Sound Analysis: O, Superman

 

O Superman (1981) by Laurie Anderson encapsulates the feeling of complete loneliness, a never-ending loop of falling and revisiting a place without time or space, utter limbo. The song begins with an echoed and sustained “Ha” that slowly amplifies, just like the gentle hum of a refrigerator at 3am, through the use of technological alterations. The complexities of the dark, rhythmic and melodically automated sounds jolt, rewind and loop for emphasis throughout the song, almost mimicking a trance like state of a broken record.

 

There are a plethora of historical references littered throughout the lyrics, from Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera Le Cid where Anderson’s lyrics, “O Superman, O Judge, O Mum and Dad” reverberate the aria, “O souverain, O juge, O pere[1], to quoting various answering machine messages and slogans – “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” – that are inscribed over the James Farley Post Office in New York[2]. Not only is the audio a poetic spectacle that reflects upon the issues around communication, the lack of love due to the supplantation and destructive impacts of technology, it directly references a technological equipment catastrophe within the US military that caused a helicopter crash in Tehran[3].

 

The repetitious yet minimalistic nature of the words, “Hello? Is anybody home? Well, you don’t know me, but I know you. And I’ve got a message to give to you. Here come the planes. So you better get ready” ring like a rigidly mechanical answering machine, almost as if the past had sent a message to the future, yet was picked up two decades too late. This combined with the sustained “Ha” throughout the duration of the work portrays her as a laughing artefact, for she has witnessed the error in our ways and the problems that we have created for the world. Thus, as a result, a foreboding something (a metaphorical plane) is coming and she informs us that we must be prepared for when it hits.

 

Disorientating yet strangely intimate, horrifying yet majestic and subtle, the track can also be seen as incredibly prophetic, whereby the song takes on new layers of eerily contemporary meaning. Anderson writes in the liner notes to her newly reissued Big Science album, “In September 2001, I was on tour and played ‘O Superman’ at Town Hall in New York City. The show was one week after 9/11, and as I sang, ‘Here come the planes, they’re American planes,’ I suddenly realised I was singling about the present.”

 

Since its release and debut, many artists from around the world have been inspired and influenced by Anderson’s haunting melody and one-sided conversation-like lyrics, especially after it hit No. 2 in UK charts a few years after its debut. These include David Bowie, Clinic, Booka Shade and Frank Sidebottom.

 

 

 

[1] Anon, 2015, viewed 2 May 2017, <https://discoveringpopmusic.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/laurie-andersons-o-superman-for-massenet-minimalism-and-meaning/&gt;.

[2] O Superman 2016, Condellpark.com. viewed 1 May 2017, <http://condellpark.com/kd/osuperman.htm&gt;.

[3] Simpson, D. 2016, How we made Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, the Guardian. viewed 1 May 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/apr/19/how-we-made-laurie-anderson-o-superman&gt;.

 

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