Monday, February 20, 2012

Sing a Song of Superman


Kingdom Come (DC/Aspect)
     Since Superman has appeared in practically every possible medium from radio programs to pajama sets, it should be no surprise that he also has a strong presence in song, although the extent of that presence is probably underestimated by most, even by those who consider themselves real fans as opposed to casual admirers. Superman’s presence in popular music goes far beyond the mere use of his name, although such use is itself extremely common. In fact, an impressive number of songs have been written specifically about the Man of Steel; these songs might take the form of provocative commentaries and dramatic monologues envisioning the perspectives of Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane and even Jimmy Olsen, or they might create extended metaphors about modern life that hinge on the Superman characters. Taken together, Superman songs create a thought-provoking vision of this beloved American icon; they emphasize qualities that we don’t generally associate with the character in the broader cultural context formed by all of his other various guises. Rather than strength and confidence, these songs voice anxiety and doubt, longing and loss as the basic elements of Superman’s character. This aspect of the character certainly exists in other media and has even been explored in several important comic texts, beginning perhaps with Jerry Siegel’s story, “Superman’s Return to Krypton,” back in 1960 and culminating with Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ 1996 mini-series Kingdom Come. This vision of Superman as an icon of suffering and anxiety has steadily gained ground in comics, films and television over the last decade or so, but nowhere is it more prevalent than in the melancholy voices that come out of musical interpretations of the Superman story.

            It is important to note that these are songs that are meant for adults. The bands that record these songs are not children’s entertainers, novelty groups or teen pop idols. Neither are the songs primarily intended for an audience of comic book readers or self-declared fans. The songs tend to fall into the “alternative” and “rock” categories, where the average listener is college age or older. This perceived audience for Superman songs makes the pervasive anxiety and suffering of the songs make a great deal more sense. In “Superman and the Dreams of Childhood,” Jane W. Kessler argues that children admire Superman because of his strength; children want a Superman whose invulnerability and courage comfort them. In Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, Richard Reynolds writes that Superman embodies the desires of adolescence through his physical mastery of the world around him (66). For adults, the key elements of Superman’s character are his anxiety about failure, his sense of loss, and his response to the pressure of being constantly expected to live up to the needs and demands of those who depend on him. These are the very elements that the songs emphasize; they are also, of course, the elements that comic, television and film versions of the Superman story have increasingly begun to explore as the perceived audience for such productions changes from child and teen to adult.

            Songs about Superman are nothing new; they date at least as far back as 1966, when Donovan first released the often-covered single, “Sunshine Superman.” In 1969 The Clique recorded the song, “Superman,” for their self-titled album; it was later re-popularized when R.E.M. covered it in 1986 for the album, Lifes Rich Pageant. 1977 saw the release of Barbra Streisand’s album, Streisand Superman, which featured the song, “Superman.” In 1979, The Kinks album, Low Budget, included the song, “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.” These earlier examples of Superman songs tend to focus on the character’s powers or present fairly simple visions of what it means to be Superman. Characters who obviously aren’t Superman generally long for his abilities or metaphorically claim his identity to represent their own feelings of invulnerability or power. Many of the early songs do little more than evoke the name of Superman in passing, as is the case with “Sunshine Superman.” The Clique song, perhaps, hints best at the mood that comes to dominate Superman songs, since its lyrics betray a certain irony; “I am Superman,” the speaker declares, “And I can do anything,” but his tone as he sings is both desperate and bitter, and the other lyrics imply that he is unable to get the attention of the girl he desires, even though he claims that she does not love the man she is with. Even The Clique song lacks the kind of extensive metaphor and character development that become more prominent in later compositions, but the early works do demonstrate the extent of Superman’s appeal as a subject for songs and the long history of his appearances there.

