First post of 2018!
I was sharing Laurie Anderson’s O Superman song with one of our designers yesterday, and thought I’d look up what this song means, as it is so intriguing.
When this song was written, Laurie Anderson was a performance artist, not a musician, and this song was created for one of her art pieces.
It was influenced by a 19th-century aria by Massenet that began: "Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père" (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father). It was a prayer to authority, which Anderson thought was interesting, and so she wrote the beginning of the song: "O Superman / O Judge / O Mom and Dad.”
The lyrics are a one-sided conversation, like a prayer to God. It sounds sinister – but it is sinister when you start talking to power. Sinister is juxtaposed with mundane imagery: “Hold me Mom in your long arms, your petrochemical arms, your military arms.” Americans had always been told that America was the motherland, to appeal to their love of mom and dad, but it’s really not like that.
The song consists of only two chords,A♭ major and C minor, as well as the repeating "Ha" syllable done on a vocoder. I had to look up what that is, and learned that it is a bit like auto tune… An early 1970s vocoder, custom built for electronic music band Kraftwerk is seen above, which was probably not too different from Anderson’s vocoder. This was very high tech for 1981.
Though never a hit in the USA, this song was #2 on the UK Singles Charts in 1981, after it was championed by DJ John Peel. This lead to a record deal with Warner Brothers.
Anderson’s artist friends said she was selling out, but just months later the term being used was “crossing over,” and Anderson became a visionary.
Says Anderson, “I had just brought the song back to my live set when 9/11 happened. People said: ‘I can’t believe it. You’re singing about current events.’ I said: ‘It’s not so strange. We’re in the same war and our planes are still crashing.’”