PRINT February 1987


listening to the words.

NOVEMBER 4, ELECTION DAY: I was thinking about Lino A. Graglia, a law professor at the University of Texas. Earlier in the year President Reagan had submitted his name to the American Bar Association for preliminary approval before nominating him to the Federal Court of Appeals; the ABA, in its own measured way, had thrown up. “It is doubtful that the net contribution of the Constitution to our national wellbeing has been positive,” Graglia had written in 1984. “The ultimate source of authority is simply force, physical force.” The nomination had been shelved, but there were more where he came from. It was a lovely day, the Senate was up for grabs, this was what was at stake.

Thinking about Lino A. Graglia, I was trying not to think. Gunning the motor, looking for a good song, I wanted to surrender to the claims of the weather, but instead, as if drawn back to a screen memory, I thought for perhaps the hundredth time of a word Elizabeth Drew, Washington columnist for The New Yorker, had used in her wrap-up on the 1980 elections. The new Republican senators swept into office then, she had said (all of them save for John East of North Carolina, who had killed himself, standing for reelection this November 4), were “nihilistic.”

What was Drew talking about? She’s famous for her reasonableness, her blandness, for numbing transcriptions of interviews and cherry-blossom reports, and as a violation of her normal discourse this word made no sense. It was loud and violent, but like the crash of a falling tree nobody hears. The word was a hole in her pages; she didn’t explain what she meant. I don’t think she knew. I wasn’t sure, six years later, that I knew. But her loss of her professional voice was the sort of moment that can stick in the mind: a little media shock. For an instant, it seemed, she found it impossible to simply do her job. “Nihilist”: if in art it can mean a clearing of the ground, a preparation for something new, a wellspring of creation, in politics its only meaning is the acceptance, or the pursuit, of someone else’s death. In the world of affairs, a belief in nothing means that no one is anything, that everyone is expendable.

I was trying not to think about this—about whether or not, by the end of the day, Drew’s nihilists would remain in place to confirm the president’s next crop of Graglias—when I changed stations and happened upon the first phrases of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” It was a surprise: usually, if you hear “O Superman" on the radio, you hear it late at night—it’s that sort of record.

It was disabling. I pulled over, turned off the motor, and tried to find the perfect volume. I no longer wanted to surrender to the day; I wanted to surrender to the specter Anderson would become by the end of the song. Since 1981, when it was first released (“Special Thanks” to, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts), I’d played the song as many times as I’d returned to Drew’s “nihilist”; it should have had nothing left to say. But this was Election Day, and “O Superman,” like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, or the Gettysburg Address, speeches some of whose tones Anderson’s song shares, is a portrait of the Republic.

Anderson shares some of Lincoln’s tones—his somberness, his Puritan sense of sin, his expectation of Judgment—but not, of course, his context. “O Superman” is a dream about imperialism—about a supernation that has had done with the rest of the world and has turned back to colonize itself. Beginning, as dreams do, in triviality, the song becomes a totality: an impenetrable whole made out of private life (Mom calls up and leaves a message on the answering machine), public life (mail delivery, summoned in the credo that makes it the embodiment of national will), and natural life (birds singing, a cat meowing). Once the piece catches you, you can’t get away: it touches all bases, there’s nowhere left to go.

“O Superman” is a very simple production, yet it’s hard to think of a recording that’s more carefully made. The eight minutes 21 seconds go by very quickly, partly because “O Superman” works out of slowness, time cut up and ordered, each moment both segmented and connected (the constant “ah-ah-ah-ah” in the background—a cricket’s chirp or a last breath infinitely extended) The crucial temporal mode is an implacable, hysterical hesitation: hesitation as a form of anticipation. In the nation “O Superman” describes, what one never believed would be now is: you fill in your own nightmare, but it has something to do with “freedom,” with a world where quotation marks have to be put around the word. One must say yes to that world, say yes or say nothing, and to say nothing is to cease to be, to become a hole in the fabric of the “Republic,” and so the singer says yes.