George Reeves as Superman (Wikimedia Commons)
Over the last two decades, the number of popular songs that focus on Superman has increased dramatically, and these works suggest a trend toward more sophisticated and problematic visions of the Man of Steel. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Don McLean would be the first songwriter to take the idea of Superman in a darker direction. Famous for his complex and even mythical song, “American Pie,” McLean is known for his engagement of tragic icons and difficult cultural moments, from the deaths of the Big Bopper, Richie Valens and Buddy Holly to the artistic suffering of Vincent Van Gogh. McLean’s “Superman’s Ghost,” which was first released in the UK in 1989 on the album And I Love You So, merges the fictional Superman character with the real actor, George Reeves, who played Superman on the 1950s television program and died under mysterious circumstances in 1959. In the song, the speaker tells us, “I flew to the coast, where Superman’s ghost/ Lay shot on the bedroom floor./ He said, ‘Watch out for TV, it crucified me,/ But it can’t crucify me no more.” The speaker himself identifies with the merged Superman/Reeves figure, lamenting his “terminal Metropolis blues” and repeatedly depicting the pressure placed on any public person, whether superhero, actor or singer. In the chorus of the song, the speaker says, “I don’t wanna be like old George Reeves,/ Stuck in a Superman role./ I’ve got a long way to go in my career,/ And some day my fame it will make it clear/ That I had to be a Superman.” For McLean, being a Superman is more obligation than honor, more perilous than pleasurable, as the fate of George Reeves makes clear. It’s an idea that continues to take shape as later artists return to the Superman figure in their own songs.

Spin Doctors album cover (Sony)
While McLean’s work presents something of a forerunner to the trend, 1991 marked the beginning of a more definitive upswing in songs about Superman; that year produced two notable examples, both of them very successful and widely played on radio stations around the country. The Spin Doctors released “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” on their album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, and the Crash Test Dummies recorded “Superman’s Song” for their first album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me. Neither of these songs depicts much happiness in Metropolis. The Spin Doctors paint Jimmy Olsen as a jealous but unrecognized rival for Lois Lane’s affections, while the Crash Test Dummies mournfully sing of Superman’s difficult struggle to fight for justice in contrast to Tarzan’s simple jungle life. The Spin Doctors song is essentially comic; Jimmy’s phallic confidence in his “pocket full of kryptonite” as a match for Superman’s charms is undoubtedly amusing, although his refusal to admire Superman as a hero or admit his superior merit works against the traditional image of the Jimmy Olsen character as devoted acolyte. While the tone of “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” is more upbeat, “Superman’s Song” is performed as a dirge, with the speaker lamenting in the refrain, “And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.” The speaker focuses on Superman’s selflessness and his loss of Krypton; he conjectures that Superman must have been tempted to leave behind his thankless work and join Tarzan in the jungle. The tone of the song and the speaker’s consistent use of the past tense imply that Superman is no more, although, ironically, the comic book death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday would not occur until 1993. Of the two, “Superman’s Song” is the more provocative piece, and its downbeat approach to the Man of Steel has proven to be more popular in the songs that have appeared afterward.

             In 1997, Big Head Todd and The Monsters contributed to this trend with  “Resignation Superman,” on their album, Beautiful World. As the title suggests, the song presents a Superman who leaves behind his struggle to fight against crime; in the refrain, the speaker imagines Superman saying, “Yes, I turn my back on this world,/ Yes, I turn my eyes from this world.” The speaker goes on to imagine Superman longing to settle down, raise a family, and enjoy a life of his own. In the speaker’s vision, Superman stays at home and watches the evening news but does nothing to intervene, only observing that he “broke [his] back on this world” and is now done with it. The words of the song’s chorus imply that Superman’s desertion signifies God’s absence, as well; “Oh, Lord,” the speaker prays, “I need to believe in you now that I’m suffering/ Oh, Lord, I need to receive your hand in my heart.” The rest of the song, however, presents a world in which neither Superman nor God will play any further part, both of them, presumably, fed up with human behavior and no longer interested in saving people from themselves. The musical component of the song features a heavy percussive beat more typical of rock, which makes it seem less mournful than the slow-paced “Superman’s Song,” but the lyrics themselves are even more depressing, since The Crash Test Dummies only speculate that Superman must have thought about quitting, while Big Head Todd tells us that he actually has.

