September 2010

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

(1) Laurie Anderson: Homeland (Nonesuch). “Only an Expert” is not anything anyone could have expected from Laurie Anderson: a pop song. It moves quickly on a stuttering and unpredictable beat. The verses are like a stand-up comedy act where the comic is constantly winking at the audience, but not exactly to indicate everyone in the privileged room is in on the joke. You can’t tell what the wink is saying, and it exerts its own pull of fascination. The chorus is pure pop, the singer taking pleasure in the momentum of a few words that quickly cease to mean anything—they could be doo-wops. The music is that cool, that unafraid of itself. The bits of Lou Reed’s feedback running in the deep background of the piece as it moves on, each fragment curling in on itself like a paper in fire, suggest that there’s a lot to this song that isn’t being said, even though it has over nine hundred words.

Like a lot of this album, with its Department of Security title—the Nazi word Homeland saying that everywhere else is Empire—“Only an Expert” moves quickly into the traducing of the Constitution and the morals of American history by George W. Bush and his administration. But as such it’s a novelty song, which I once heard defined as a song that was funny and not about love. This song is very funny for more than seven and a half minutes, and it gets funnier the more you listen to it. Its currency is disbelief: everything it describes is presented with an expression of well-what-did-you-expect acceptance, which in every other moment turns into you-must-be-kidding, which, as you listen, over and over, can change into nightmare, hate, fear, self-loathing, and fantasies of murderous revenge.

Except perhaps on The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories, from 1995, Anderson’s best album until this one, her voice has been a raised eyebrow: arch, knowing, sometimes sneering, even smug. It’s no different here. What is radically different is that here Anderson has built a context—on an expanding, old-fashioned zeitgeist album that means to translate everything into its own language, to replace a diffuse and fugitive frame of reference with one the singer has built herself—in which everything she says, her every tone of voice, is suffused with such regret and pain over what has happened to the country the singer has to describe that the arch, the knowing, the sneering, and the smug are revealed as hopeless, worthless masks. Song by song, through play, surprise, tunes that drift like dreams in and out of the words and textures of “O Superman,” that soft-spoken jeremiad that across nearly three decades has lost none of its prophetic gravity, Anderson heads toward the center of her story, a more than eleven-minute spoken piece—with movie-like music behind it, maybe calling up Lost Horizon, a better title than Anderson’s “Another Day in America,” music suggesting that you’ve been here before, even if here has never been more than a figment of someone else’s imagination—performed, by means of a filter, in a male voice.

Out of his slow, heavy, I-used-to-be-disgusted-now-I-try-to-be-amused growl, it’s impossible not to picture the man speaking. I see him as tall, heavy set, a one time prep-school Ivy Leaguer who’s worked in the State Department for forty years. He’s seen it all. He’s seen presidents, senators, secretaries of state come and go, and now he’s seen too much. He tells jokes as if they’re parables; he offers parables as if he can tell them as jokes, but they fall flat, a whole country falling flat on its face. As he goes on, with Antony Hegarty coming in behind him, floating around his head like the ghost of his dead, younger self, he gives up even trying to be amused; every word he says turns sour in his mouth. We’ve come too far, he’s saying; nothing is going to change back to what it was, or what we thought it was, or what we hoped it could be. When the song ends—and it doesn’t fade out; it stops with a last, self-silencing note—it’s horrible. You feel the story, the country, has outlived itself.

(2) Jay-Z & Mr Hudson: “Young Forever” (Roc Nation). In a small drama where the land of eternal youth sounds a lot like the Islamist martyr’s paradise, what makes the performance so gripping is the way Jay-Z plays against the British R&B singer Mr Hudson’s gorgeous re-creation of Alphaville’s 1984 “Forever Young.” He’s testifying off to the side, then going silent for Mr Hudson as if listening to what he’s saying, waiting in the alley of his own song for that moment when he’ll dash out and jump the train of the old one, then running his own train of words straight through the melody, jumping off with perfect timing when Mr Hudson takes the music back.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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