O Superman

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"O Superman"
Single by Laurie Anderson
from the album Big Science
B-side "Walk the Dog"
Released 1981
Format 7" vinyl, 12" vinyl
Recorded 1981, The Lobby, New York City[1]
Genre Avant-garde
Length 8:21
Label Warner Bros.
Writer(s) Laurie Anderson
Producer(s) Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson singles chronology
"O Superman"
(1981)
"Sharkey's Day"
(1984)

"O Superman (For Massenet)" is a 1981 song by experimental performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson. Part of the larger work United States, "O Superman", a half-sung, half-spoken, almost minimalist piece unexpectedly rose to #2 on the UK Singles Charts in 1981.[2] Prior to the success of this song, Anderson was little known outside the art world. First released as a single, the song also appeared on her debut album, Big Science.

The song topped the 1981 Village Voice Pazz & Jop singles poll.

Structure and release[edit]

In writing the song, Anderson drew from the aria "Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père" (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from Jules Massenet's 1885 opera Le Cid. She got the idea after listening to a recording of the aria made by African-American tenor Charles Holland, whose career was hampered for decades by racism in the classical music world. The first lines ("O Superman / O Judge / O Mom and Dad") especially echo the original aria ("Ô Souverain / ô juge / ô père"). Susan McClary suggests in her book Feminine Endings that Anderson is also recalling another opera by Massenet; his 1902 opera, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame. The opera is one in which the arms of the mother—the Virgin Mary—embrace/bless the dying Rodrigo.

Overlaid on a sparse background of two alternating chords formed by the repeated spoken syllable "Ha" created by looping with an Eventide Harmonizer, the text of "O Superman" is spoken through a vocoder. A saxophone is heard as the song fades out, and a sample of tweeting birds is subtly overlaid at various points within the track. The two chords of the song are C major and Ab major, the repeating "Ha" syllable (a C note) acting as a pedal point.

The song "O Superman" is based on, from Jules Massenet's Le Cid. Sung by Enrico Caruso in 1916.

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The song's introduction consists of a repetition of the "O superman/ O judge/ O mom and dad" stanza. The rest of the song's lyrics are loosely structured around a phone conversation between the narrator and a mysterious voice. At first, the voice leaves a message claiming to be the narrator's mother but, upon not receiving a response, reveals itself as someone who the narrator "doesn't know" but who "knows" the narrator. The narrator finally responds, asking "who is this really?" The voice then identifies itself as "the hand that takes" and informs the narrator that the "American planes" are coming. The song concludes with the stanza "When love is gone, there is always justice/ and when justice is gone, there is always force/ and when force is gone, there is always mom," with the narrator pleading to be held in her mom's "long," "electronic," and "petrochemical" arms.

As part of the larger work United States, the text addresses issues of technology and communication, quoting at various points answering machine messages and the slogan "Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." That line is inscribed over the entrance of the James Farley Post Office in New York and is derived from a line in Herodotus' Histories (8.98), referring to the ancient courier service of the Persian Empire. This line is also interpreted in the accompanying music video into American Sign Language by Anderson wearing white gloves, white sunglasses and a white coat.

All of this is in the context of an attack by American planes and arms. In an interview with the Australian magazine Bulletin in 2003, Anderson said that the song is connected to the Iran-Contra affair,[3] but she meant the Iran hostage crisis which took place in 1979-1980. Anderson appeared as a guest co-host on WFMT Chicago[4] to say the song is directly related to the crash of the military rescue helicopter outside Tehran—a disheartening incident where U.S. military technology essentially let down the government. This equipment or pilot failure, she continued, was her primary impetus for the creation of the song/performance piece. When it became an emerging hit in the U.K., she was as surprised as everyone else, and the need to press more singles to meet emerging U.K. demand was what led to her first multi-album record deal.

The lines "'Cause 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" derive from the fourth sentence of Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching: "When Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is kindness. When kindness is lost, there is justice. When justice is lost, there is ritual. Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion."

"O Superman" did not appeal to all listeners. According to the 1982 book The Rock Lists Album, compiled by John Tobler and Allan Jones, polls conducted by several unidentified British newspapers saw "O Superman" voted readers' least favorite hit single of 1981 (even though the song had been championed by John Peel).

First released as a single by B. George's One Ten Records, the song's popularity led to Anderson signing a distribution contract with Warner Bros., who went on to release Anderson's album Big Science in 1982; the album included "O Superman" and Warner also reissued the single. A live version of the song also appears in Anderson's 4-disc box set United States Live (1984).

Although Anderson had, almost two decades before, dropped the song from her performance repertoire, she revived the piece in 2001 during a concert tour that included a retrospective look at some of her older pieces, an idea conceived by her companion, Lou Reed. A live performance of "O Superman" was recorded in New York City the week following the 9/11 attacks. In this context, certain lyrics appeared to many to take on a more topical significance: "This is the hand, the hand that takes / Here come the planes / They're American planes. Made in America / Smoking or non-smoking?" The 2001 live performance appears on Anderson's 2002 album Live in New York.