The advent of the twenty-first century has brought with it an impressive expansion of the Superman song canon, and almost all of the bands singing about Superman follow the leads of Don McLean, The Crash Test Dummies and Big Head Todd to offer similarly conflicted and angst-ridden perspectives. Among the songs to appear since 2000, to name only a few, are “When I Was Superman” by The Uninvited, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five for Fighting, “New Superman” by The Hillcats,  “Lois Lane” by Holly Long, “Superman” by the JordanSax Band, “Superman” by Stereophonics, “Man of Steel” by Donnie Singer, and “Superman is Sleeping In” by Ritt Henn. Of the lot, The Hillcats song, “New Superman,” is probably the most optimistic, since it tells the story of an average guy who inherits the mantle of the Man of Steel when he finds the abandoned costume in a phone booth, but even here the idea that the old Superman would quit suggests that the job is not as great as we might like to imagine.

Five for Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” has become one of the best-known of the recent songs, thanks in equal parts to its popularity following the September 11 attacks and its use on the Smallville soundtrack, where it functions as the de facto theme of the program for fans, who prefer it to the official theme, Remy Zero’s “Save Me.” Singer-songwriter John Ondrasik, the sole member of Five for Fighting, first released the song on the 2000 album, America Town. As the title suggests, the song emphasizes the difficulties of being Superman, whose anxiety and weariness are so pervasive that he takes no joy in his ability to fly. Ondrasik’s song functions as a dramatic monologue, giving us an inside perspective on Superman’s suffering and depression; the mournful vocals and piano accompaniment complement the emotional tone of the lyrics, creating an especially moving vision of what it means to be a man on whom the fate of the world very literally depends. Superman himself seems broken, discouraged and troubled by the world’s insistence on his strength in spite of his own feelings of loss and anxiety; in the second verse, he says, “Wish that I could cry,/ Fall upon my knees,/ Find a way to lie/ About a home I’ll never see.” The lyrics share many elements in common with the Crash Test Dummies song, including grief over the loss of Krypton and a persistent sense of Superman’s role as a sacrifice of himself for the good of others. To many listeners, the Five for Fighting song must seem like a very original and even revelatory perspective on Superman, but it is, in fact, merely a more recent and more popular working out of a familiar theme for Superman songs. 

A perfect, confident Superman does not speak to a postmodern, adult sensibility of the world in which we live; we want to see him face the problems that define our own struggles and experiences, and that is the vision of Superman that these songs repeatedly offer. The Golden Age Superman, with his moral certainty and unwavering spirit, might comfort children and inspire adolescent boys with a longing for power, but he offers little to adults. The Superman imagined by Don McLean, the Crash Test Dummies, Big Head Todd and Five for Fighting is a character with whom adults can identify and whom they can admire because he shares their problems and struggles to overcome them. Sometimes he feels like quitting; sometimes he does quit. Adults know this feeling of hopelessness and frustration and understand why a hero might suffer from it. These songs also attempt to address the presence or absence of Superman in the world as a metaphor for the crisis of faith that is an important aspect of postmodernism, particularly in a post 9-11 America. Children believe in Superman as they believe in God, unconditionally, but adults experience doubt, and songs like those by the Crash Test Dummies and Big Head Todd address that uncertainty.

More than anything else, a look at Superman songs demonstrates the adaptability of the Superman icon and shows how Superman can be different things to different audiences; alternate versions of the character exist in different media depending on the identity and desires of the target audience. It is also a testament to the power of this iconic figure that musicians have been singing songs of Superman for more than forty years, with no diminution of his appeal in sight. Our songs about Superman reflect our own anxieties about life, faith and responsibility, but they also reflect how much we need Superman, if not to rescue us from our problems, then at least to show us that we do not bear these burdens alone.

NB: This essay was originally presented at the 2007 meeting of the Popular Culture Association in the South. Plagiarism of this work is strictly prohibited by the author, although correctly cited and limited use is permitted.