Performance artist turned post-modern pop singer Laurie Anderson’s “Language is a Virus”

By on April 10, 2019

“Mixing social commentary with deadpan wit, the eclectic Laurie Anderson began as a painter and a performance artist, before crossing over to pop,” says Night Flight’s Pat Prescott in her introduction to three of the performance artist turned post-modern pop singer’s music videos, which you’ll find towards the end of this “syndicated 1990s-era episode” of “Night Flight,” now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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Anderson — who prefers “multimedia artist” as it is less pigeonholing — performs “O Superman” and “Sharkey’s Day,” but we thought for this particular blog post we’d take a closer look at the third performance we have on tap, “Language is a Virus.”

“Language is a Virus” was a slogan first used by William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1959) and then again in his sci-fi novel The Ticket That Exploded (1962).

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Laurie Anderson first recorded the audio track, produced by Nile Rodgers — the full title is “Language is a Virus (From Outer Space)” — for her 1984 Warner Bros. Records box set of 5 vinyl albums, United States Live, recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City, Feb. 7-10, 1983.

Her multi-media performance was filmed later for her live concert film Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson, which premiered in New York City in April of 1985.

It was promoted in music magazine ads featuring lyrics heard in the track, including “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now. Only much better.”

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Anderson’s performance — beginning and ending with references to the binary language (zeros and ones) of computer science — explores the connections and tensions between the biological and the technological.

In this context, “Language is a Virus” points out the inherent problems to be found in all linguistic challenges.

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Anderson’s songs are often based around the ideas she’s found in the writings of authors like Burroughs, but also in the works of certain other linguists and media theorists, including University of Toronto professor Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan was the man who famously coined the aphorism, “the medium is the message,” which holds that the media shapes the way we think and that the printed book is fated to one day disappear.

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In “Language is a Virus,” Anderson’s lyrics are associated with the idea that, just like a virus, language infects the cells that govern communication between human beings before it then contaminates the consumerist world we all live in.

Behind her, projected in bold lettering on a screen, we see different phrases, running the gamut from “A” to “Z”: “A FRAME/B FLICK/C NOTE/D DAY/E COLI/F STOP/G MEN/H BOMB/I BEAM/J WALK/…R SVP/S CURVE/Y ME?/ZZZZZ.”

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Throughout the work, if you listen closely, Anderson is suggesting that language is also a “magnet,” a “charm,” a “shipwreck,” a “doghouse,” and an “iceberg.”

We see the associated imagery — natural ones (icebergs), man-made ones (doghouses), magical ones (charms) and even physical entities (magnets, shipwrecks) — falling into these various categories.

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The track is underscored by Anderson’s synclavier which modulates her human voice to further enhance the idea that language is contaminated by both performance and image.

Anderson’s band features Adrian Belew (guitar), Joy Askew (keyboards), Bill Laswell (“Bass Animals”), and David Van Tiegham (percussion).

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Read more about “Language is a Virus” below.

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William S. Burrough’s slogan “Language is a Virus” explored the idea of the cut-up technique he’d learned from Brion Gysin, which is used by characters within the story found in his novel The Ticket That Exploded.

In turn, it also anticipated his further exploration of these ideas — of social revolution through technology — in his 1970 essay collection, The Electronic Revolution.

In the latter work, Burroughs posits his thesis — as it turns out it was generally influenced some of the ideas found in L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics and in Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics — that “the written word was literally a virus that made the spoken word possible.”

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Back in 1970, Burroughs argued that the viral nature of language passed down through time, and spread through culture, and traceable back to a “Patient Zero” of sorts.

Burroughs also writes in the very same essay that “the word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host.”

Burroughs further described how “language” was like an organism from outer space, foreign and invasive, and perhaps also technologically-advanced.

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Similarly, French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in the late 1960s, wrote that Deconstruction — the method of analyzing texts based on the idea that language — was a “virus,” and was itself inherently unstable and shifting in that he reader, rather than the author, determined the “meaning.”

Derrida wrote that language was a virus which replicated itself by using an unsuspecting host who then made new copies of the virus, spreading these copies to as many new hosts as possible, who in turn infected as many hosts as they could, but that if you traced all of it backwards, there had to be a complex host to begin with.

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Home of the Brave was briefly made available on VHS and Laserdisc (unfortunately it’s never received a DVD release for some reason).

“Language is a Virus” was also released as a stand-alone video which was played occasionally on MTV and, of course, on “Night Flight.”

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Watch Laurie Anderson’s “Language is a Virus” and two other of her video performances ” on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.