Aural Fixation: Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)”

I am not an artist, nor have I ever claimed to be.  I have always enjoyed art of various kinds, though the more experimental stuff usually resonated with me more than the bowls of fruit.  Artsy music can be a tricky subject, especially when a piece is meant to be heard as art first and music second.  Laurie Anderson‘s iconic “O Superman” is the definitive balance between art and musicality.  No, it’s not particularly melodic (unless you count the hypnotically repetitive vocables as catchy), but it’s as fascinating as the most carefully crafted painting or sculpture.

“O Superman” was part of Anderson’s multimedia show, United States, but also appears on her debut album, Big Science (itself a distillation of the show’s highlights).  As with other pieces from United States, “O Superman” contains references to everyday conversation (such as an answering machine message), modern mantras (the Postal Service creed) and mobilization to war.  The piece was also partly based on an aria from Le Cid, an 1885 opera by Jules Massenet.  Perhaps the strangest thing about “O Superman” is the fact that it became a hit.  In 1981, it peaked at #2 on the UK charts, due largely in part to John Peel’s love for the piece.

In 2001, after playing “O Superman” very infrequently for nearly 20 years, Anderson reworked the piece for a 9/11 benefit.  Some have found the imagery in the original as being eerily similar to the 9/11 attacks.  However, Anderson wrote the song about the Iran hostage crisis, which plays a part in the larger United States performance.

Watch (and Read): Laurie Anderson – “O Superman (For Massenet)” from Big Science (1981)


~ by E. on March 29, 2010.

One Response to “Aural Fixation: Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)””

  1. I heard “O Superman” for the first time on the Dr. Demento Show. I didn’t know what to make of it. After hearing it weekly on that show, I was sick of it, but years later I came to appreciate it.

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