album with Anderson’s unique approach to gender expression in performance. In Chapter 7, Reed takes care to describe Anderson’s “anti-public” style to consider “how her art cultivated new strategies over time for its representation of gendered embodiments” (118). According to Reed, not least of these strategies is that the “sexual illegibility of Big Science is itself a denial and critique of culture’s mandate on women’s sexual accessibility” (119). Reed traces Anderson’s personal and broader public cultural shift from SoHo’s comparably warm and sexually free art scene during the 1970s to the New York neighborhood’s overarching cold and monetized social climate a decade later. He draws from Susan McClary’s formative interpretation of Anderson’s androgynous gender presentation as a tactic to keep her sexuality from having an outsized role in her performances to posit that “[e]specially in the aftermath of the sexual revolution, it was remarkable and political to present one’s sexuality as unremarkable and apolitical” (120).5 Moving from an analysis of Anderson’s 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon, in which she presents pictures of anonymized men who have catcalled and verbally harassed her with their eyes redacted with a white block, to Big Science, Reed articulates Anderson’s quintessential approach in performance. He convincingly shows how Anderson leverages gender expression as one of many tools. As a songwriter and composer, she accomplishes this goal by blurring subject positions in her works, leaning on “you” and “your” rather than I, and playing with corporate legibility over corporeal form. It’s these aesthetic registers of alienation in Anderson’s work that so brilliantly indexed or perhaps even anticipated the neoliberal turn that laid roots under the Reagan administration.

Ultimately, Reed’s text is a pleasure to read, with great pacing that covers a wide range of Anderson’s work beyond Big Science while whizzing through and weaving in relevant critical theory texts, pop culture examples, additional musical discourse, and historical landmarks that characterize her works. He also provides super fan-level trivia about particular tracks, lyrical borrowings, and philosophical appropriations that make Big Science such a dense album. Perhaps most convincingly, Reed demonstrates how Anderson’s album plugged into an influential constellation of 1980s aesthetics and political sensibilities that spanned philosophy, history, science, economics, and communication. With the ubiquity of corporate personhood and imperial expansion in our current moment, Big Science remains a profound articulation of the politics of communication technologies, corporate power, and imperialism. Reed’s Laurie Anderson Big Science provides valuable insights and thoughtful provocations to situate this work in the here and now.

Maria Murphy
1.

Alvin M. Weinberg, Reflections on Big Science (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968).

2.

George Shirley, “Il Rodolfo Nero, or The Masque of Blackness,” in Blackness in Opera, ed. Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Sayloe (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 260–74.

3.

Laurie Anderson, “The Politics in Big Science.” Big Science (Warner Bros., 1982).

4.

Sara Ahmed, Differences That Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1998).

5.

Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).