Laurie Anderson's “O Superman” transforms the mundane into the sinister.
I vividly remember when I heard “O Superman” for the first time. On a wind-kissed morning, I walked. It was winter, and the dark was heavy over the city. Small amber light muscled its way up from the horizon, mirroring the blushing yellow streetlights. The dawn of the new day always inspires me to listen to new music—before the inevitable sunrise and the inescapably loud city song. Lou Reed had just passed, and I was ensconced in everything New York and Metal Machine Music. It was only natural that matrimony led me to Laurie Anderson’s big reveal. The musical universe unfurled like an endless ball of yarn. One thing led to another. As morning clung sharply to crepuscular magic, I chased the unraveling to the soundtrack of laughter.
Laurie Anderson was an unlikely candidate for stardom, considering herself more a performance artist than anything. After some convincing, she recorded "O Superman” in the hallway of her apartment because it was the “quietest place she could find.” Anderson pressed 1000 copies, even packaging the LPs herself. She expected little, but by a twist of fate, tastemaker DJ John Peel caught wind of the song and began playing it on his show. Then, a UK-based distribution company asked for 80,000 units. Soon labels began courting the experimental artist.
“O Superman” transforms the mundane into the sinister. This somber oddity was a surprise hit from Anderson's 1982 debut album Big Science (Warner Brothers). Both playful and ominous, the song’s lyrics were sung through the Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus. While vocoders existed prior to the VP-330, Roland’s distinctive design resonated with new audiences in a climate now fascinated by electronics.
The anchor of “O Superman” is a loop of Laurie’s gently gated laughter in a robotic eighth-note cadence. Powered by the VP-330 Vocoder Plus, her initially neutral snicker soon becomes malicious, finally emerging as a melancholy chuckle of empathy and defeat. The narrative arc is a tongue-in-cheek conversation with the unknown as told through an imaginary answering machine message—as one might talk to God or one’s reflection.
Throughout, Anderson’s vocoder-drenched lilt moves confidently and romantically between humor and pathos. She paints the listener a picture of war and identity. "O Superman” draws from irreverent sources: the US Postal Service slogan, ancient Chinese Apocrypha among them. Lyrics about the maternal longing for safety and love in the face of Big Brother sit atop a bed of haunting austerity, the giggling mechanical repetition only occasionally augmented by a distant wisp of synth or diddling melody. The song can be taken as an allegorical reflection of technology’s ontological influence on the soul.
With its aggressively experimental form, this song stands as a watershed moment in pop music history. It clocks in at just above eight minutes, has an elusive structure, and its peculiar tonality sits outside formulaic conventions. Who knows why this quirky tune resonated with listeners? As time passed, this gem was met with growing antipathy, heralded as cliché and kitsch. In 1982, however, “O Superman” shook a lot of souls awake to the hand that takes.