The B-side of the original single was a spoken word piece called "Walk the Dog," which would also be performed in a live version on the United States Live album. Unlike "O Superman," this studio version of the track had never been issued on any album until the 25th Anniversary re-release in 2007 of Big Science, where it was included as a bonus track in MP3 and wav formats.

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1981) Peak
position
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[5] 10
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[6] 9
Ireland (IRMA)[7] 11
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[8] 21
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[9] 2

Covers, remixes and quotes[edit]

  • In 1988 the song became popular in Italy, as it was chosen as soundtrack for the first government campaign for preventing the HIV-AIDS epidemic.[10]
  • The 1991 Army of Lovers song "Obsession" is in part inspired by "O Superman."
  • In 1996 the song was used in a road safety advert in New Zealand. The advert showed a seriously injured man in a hospital bed proceeded by the message "The faster you go the bigger the mess."
  • The song was covered by David Bowie during his 1997 Earthling Tour tour for the album Earthling.
  • The Canadian hip hop group Brassmunk sampled "O Superman" in their 2002 single "O Supaman".
  • In 2003, Staalplaat released a remix album of "O Superman", limited to 500 copies.
  • In 2005, the German electronica group Booka Shade along with the group M.A.N.D.Y. (both from the Get Physical label) created a mix of Anderson's piece, entitled "Oh Superman" (note spelling), in two versions.
  • The 2008 biographic documentary film Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine about the artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois contains the last part of the song (from the line So hold me Mom) in several places, in correspondence to Bourgeois' theme of depicting a mother figure using spider sculptures.
  • In October 2008, M.A.N.D.Y. vs. Booka Shade featuring Laurie Anderson released two 12" singles with a version of "O Superman" on the German Get Physical label. The vinyl singles, also made available as digital downloads, featured remixes by Matt John, Reboot, Audiofly, Felix Da Housecat and Robag Wruhme.[11]
  • In March 2009, M.A.N.D.Y. vs. Booka Shade sample of "O Superman" was featured as a mix on Om Records complication "OM: Miami 2009" (Mixed and Complied by DJ Fluid).
  • The track "Which Way To Kyffin" from Welsh musician James Dean Bradfield's 2006 album The Great Western features a sample from the start of "O Superman."
  • In 2008, the song was used in the Yves Saint Laurent Spring-Summer 2009 Men's Collection video.
  • The count-off to the song "Cement Mixer" by Clinic is sampled from this song's introduction.
  • The "Ha" sound was used by Cut Chemist in the track "Spat", on the album The Audience's Listening.
  • In 2009, electronic group Jogger covered this song on album This Great Pressure.
  • In 2011, Valerie Donzelli used this song in her movie La guerre est déclarée.
  • In 2012, UK duo The Big Pink used a sample from "O Superman" in their song "Hit The Ground (Superman)."
  • In 2012, HTC, a Taiwanese manufacturer of smartphones and tablets used this song in a television advertisement in the United States. The same advert also screened in New Zealand for HTC smartphone sold by Telecom New Zealand
  • In 2012, trans-atlantic experimental rock orchestra The Flowers of Hell released a cover of "O Superman" retitled as "O Superheroin".[12] The reworking celebrates the marriage of Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed by merging the song with lyrics and motifs from The Velvet Underground's "Heroin".[13]

Recording details[edit]

Words and music written by Laurie Anderson.

  • Produced by Laurie Anderson and Roma Baran.
  • Assistant producer: Perry Hoberman
  • Engineer: Roma Baran

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Big science (Media notes). Laurie Anderson. Warner Bros. 1982. 
  2. ^ "Chart Stats - Laurie Anderson - O Superman". Retrieved April 25, 2009. 
  3. ^ Wiesel, Al (January 22, 2003). "Sound Zero". The Bulletin. Retrieved October 1, 2007. 
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ "Dutchcharts.nl – Laurie Anderson – O Superman" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  6. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Laurie Anderson search results" (in Dutch) Dutch Top 40.
  7. ^ "Chart Track: Week 43, 1981". Irish Singles Chart.
  8. ^ "Charts.org.nz – Laurie Anderson – O Superman". Top 40 Singles.
  9. ^ "Laurie Anderson" UK Singles Chart.
  10. ^ "AIDS communication campaigns in Italy (Italian)". Retrieved 2010-05-19. 
  11. ^ O Superman Remixes Vinyl 1, Get Physical - Retrieved on 26 November 2008.
  12. ^ Adams, Gregory (September 7, 2012). "Flowers Of Hell Reveal Odes Details". Exclaim!. Retrieved September 9, 2012. 
  13. ^ Annon. (September 8, 2012). "The Flowers Of Hell To Release Orch Pop Covers Record". Noisography. Retrieved September 9, 2012. 

Listening[edit]

External links[edit]