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.”