“O Superman” is arguably the most well-known example of performance art, and that’s no coincidence. Anderson uses unique electronic components and haunting prose to create timeless pieces of auditory art.
Laurie Anderson came out with this production in 1981. It is mostly well known for the deep lyrical content, but it certainly has some roots in classical music as well. “O Superman” hit number two on the UK singles charts the year it was released, and it has enjoyed being used in many advertisement campaigns and was sampled a few times by various groups. Its popularity grew in Italy in 1988 due to an AIDS/HIV television campaign, and in New Zealand in 1996 for a driving safety public service announcement.
First things first, take a listen:
A lot of people would listen to this and think it was “really weird.” So weird, in fact, that in a poll of top hits in 1981, this one was rated the least likable in the UK. I thought it was weird too, the first time I heard it a few years ago. But then I listened again. And again. And I kept listening until it started to make sense. And then I did some research.
This production’s roots lie in opera, surprisingly enough. The first lyrics, “O superman, o judge, o mom and dad,” directly correlate to Julian Massenet’s 1885 opera, Le Cid. There is an aria in this opera with the text of “O Souverain, O juge, O pere” (Oh sovereign, oh, judge, oh father). Some critics have called this a cover of that aria, but I think that devalues the diversity and forward thinking of the lyrics.
Anderson herself has given interviews explaining what the text in this production means, so I will try to stick to that, even though each person will have different experiences and knowledge that colors this differently; I truly believe that is the beauty of something like this. In a 2003 interview for a Chicago classical radio station (West Chicago represent!), she explained that the impetus for writing this came from the tragic crash of a military rescue helicopter just outside Tehran, the capital of Iran. She wanted to emphasize the constant march of technology and communications, both personal and artillery.
Looking at the musical aspect of this, it comes off as a minimalist piece, not unlike Philip Glass’ opera “Einstein on the Beach.” Anderson has this constant pitch throughout, the spoken “Ha” which was looped which takes on a definite pitch value in the context of the production. The spoken/sung parts use a vocoder to give it a certain metallic and distorted sound.
Bonus trivia: vocoders were invented in the 1930s to facilitate code encryption.
At 1:24, you can hear the sample of birds chirping. It occurs again at 7:06. Sampling is used constantly in popular music, though usually the samples are of other music. In fact, “O Superman” was sampled by several musical groups over the years.
At 2:10, we get the lyrics, “Here come the planes” which has a continuing idea later on at 3:44. “American planes, made in America. Smoking or non-smoking.” These lyrics are the reason for a 2011 resurgence of this recording. Anderson performed it at a benefit concert one week after the 9/11 tragedy.
Anderson emphasizes the drawn out synth chords at 2:32, and we get some texture variation in the form of arpeggios at 2:40. Arpeggios are when pitches that make up a chord are placed separately instead of on top of each other. I’m always very struck by the style of the text at 3:00, “And the voice said…” It sounds very Biblical to me. I’m not sure if that was what Anderson intended or not, but I feel that it really sets off the following text as something from beyond, someone is speaking who is not of our world. This repeats at 4:06.
At 4:10, we have some interesting text: “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Many people think that this is the motto of the United States Postal Service. In fact, their motto is…nothing. The USPS doesn’t actually have a motto. How boring. While this text does appear on a postal center in New York, it originates from Herodotus’ “Histories,” written somewhere between 450 and 420 B.C, and considered the foundation of Western literature. The text is referring to a Persian courier service.
At 5:04, Anderson returns to the beginning style of the spoken/sung words over the looped “ha.” The text here has some historical significance as well – it is derived from the Tao Te Ching, which is a Chinese classic text written in the 6th century B.C, and is a central religious text to Taoism. Anderson’s version is: ” “‘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.” The original text reads “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.” I find the lyrics “And when justice is gone, there’s always force” to be particularly chilling, especially if you think about them in the context of genocide and war, which, sadly, the world is never short of.
From here, Anderson starts to wind down the production by removing certain elements and regressing back towards the style from the beginning. The bird sample shows up again at 7:06, almost exactly the same distance to the end as the first occurrence was from the beginning. 7:25 displays an interesting synth pattern, and by 8:18 we are back to just the “Ha” looped sound.
In closing, I find that while this production certainly focuses more on text than music, the minimalist patterns of looping don’t just give a nice underscore to the lyrics, they really become one. This production would feel flat and uninspired if either was missing. And while many will argue that performance art isn’t music, I would argue that it in fact is the essence of what music really is at its very core.
***Note: this was originally posted on Musically Notable, where I write about new music, old music, and everything in between.