“O Superman”: Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s charting 1981 UK hit and video highlights our video profile

By on June 5, 2017


Happy Birthday today to Laurie Anderson, born June 5, 1947! Have a look at our post about her Video Profile:

In her intro to Night Flight’s video profile on Laurie Anderson, which first aired in 1985, Pat Prescott says, “Laurie Anderson has brought the avant-garde into pop music’s mainstream. Anderson’s instrument is her body, and in 1982, the sculptor, violinist and multi-media artist hit the British pop music charts with a song called ‘O Superman.’ Using a Farfisa organ, tape loop and vocoder to manipulate her voice, Anderson — a self-confessed technocrat — parodied technology and ‘O Superman’ became new music’s first authentic sound sculpture.” Watch the complete 20-minute profile over on Night Flight Plus.

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“O Superman” was actually extracted from a four-hour long musical performance art piece of Anderson’s called “The United States – Part 1-4,” which dealt with problems and issues involving communication and linguistics.

In the video, you can see that Anderson always adds a visual dimension to her performance art; during live onstage performances she also plays violin and small keyboards while singing/speaking in a playful, sing-songy voice which is often transformed with the use of a vocoder, an instrument that was originally developed as spy technology to disguise voices.

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Behind her, a giant movie screen backdrop shows slides and presents an additional visual element to her unique way of storytelling mixed with performance art dance and music (the visuals are her own works, which often appear to have only a tangential relationship to the songs she’s performing).

Musically, she fuses electronics and simple melodies with sustained exercises in wordplay, using repetition as a device to sustain monotonous backgrounds over which she vocalizes  (“O Superman” features a tape loop of Anderson murmuring “ha, ha, ha” over and over, sounding like a Greek chorus run through an Eventide Harmonizer).

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The full title of the half-sung, half-spoken minimalist piece that brought Laurie Anderson to everyone’s attention is actually “O Superman (For Massenet)” — the parenthetical dedication refer to French opera composer Jules Massenet whose composition “O Souverain” — an aria which begins as a prayer to an authority figure, which one can presume means God, from his 1885 opera Le Cid — which had inspired Anderson, who has said it reminded her of Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo.

Anderson apparently started to get the idea for “O Superman” after listening to African-American tenor Charles Holland’s recording of the beautiful 19th century aria from Le Cid, which begins “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père” (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father).

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She has also said it was at least partially inspired by the bungled attempt by the U.S. army to rescue the Iran Hostages being held in Tehran, claiming further that “O Superman” is a song of military arrogance and failure and ultimately about the price we all pay as citizens of a country who occasionally watch how their government fails to communicate for them, on their behalf.

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In June 2008, Anderson talked to MOJO magazine about the song’s beginnings (perhaps confusing the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal during President Reagan’s presidency with the aborted Iran Hostages rescue attempt, which happened during President Carter’s four-year presidency), saying:

“In this case it was the Contra affair and defeat as we were experiencing a series of techno disasters- helicopters trying to rescue hostages and crashing in the desert. Oh, and as well as now, yet another war that is endless-or as the same war. The same conflict with Islam.”

Anderson got the idea to juxtapose images of “arms” — in this case meaning weapons — with a mother’s arms (“Hold me, Mom, in your long arms, your petrochemical arms, your military arms.” )

Anderson says the image of “Mom” is meant to imply the Motherland, meaning the United States.

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Anderson recorded the song with installation artist Perry Hoberman playing the drums, flute and sax, and Roman Baran on Farfisa and Casio, and also using a walkie-talkie. Anderson herself provided the vocals, and played violin and wood blocks.

The original 8-minute plus track was initially released as a 7-inch vinyl single during the first week in June 1981 on 110 Records, in a limited-run of 5000 copies, funded with a $500 grant she’d received from the National Endowment of the Arts. 110 Records was named because of its location at 110 Chambers Street in New York City.

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“O Superman” became a huge hit in the U.K., however, climbing all the way to #2 on the UK Singles Charts in 1981, after Warner Bros. Records bought and released it as a 12-inch vinyl single (with the same picture sleeve), pressing up 80,000 copies in its first run.

Anderson scored an amazing eight album recording contract with Warner Bros., no doubt because the 12-inch single got picked up by BBC deejay and tastemaker John Peel, who played the song so frequently on his show that it seemed she might be on the verge of a hugely successful recording career.

Today, “O Superman” — which spent six weeks on the UK Singles Chart, reaching a peak position of #2 in October 1981 — remains the only hit song to chart by a performance artist.

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Anderson toured to support her first album for Warner Bros., Big Science (released on April 19, 1982) which saw her performing at rock venues on a tour of the U.S., culminating with eight days at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, NY, where her art opus “The United States, Part 1-4″ was performed live in its entirety during a two-night stand on February 7–10, 1983 (the performance that night was called “United States Live (1984),” after which she took ”United States” on a 16-city tour of Europe and the United States.

See and hear the music video for Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” — which is now on permanent exhibition at MOMA in New York City — as well as other videos, and watch an exclusive interview with the artist as well, it’s all part of our 1985 artist video profile, and can be found over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.