O Superman


O Superman (Laurie Anderson, 1981).
O Superman (Anderson, live, 1983).
O Superman (Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Anderson, live, NYC, 19 September 2001).

Bowie chose Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)” as the token cover song for the Earthling tour: it was in the set of the first preview gig in Dublin and it would stay there until the tour’s penultimate show in Santiago. He intended it as Gail Ann Dorsey’s solo moment, often sequencing the song late in sets as a climactic piece.

Dorsey sang it as if she’d summoned it (even if at times she’d have trouble precisely hitting Anderson’s first “O JUUUUdge”–she could be a bit sharp)*, and when Bowie joined her, providing a lower harmony for the voices of the mothers and the mad on Anderson’s answering machine, the effect could be stunning. Supplanting Anderson’s rhythmic pulse—her voice looped on an Eventide sampler (Isaac Butler: “a pulmonic egressive ha repeats, calling out from 1981, exhaling middle C”)—with first a thudding kick drum and then some jittery drum ‘n’ bass loops, Bowie also introduced a few new secondary players: Reeves Gabrels’ guitar, the wailing of his own baritone saxophone.

Anderson’s “O Superman” was nearly a #1 single in Britain in 1981; it hit the Top 10 in Holland and the Top 20 in Ireland (if MTV had had more of a foothold in the US then, “Superman” could’ve even charted in America). It was downtown boho synth-pop, a span between “high” culture (Philip Glass, from whose Einstein at the Beach Anderson derived her “ha ha has” and the track’s organ tone and Jules Massenet, whose Le Cid she directly references in her lyric—“O superman, O judge, O mom and dad” plays off Massenet’s aria “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père“) and “low” culture (answering machines, Top of the Pops performances, vocoders).

I can say little more about the song than Butler did in his piece “Here Come the Planes,” which I recommend reading. As Butler wrote, “O Superman” is, for all its sublime weirdness, a straight narrative. A woman sits at home, the phone rings, she lets her machine get it. The first call is from her worried mother; the second is from a mysterious voice that mutters prophecies and warnings. These unnerve her so much that she finally picks up the phone: Who is this really? The voice says: This is the hand. The hand that takes. The rest of the song is a lullaby, the woman falling under the spell of the voice, falling in love with a pure, abstracted power, a power that’s like a refined religion. Anderson even corrupts the language of the Tao te Ching: when justice is gone, there’s always force.

“O Superman” was “a dream about imperialism—about a supernation that has done with the rest of the world and has turned back to colonize itself,” Greil Marcus wrote in 1987. “Beginning, as dreams do, in triviality, the song becomes a totality: an impenetrable whole,” he wrote, a whole made of natural life (the sounds of birds and cats, hunted and hunters), private life (Hi mom!) and public life (Anderson recites the unofficial creed of the US Mail, carved onto the James Farley Post Office in NYC, and which equally could be the creed of the drone planes that the US hunts with today).

“O Superman” is also a horror movie, domestic technology fallen into darkness. First there’s the answering machine, which, while it turned out to be merely a transitional technology, inspired some crack songs in its time: see the Replacements‘ and Green Velvet‘s respective “Answering Machines.” There are no comparable songs about texting or email (yet): perhaps the aesthetic of the answering machine (broken, distorted communication) was more compelling than that of smart phones (constant, trivial communication). The allure of the answering machine was control and removal: you could put up a screen against the outside world, you didn’t have to be a slave to the ringing phone anymore. You set the terms. But the machine also recorded: a stray call by a crank may have gone unheard in the past; a threat could only be heard once. Now the voices were permanent, if you wanted them to be; you could preserve the intrusions of the world so that they could have greater purchase in you.

Then there are the planes. (American planes, made in America!) Death, fear and airplanes have been intertwined since the Wright Brothers; as Orson Welles once said, there are only two emotions in a plane, boredom and terror. And when heard in the context of Anderson’s “United States Live” show, “O Superman” was another variation on the JG Ballardian plane crashes that Anderson used as motifs throughout: using her vocoder to impersonate the voice of a pilot calmly telling his passengers they’re about to crash, for instance. The airplane had always been an aesthetic as much as it was a simple means of transport; Anderson’s use of them was part of a century-long tradition.

And then, despite its creator’s influences and intentions (Anderson had written the song in part about Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue mission from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980), the song became horrifically prophetic after 9/11. The line Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America. Smoking…or non-smoking? was now tainted. There was no going back to whatever images the words had conveyed before that morning. History had brutally colonized them; the hand that takes had taken them. You can hear Anderson, performing “O Superman” a week after the attacks, singing the lines with reserve, with a palpable sadness; the song’s not hers anymore, and she knows it: she sings it and lets it go.

Where does Bowie and Dorsey’s “O Superman” fit into the picture? An alternate reading, a more humane revision, the hand in a glove? Dorsey lacked Anderson’s precise alienation: her voice of Mom was warm and funny. The deepness and richness of her voice made “the hand that takes” seem even more alluring than Anderson had; she gave it a gorgeous power. The song builds and builds. So hold me now…in your long arms, she sings, as Anderson did: as a broken surrender, a woman being assaulted, a submission to power. The 21st Century was being summoned again, building on Anderson’s first incantation. Almost every night during the 1997 tour, Bowie and Dorsey stood on stage and hurled the prophecy to their audiences. All of this is coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So dance: later on, we might play “Heroes.”

