O Superman

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"O Superman"
O Superman (For Massenet)
Single by Laurie Anderson
from the album Big Science
B-side"Walk the Dog"
ReleasedOctober 1981 (UK)[1]
Recorded1981, The Lobby, New York City[2]
LabelWarner Bros.
Songwriter(s)Laurie Anderson
Producer(s)Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson singles chronology
"O Superman"
"Sharkey's Day"

"O Superman", also known as "O Superman (For Massenet)", is a 1981 song by performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson. The song became a surprise hit in the United Kingdom after it was championed by DJ John Peel,[3] rising to #2 on the UK Singles Charts in 1981.[10] 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 (1982)[11] and as part of her live album United States Live (1984).

The song topped the 1981 The Village Voice Pazz & Jop singles poll.[12][13]


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 seeing the aria performed in concert by American tenor Charles Holland.[14] 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 work 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, and a vocoder was used for a Greek chorus effect.[15] 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 A major and C minor, the repeating "Ha" syllable (a C note) acting as a drone.

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 whom 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". This 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. The line is also interpreted in the accompanying music video into American Sign Language by Anderson wearing white gloves, white sunglasses and a white coat.

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."

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,[16] but she meant the Iran hostage crisis which took place in 1979–1980. Anderson appeared as a guest co-host on WFMT Chicago[17] 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.[18] 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 UK, she was as surprised as everyone else, and the need to press more singles to meet emerging UK demand was what led to her first multi-album record deal.


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., which 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 four-disc box set United States Live (1984).[19]

The song was ranked among the top ten "Tracks of the Year" for 1981 by NME.[20] It climbed to number two on the UK Singles Chart.[21]

"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 favourite hit single of 1981 (even though the song had been championed by John Peel).[22]

Although Anderson had dropped the song from her performance repertoire almost two decades earlier, 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 September 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?"[23] The 2001 live performance appears on Anderson's 2002 album Live in New York.[24]

The B-side of the original single was a spoken word piece titled "Walk the Dog", which would also be performed in a live version on the United States Live album. The studio version of the track was included on the Warner Bros. compilation Attack of the Killer B's (1983),[25] but was never issued on any Laurie Anderson album until 2007 on the 25th Anniversary re-release of Big Science, where it was included as a bonus track in MP3 and WAV formats.[26]

Recording details[edit]

Words and music written by Laurie Anderson.


Chart (1981) Peak
Australia (Kent Music Report)[31] 28
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[32] 19
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[33] 9
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[34] 10
Ireland (IRMA)[35] 11
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[36] 21
South Africa (Springbok Radio)[37] 16
UK Singles (OCC)[38] 2


  1. ^ Bacon, Tony (2006). Singles. Backbeat UK. p. 195. ISBN 978-1-871547-73-3.
  2. ^ a b Big Science (Media notes). Warner Bros. 1982.
  3. ^ a b Murphy, Ben. "Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' Re-Releasedl". DJ Magazine. Retrieved June 23, 2016.
  4. ^ Bychawski, Adam (November 14, 2011). "The Big Pink sample Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' on new track - listen". New Musical Express.
  5. ^ Hermes, Will (June 25, 2010). "Electronic Expressions in the Service of the Soul". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Rodgers, Jude (2015-03-15). "Mother's Day 2015: the 10 best songs about mothers". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  7. ^ "About the Piece: O Superman (tape)". LA Philharmonic. Archived from the original on 26 August 2016. Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  8. ^ Lester, Paul (11 July 2008). "What's the weirdest chart hit of all time?". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  9. ^ Derry, Mark (1989). "Laurie Anderson: On the Jagged Edge". Elle. Retrieved November 29, 2020.
  10. ^ "The Official Charts Company - Laurie Anderson - O Superman". Official Charts. Retrieved April 25, 2009.
  11. ^ O Superman by Laurie Anderson-Topic on YouTube
  12. ^ Robert Christgau: Pazz & Jop 1981: Critics Poll
  13. ^ 1981 Pazz & Jop: The Year the Rolling Stones Lost the Pennant|The Village Voice
  14. ^ Folkart, Burt A. (November 12, 1987). "Obituaries: Charles Holland; Singer Fled Bias, Found Success". Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ Simpson, Danny (April 19, 2016). "How we made Laurie Anderson's O Superman". theguardian.com. Retrieved January 6, 2023.
  16. ^ Wiesel, Al (January 22, 2003). "Sound Zero". The Bulletin. Archived from the original on January 29, 2008. Retrieved October 1, 2007.
  17. ^ "Featured Audio - 98.7WFMT - Classical and Folk Music Radio Streaming Online". Archived from the original on 2013-02-09. Retrieved 2013-02-19.
  18. ^ "'It has never been more pertinent' – Margaret Atwood on the chilling genius of Laurie Anderson's Big Science". the Guardian. 2021-04-08. Retrieved 2021-04-20.
  19. ^ O Superman (Live) by Laurie Anderson-Topic on YouTube
  20. ^ "Albums and Tracks of the Year". NME. 2016. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  21. ^ Official Singles Chart Top 75, 18 October 1981 - 24 October 1981
  22. ^ Tobler, John & Jones, Allan (1982). The Rock Lists Album. Methuen. ISBN 0458969001.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  23. ^ Klein, Joshua (August 2, 2007). "Laurie Anderson Big Science". Pitchfork. Retrieved October 9, 2021.
  24. ^ "September 11th Anniversary Coverage". WNYC. September 3, 2004. Retrieved October 9, 2021.
  25. ^ "Attack Of The Killer B's (Volume One)". Discogs. Retrieved October 9, 2021.
  26. ^ Barton, Laura (April 19, 2021). "Laurie Anderson - Big Science". Uncut. Retrieved October 9, 2021.
  27. ^ O Superman (For Massenet) (Remastered) by Laurie Anderson-Topic on YouTube
  28. ^ "Bill Kipper Discography". Discogs.com. Retrieved 2016-10-23.
  29. ^ "The Lobby - CDs and Vinyl". Discogs.com. Retrieved 2016-10-23.
  30. ^ "Laurie Anderson - O Superman (Vinyl)". Discogs.com. 2015-03-30. Retrieved 2016-10-23.
  31. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (Illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. ISBN 978-0-646-11917-5.
  32. ^ "Laurie Anderson – O Superman" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  33. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Laurie Anderson" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40.
  34. ^ "Laurie Anderson – O Superman" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  35. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – O Superman". Irish Singles Chart.
  36. ^ "Laurie Anderson – O Superman". Top 40 Singles.
  37. ^ "SA Charts 1965 - 1989 Songs M-O". Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  38. ^ "Laurie Anderson: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company.


External links[edit]