Laurie Anderson

O Superman (For Massenet)

Song Review by

Laurie Anderson states in the liner notes of her Talk Normal (2000) compendium “I’m not really a professional anything … well maybe a professional storyteller”. Her often off-beat and always insightful performance art is a unique combination of sound and vision. Although “O Superman (For Massenet)” became the focal point of Anderson’s first long player Big Science (1982), the eight-plus minute track was initially issued on the legendary 110 Records label the previous year in an edition of 5,000 -- which was funded by the National Endowment For The Arts. The partially sung, partially spoken work is unlike anything that had come before it -- even from artists as avant-garde as Yoko Ono or Brian Eno. The piece was an extraction from a four-plus hour show titled United States -- which dealt with various forms of human communication and linguistics. The event was documented and eventually released on the multi-disc and likewise aptly titled United States Live (1984) recorded during a three-night stand (Feb. 7 -- 10, 1983) at the Academy Of Music in Brooklyn, New York. This set was the impetus for Big Science from which all the material for that studio LP was drawn. “O Superman (For Massenet)” reveals Anderson’s immense musicality through an unlikely series of electronically-generated tones, beats as well as layered vocals that hypnotically weave through a sonic frequency manipulated vocoder. Instrumentally, the song is doused by Roma Baran’s Casio keyboard and farfisa organ as well as Perry Hoberman’s flute and sax interjections providing various musical themes. The vocals are aurally haunting and as fixating as witnessing a car wreck. They seize tightly without relent as the listener attempts to comprehend and connect her surrealistic and dadaist statements, inquiries and subtle dry humour. The parenthetical dedication “For Massenet” refers to French operatic composer Jules Massenet whose “O Souverain” inspired Anderson’s composition. Despite its outward awkwardness -- by most pop music standards -- “O Superman (For Massenet)” became a huge hit in the U.K. climbing all the way to the second highest chart position owing to copious spins by influential BBC DJ John Peel. Stateside it did not fare as well. Short-sighted and fickle consumers considered it as little more than a droning novelty recording. Ironically, after years of declining to perform the piece in concert, she revived it during a brief tour in the fall of 2001. It was during this series of performances that the tragedy of September 11, 2001 occurred. Undaunted and perhaps inspired by those events, she continued to perform it. The lyrics “Here come the planes/They're American planes. Made in America/ Smoking or non-smoking?” remained chilling in the wake of the disaster. While nowhere near as brooding and ominous as the original, David Bowie performed “O Superman (For Massenet)” during his tour supporting Earthling (1997) as a duet with his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Big Science 1982 Nonesuch 8:27
Cutting Edge [JCI] 1987
Various Artists
JCI Associated Labels 7:59
Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the 80's, Vol. 7 1994
Various Artists
Rhino 8:24
Sedated in the Eighties, Vol. 3 1995
Various Artists
The Right Stuff / Capitol 8:21
Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Women 1997
Various Artists
Rhino 8:24
CMJ the Year in Alternative Music 1981 1998
Various Artists
Chronicles / Polygram 8:21
Wired Magazine Presents: Music Futurists 1999
Various Artists
Rhino 8:25
Poptronica: Romance 1999
Various Artists
Buddha Records 8:23
Talk Normal: The Laurie Anderson Anthology 2000 Warner Archives / Rhino 8:24
The Other Side New York 2005 Breakbeat Science Recordings 8:13