* Acc. to the sheet music it’s a high G, but Anderson’s vocoder makes it more slippery. Other alterations included a shift of Anderson’s 2/4 to (mainly) 4/4, and to play the “ha ha ha” bass pedal as a waltzing figure.

First performed at the Factory, Dublin, 17 May 1997.

Top: Karen Kasmauski, “Teenage Telemarketer, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1997.”

22 Responses to O Superman

  1. Ramzi says:

    Scary timing for this article. Maybe Sunday or New Killer Star will be published this time next year…

    • Galdo says:

      It happened it was ‘America’. And your predicitions were right. It did had a 11/9 post one year later.

  2. postpunkmonk says:

    This was a stunning inclusion on the “Earthling” tour set lists. You could have knocked us over with a feather when it began [as there’s no mistaking it for any other song]. Not surprisingly, the ’07 DLX RM of “Big Science” has a new back cover photo; a shot of Ms. Anderson walking down a NYC street with the WTC in the background. I wish that db had at least gotten this out as a live B-side somewhere along the way.

  3. Patrick says:

    Ever the magpie , if I remember correctly, DB “borrowed” Anderson’s “light in mouth” device for the “Loving the Alien” video. Laurie A is of course now Mrs Lou Reed.

  4. fantailfan says:

    As soon as I heard the news, I realized that this song was written for that day. (As were “From the Air,” “Let X=X” and fellow New Yorker Tom Verlaine’s “Clear It Away” from Words from the Front, also from 1982)

    • Patrick says:

      It’s also just struck me the ansaphone message motif on the original echoes those terrible mobile messages that were being left during those desperate minutes. To this day I can’t bring myself to watch documentaries that contain them.

      • col1234 says:

        yeah, you & me both. i was there: don’t need to hear or see it again. (there will be a 9/11 entry, in which I’ll probably write about what I saw that day; shd be obvious which song it will be).

  5. 87Fan says:

    I saw Bowie’s tour in ’97 (in Seattle) and I really don’t remember the song being performed at all. Nor “Is it any wonder?”. Maybe he’d dropped them by then, or maybe my memory is really bad.

  6. The Ziggurat says:

    I don’t hate this! Great work again. I find it odd – the live Earthling material seems more polished, or rounded than the studio. I think I would have preferred one more go at mid-nineties Bowie, perhaps come 1998, that would have been a natural progression from the tour, with “live” electronics (and not constant studio manipulation).

    But then again, Bowie may have just released a full-on trip-hop album.

    • s.t. says:

      We’ll find out soon enough, but I’m guessing the more guitar-oriented tracks from Hours (plus the B-sides from around that time, like “We All Go Through”) came from an early attempt at a final “mid-90’s Bowie” album. In fact, if you excise the three adult contemporary pop tracks from Hours and bring in the B-sides (even including Planet of Dreams), you have a fairly cohesive, spacy rock release.

  7. gcreptile says:

    I’m surprised how well the jungle beat works with this song.

  8. Maj says:

    The older Sister of Kate Bush’s Deeper Understanding. A wonderful record. And one that scares me shitless, pretty much. A full-length horror film in one song.

    As for Gail (and Laurie) being able to do this thing live – kudos. The 2001 version is quite emotional, while Gail’s was more warm, still spooky but more in a quirky, playful way, if that makes sense.

    • s.t. says:

      I was going to add “and the younger sister of The Normal’s Warm Leatherette,” but the Butler piece linked above beat me to it.

  9. Mike F says:

    I never heard this cover before. I prefer it over the original which always struck me as geeky and flat. This was a rare case of Bowie chosing material to cover wisely. The Iggy covers often don’t work because the wild Iggy originals can overshadow David’s more cautious interpretations. On O Superman, he took a cautious and controlled song and added some wild energy to it. Gail did a good job on the vocals even if there were slight pitch issues.

  10. cdave2 says:

    A chilling, heartbreaking song and a stunning cover, although to me nothing can match the original.

    Laurie Anderson performed in Chicago the very night of 9/11. I have a very poor cassette recording of the show, made on a dying Walkman, muffled inside my purse because I’d assumed it had stopped working. To gather, and to hear this music, were the only things that made sense that day.

  11. MC says:

    This is my favourite Bowie concert, of all the ones I’ve seen. Just the unrepeatable experience of seeing DB in a club, with a band at the height of their powers. Dim as I was on much of the Earthling material, what made the show for me was the back catalogue. As he hadn’t fully committed to performing the hits (though the likes of The Jean Genie and Fashion were present and accounted for), the set list was full of surprises. Two of the highlights (because I didn’t expect to hear them) were the acoustic Always Crashing In The Same Car (which in retrospect might have been the template for much of …hours) and O Superman…as postpunkmonk posted, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when they did this. I assume it would have been the centerpiece of the projected Earthling Live album. It’s a shame it’s languished in the bootleg world because it probably ranks with DB’s finest covers, and it’s a great showcase for Gail Ann (a much better one than Under Pressure).

    A great piece on the song and its terrifying implications. Chris, you never fail to amaze.

  12. Anonymous says:

    just a little bit slower : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9t844zzNfw

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