34 years later, I still don’t understand Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”.

I was 14 years old when I first heard O Superman (For Massenet) by experimental musician Laurie Anderson. I don’t know if it qualifies so much as a song than as a spoken word piece with some musical bits to it. I remember being entranced by it and not being able to explain why. It’s eight and a half minutes long and the one constant is a “ha” that serves as the beat, in as much as it can be said to have a beat.

If you’ve never heard it, you can watch the video for it right here:

I had completely forgotten about it until this morning when it showed up on my Thomas Dolby radio station on Google Music. I was immediately taken back to those days in 1982 when I listened to it repeatedly trying to figure out what it was supposed to be about and understand why it had such a hold on me. Not just a hold, it affected me deeply. Particularly when it gets to the lyrics about mom.

Today, 34 years later, it was a jolt to hear it and realize that it still deeply affects me to listen to it. So much so that I had tears welling up as I sat here at my desk, which is really out of character for me. I love a good song as much as the next guy, but it’s rare that any music moves me to tears. I’m not a huge fan of the artist; I’ve never bought her albums and the copy of this song I had was taped off of a local radio station as we were wont to do back in the days before MP3s.

Reading the lyrics does little to help me understand it:

O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
Hi. I’m not home right now. But if you want to leave a
message, just start talking at the sound of the tone.
Hello? This is your Mother. Are you there? Are you
coming home?
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. Ready to go. You can come
as you are, but pay as you go. Pay as you go.

And I said: OK. Who is this really? And the voice said:
This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the
hand, the hand that takes.
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom
of night shall stay these couriers from the swift
completion of their appointed rounds.

‘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. Hi Mom!

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me,
Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms.
In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
In your electronic arms.

A good chunk of the song is a phone conversation between someone who initially claims to be the mother of the person they’re calling, but then reveals that to be a lie. Then it gets surreal with statements like being the “hand that takes” and something about planes coming and so on.

When I was 14 I thought it was very deep and I was just too stupid to figure it out. I’m not sure I’ve gotten any smarter in the time since. Today we have the Internet and Wikipedia article on it offers up the following explanation:

As part of the larger work United States, the text addresses issues of technology and communication, quoting at various points answering machine messages and the slogan “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. That line is inscribed over the entrance of the James Farley Post Office in New York and is derived from a line in Herodotus’ Histories (8.98), referring to the ancient courier service of the Persian Empire. This line is also interpreted in the accompanying music video into American Sign Language by Anderson wearing white gloves, white sunglasses and a white coat.

The lines “‘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” derive from the fourth sentence of Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “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.”

All of this is in the context of an attack by American planes and arms. In an interview with the Australian magazine Bulletin in 2003, Anderson said that the song is connected to the Iran-Contra affair, but she meant the Iran hostage crisis which took place in 1979-1980. Anderson appeared as a guest co-host on WFMT Chicago to say the song is directly related to the crash of the military rescue helicopter outside Tehran — a disheartening incident where U.S. military technology essentially let down the government. This equipment or pilot failure, she continued, was her primary impetus for the creation of the song/performance piece. When it became an emerging hit in the U.K., she was as surprised as everyone else, and the need to press more singles to meet emerging U.K. demand was what led to her first multi-album record deal.

Um, OK. So it was inspired by the Iran-Contra affair, but I’ll be damned if I understand how you’re supposed to glean that from the lyrics. Nor does it explain why I am so affected by something I simply don’t understand. I love this song in spite of it. I’ve listened to it several times while writing this entry. I don’t know why.

I can’t say for certain whether my reaction today was because of the song itself or the feeling of being transported back to 1982 and being on the verge of adulthood. The year 2000 was less than 20 years away and I was going to experience “the future” first hand. My cynicism hadn’t fully developed and the future looked promising even if I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do as an adult. I was still ignorant enough of the larger world around me that I could be optimistic without any good reason for it. The future! It was coming and I was gonna be there for it. Looking back it’s not quite what I thought it was going to be, but it could be a lot worse than it is so I’ll take it.

Still, this damned song. Do you guys have anything similar or is it just me?

6 thoughts on “34 years later, I still don’t understand Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”.

  1. I remember that song very well. I think the artist like a lot of “artistes” dives right off the cliff on a lot of this stuff. I grew up listening to John Peel’s late night show and if it was out there, John watched it live, invited them to his studio and played the crap out of it. Still, I am more of a “The Fall” kinda gal. My New Howse..Have you seeeeen my New Howse….

  2. I have to admit that I’m not familiar with The Fall. According to Wikipedia they’re a -Post-punk band and I never got much into that genre. I was much more into New Wave or SynthPop as it’s probably better classified. The Thomas Dolby’s, Duran Duran, The Thompson Twins, Cyndi Lauper, etc.

  3. The Fall were like his favourite band. They are pretty out there. In the end I didn’t mind them so much and I bought an album. John also played a lot of music from Africa too. As far as electronica here, do you like Big Black Delta?

  4. My experience is very similar. In high school, I remember sitting in my friend Ted’s bedroom smoking really bad pot and laughing uncontrollably upon repeated listens. I think it represented a hitherto unfamiliar mix of music and art that pointed the way to a more promising technological future. Or something. Still love it, though.

  5. Laurie Anderson was and is a genius.

    You were born. And so you’re free. So happy birthday.

    cheers from sunny Vienna, zilch

  6. I first the songs about the same time as you did and it is one of the few songs I can’t bear to listen to. I don’t know why but if it comes on the radio I have to turn it off immediately. I have nothing against the composer and I actually enjoy listening to her being interviewed as she is a very interesting person. I just can’t bear that song!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *