Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Epic Song of Superman in Five Parts: Part Three

Part Three

“Superman Ain’t Savin’ Shit…”

 With the association of Superman with the government, some have drawn a picture of Superman as fascist (wrongly, but there we go.) But interestingly, even though Joel Shuster and Jerry Siegel did not intend Superman to represent Nietzsche’s “ubermensch,” that doesn’t stop the comparison in song lyrics. In the case of rap music, however, the association would seem to be celebrated.

 In a return to the spirit of Jim Croce, rap artists, known for shameless boasting, found a natural archetype in Superman. Unlike rockers such as the Kinks, or the balladeers who could not handle the weight of being a superhero, rappers were not looking to put themselves down. Like many comic book geeks who looked to an alter-ego for strength, many African-Americans looked to comics to find strength to deal with the racism that told them they were inferior. The fact that Superman was white made no difference. (Although it is interesting to point out that his creators were Jewish, and they had issues with a creation of a superman during WWII…their early versions depicted a super MAN, but uncomfortable with the connation, they eventually made him a Christ-like alien…).

 Anyway, the boasting started out innocently enough, even continuing the romantic theme, as seen in The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight:”


I said by the way baby what’s your name/

said I go by the name of Lois Lane/

and you could be my boyfriend you surely can/

just let me quit my boyfriend called superman


With L.L. Cool J’s “Clap Your Hands,” we saw the boasts turned into rivalry:


I rhyme like Superman, you rap like Jimmy Olson


And the boasting increased, as we see with Shaquille O’Neil’s “No Hooks”:


Change my name like Prince, punks be tremblin'.

My name ain't Shaq no more, call me Superman


(In Shaq’s case, it was almost literal, with his Superman tattoo, and depiction of the Superman derivative-character Steele, who was a combination of Superman and black-folklore hero John Henry, another man of steel…).


But the rapper’s appropriation of Superman would have disturbed Siegel and Shuster, as this was the very thing they were trying to avoid. This was a case of Jungian "shadow" projection, where the hero becomes the very thing he set out to destroy. The association with Superman becomes disturbing in the age of “gangsta rap.”  Oddly enough, the strongest association with this rap and Superman comes from a white rapper, who is known for his many alter-egos: Slim Shady, aka Eminem, aka Marshall Mathers…there is an irony here: a trailer-park white boy trying to be black has to compete with the perception of trailer-trash AND being a “White rapper.” Power fantasies and Superman can be a deadly combination (even if his other song has him singing “This looks like a job for me!” has him dressed as the least “super” hero, Robin, in the video”…). But when a man writes a song (“Stan”) about dumping his wife in the river in the trunk of a car (yes, yes, I know it’s “a story,” and “Stan” is the fan who, to Eminem’s horror, takes him a face value…be a real superman and face up to your legacy), it’s hard not to see the danger:

They call me Superman

Leap tall hoes in a single bound

I'm single now

Got no ring on this finger now

I'll never let another chick bring me down

In a relationship save it bitch, babysit? you make me sick

Superman ain't savin' shit, girl you can jump on Shady's dick


This certainly is no pop song…Billy Idol, eat your heart out…


But if the appropriation of Superman in this manner was wrong, that didn’t stop the next batch of songs from blaming the idea of Superman anyway, as they proceed to castrate the man of steel entirely…

Next, Part Four: A Pocketful of Kryptonite