The woman who’s singing presses the message button on her answering machine: she hears her mother, and then the voice of the facts of life, the world-historical, which has a sense of humor, but which talks in a whisper like a sex pervert, and then you don’t know if it’s still the world-historical that’s speaking, or if the woman has taken that voice into her own throat. Finally a chord comes down, softly, hard (what is the right volume?): “So hold me now.”

In the music of the last six years, is there another line, another harmonic shift, another rape victim’s calculation that to say yes might be to live and to say no is probably to cease to be, that bears so much weight? The singer, the rape victim, the citizen of the Republic, explains what Elizabeth Drew didn’t explain: “When love is gone / There’s always justice / And when justice is gone / There’s always force / And when force is gone / There’s always Mom (Hi Mom!),” and Mom is not only the first voice on the answering machine, but the second: the world-historical, the facts of life.

“O Superman” is a love song: a love song to power. Power in “O Superman” is invisible, but patent, omnipresent: as present in chirping crickets and buzzing answering machines as in the arms the singer asks to hold her, Mom’s arms, her “petrochemical arms,” her “electronic arms,” her “military arms.” The mood is so quiet, so seamless, that not even the interjection of shibboleths breaks it. The dream remains a dream, but a dream, as an Australian parable has it, “that is dreaming us.”

There’s no sense of choice in “O Superman.” It is in fact “nihilist.” Sure, it’s an ironic depiction; certainly, it’s a yes that’s really a no—but what I mean is that to hear “O Superman” in the right place at the right time is to feel the quotation marks come away from the word: nihilist.

It was a vision of a future of stone. It was impossible not to recognize it, not to feel at home there. The last moments are so beautiful, so full of dread, it’s painful to know the song is about to end. And I was almost sorry, hours later, watching the returns, remembering the song, that most of the nihilists were sent back where they came from. But not quite.

As for the rest of the year, following is the “Speaker to Speaker” Top Ten for 1986, with items already covered in this column noted without comment:
1. King of America, Elvis Costello (Columbia).
2. “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,” Billy Ocean (Jive).
What does the endlessly repeated title phrase have to do with the carnal metaphor at the center of the song? Nothing, probably; what counts is the way the beat rumbles, the way the singer takes off and never comes down.
3. “Kiss,” Prince (Paisley Park 12“).
James Brown, who would get royalties on this record if you could copyright rhythm, used to shout “Wanna kiss myself!” at appropriate moments; for seven minutes and 16 seconds, Prince just does it.
4. The Edge of the World, the Mekons (Sin, U.K.).
5. “Word Up!,” Cameo (Atlanta Artists). Joke of the year, as far as the vocal goes; otherwise, a mystery.
6. “Live to Tell,” Madonna (Sire). She will, but she won’t.
7. “Walk This Way,” Run-D.M.C. (Profile). And try and stay on your feet. As too many other rappers have proven, it’s not as easy as it looks.
8. The Big Heat, Stan Ridgway (I.R.S.)
9. Boomtown, David & David (A&M). From Los Angeles, and a lot like the best that town turned out in the first years of the ’70s: all craft and corrosive intelligence. It could have been made by Steely Dan, if they’d preferred blues to jazz, and didn’t have a sense of humor.
10. “Bizarre Love Triangle,” New Order (Factory 12”, U.K.). Across complex, at times even cluttered beats, a singer carries on the greatest tradition of Pat Boone. The contrast between something nonverbal but rich and something verbal but impoverished keeps the music going, and that’s strange enough; what’s more so is the way the whole sets the listener up for a shock. This is the moment when the soulless white singer is turned into an electronically created ensemble that instantly works as the subconscious of the song, and tells you what it’s about. Not as good as the group’s “Temptation,” but nothing is.

Greil Marcus is a contributor to Deluxe (Dallas). His music column appears monthly in Artforum.

King of America was covered in “Speaker to Speaker” in March. The Edge of the World in September and October, and The Big Heat in May.