Friday, October 24, 2008

The Epic Song of Superman in Five Parts: Part One


This is an article that’s been slow-cooking in my mental crock-pot for some years now. The model was an article I read years ago, and unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of it, or the author. But the gist of it was a survey of several songs through several decades featuring the protagonist “Mr. Jones.” Examples include “Along Came Jones," Dylan’s “Ballad of A Thin Man” and the Counting Crow’s “Mr. Jones.” The theme was that Mr. Jones, as in “keeping up with the Joneses,” the typical American, had come a long way from a man in control to a man in a state of confusion in the social changes of the decades. I noticed a similar trend regarding the treatment of Superman in song lyrics, only the situation here is a little more complex, since Superman has been an icon since the 40’s and has become an archetype of universal proportions. He’s been branded a hero, a villain, a role model, a fascist, and, more recently, a weakling, by a diverse range of artists, from hippies to mods to balladeers to minstrel-prog rockers to emo rockers to hair-metal bands to TV themes to rappers and basketball players…well, anyway, there’s a lot of songs, and this is by no means exhaustive (I'm not Superman, you know!), but it is a broad overview of how the perception of Superman, and the heroism he represents, has evolved…

Part 1

“The Ballad(s) of Superman”

In our first example, Superman, like Gary Cooper in ALONG CAME JONES, used to come in to save the day, and he wasn’t to be messed with:

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape/You don’t spit into the wind.

-“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” Jim Croce (1971)

In Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Superman Lover (1976), we get some of that same swagger:

Is it a bird, is it a plane?/

It’s the Superman lover

Although we discover another weakness, stronger than Kryptonite, for the Man of Steel: Women!“Faster than a speeding bullet/

I’ve outflown a few, yes I have/

But I must be flying awful slow sometime, babe/

I can’t keep up with you

This is not confined to Mr. Guitar, oh, no…Consider these lyrics from the Clique in the sixties:

I am I am I am Superman and I know what's happening/

I am I am I am Superman and I can do anything/

You don't really love that guy you make it with now do you?/

I know you don't love that guy cause I can see right through you/

If you go a million miles away I'll track you down girl/

Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart

This is not strictly a "love song"; like "Every Breath You Take," it's a little “stalker-ish,” (a trait brought out in the later R.E.M. version). But still the traditional man saving the woman theme is there…This is indicative of a larger theme in pop music’s treatment of Superman, the tendency to portray heroes as benevolent and romantic, with the guy putting on the cape and the woman responding like Lois Lane. Pop music is meant to be “safe,” and Superman was considered All-American at the height of his popularity. This made it ok (and kind of amusing) for a pop star like Aaron Carter to croon in “I Would”:

I’ll be your super hero

Protect you from evil/

Like Batman/



I can be a man/

Be my Jane I’ll be Tarzan/

Romeo for Juliet/

She’ll never have another Scully or Mulder/

And it made it ok for songstress Bonnie Tyler to play the feminine lead in “Holding Out For A Hero”:

Where have all the good men gone/

And where are all the gods?/

It's gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet

There was a backlash against this sentiment in other songs, however. As I point out in my essay on romanticism in rock and pop music, rock songs tend to challenge the status quo, and the next examples are no exception, taking exception to the demands of godhood by women on men (while challenging the expectation of men as verbalized by Sylvia Plath, that “every woman adores a fascist.”) Are these men tired of being fascists? Or simply breaking under the pressures of “godhood?”

Rick Springfield, a star on the fence between rock and pop, admits:

I may not be as fast as a shot from a gun/

And stoppin’ locomotives ain’t my idea of fun/

And I don’t have the magic to fly through the air/

But he still wants to be her “Superman”:

I can feel it when you are there/

And when you’re near me I’m like someone new/

I even feel real bulletproof too/

Another appeal to change the definition of man as Superman comes from the band Warrant in “Heaven”:

I don't need to be the king of the world/

As long as I'm the hero of this little girl/

I don't need to be a superman/

As long as you will always be my biggest fan/

This is interesting because the claim here is that the idea of Superman is platonic, like Heaven, and that one not need to be a “superman” to have “heaven” on earth…that we can be happy with the here and now. (An interesting debate in itself: do we have to lower our standards in order to live a live on earth?)

Though written before “Heaven,” the question seems anticipated in the Billy Idol song “White Wedding”:

Hey little sister who's your superman?/

Hey Little sister, who’s your only one?/

As he proceeds to tell the bride that

There is nothing' fair in this world/

There is nothing' safe in this world/

And there's nothing' sure in this world/

And there's nothing' pure in this world/

Look for something left in this world/

Things are looking bleak for the Man of Steele…and would get bleaker “by the hour…”

NEXT: Part Two: Superman, Where Are You Now?