Sunday, September 22, 2019

Everyone Thinks It's So Great Being Superman

When it comes to superheroes there's one name that stands above them all: Superman. He started out as a strong guy who could jump really high and somehow turned into a god. By the late 1960s he was so all-powerful few writers knew what to do with him and ever since then he's suffered a series of cuttings down to size.

He was my favorite superhero when I was a child because who else would be? I have never subscribed to the theory that all-powerful protagonists aren't interesting. I prefer stories in which I know from the start that the hero will win and win easily.

It's been a long time since Superman topped any sales charts. He's iconic but he's hardly of the moment. Nevertheless, his name and a number of his long-established tropes are embedded in the culture to such a degree it's hard to see how they could ever be excised. Like Holmes and Dracula and Achilles he'll be with us always.

It's probably not surprising, then, that he's been used countless times as the subject or inspiration for songs. I can't imagine any other superhero comes within a mile of touching his cape when it comes to music.

Songs about Superman fall into a few distinct categories: straight-up paeans of praise, downbeat deconstructions, sexual allegories and fluffy, happy pop tunes that use his name as a touchstone. Most of them are frankly awful, including some of the best-known.

They cross all styles, from country to hip-hop, disco to industrial. I spent an hour trawling YouTube this morning after breakfast and this is the pick of what I found. I'm sure there are shinier nuggets buried somewhere in there but after several hundred results I was starting to feel like someone had slipped kryptonite in my rice pops.

I already had the first one, of course. Peggy Sue, originally Peggy Sue and the Pirates, are one of my favorite bands of the last decade or so and this was one of the earliest things I ever heard by them. There used to be a better video of this floating around but it seems to have vanished. I have it downloaded somewhere but I'd need Superman's super-memory to remember where.

One of the most familiar of all Superman songs has to be REM's "Superman". I'm not much of an REM fan and never have been. Decent singles band. A bit obvious. Never listened to any of their albums.

I always liked this one but I had completely forgotten it was a cover. The original, by The Clique, is much better.

Before Blur were Blur they were Seymour, named after Seymour Glass from the J.D. Salinger Glass Family stories. What else? They'd still be called Seymour now if their first label, Food Records, hadn't insisted they change the name - and that drummer Dave Rowntree stop wearing pajama bottoms on stage. Is it any wonder bands want to self-publish these days?

There's some live footage of them floating about and they look pretty darned good even via the medium of hand-held audience shakey-cam. Damon looks like someone clipped an electric cable to his wooly jumper as he flails and thrashes while he wonders "What's it like to be superman/Oh what's it like/To be so special?"

Guess he knows now.

Still waiting to find out is Nataly Dawn, although she's getting there. Here, she's covering a song just called "Superman's Song", originally recorded by The Crash Test Dummies, a band about which I can't say I've ever given a second's thought. I vaguely remember they had an annoying novelty hit of some kind a long time ago and that's about all I've got.

I'm not all that struck on this song, come to that. I looked up the lyrics and it seems we have yet another of those "Superman really gets a raw deal" numbers, very similar in tone to the far superior Peggy Sue number. I can't say I quite get it. I find the "Superman's got it all - I wish I could get some of what he has" take on his character and life a lot more believable. Can being invulnerable and able to fly really be so bad?

I do like Nataly's performance, though, particularly the slight distortion on her vocals and her attack.

Speaking of someone who has it all, in walks Taylor Swift. Old Tay, from nine years ago. This is a great lyric that seamlessly stitches myth into reality : "I watch superman fly away/You've got a busy day today/Go save the world, I'll be around". Maybe she should have called the song "Lois Lane" instead of, yet again, "Superman".

Moving on from Taylor's wistful, romantic vision of the Man of Steel we come to Celi Bee and The Bizzy Bunch, who have something else entirely on their minds. A cover of a Herbie Mann disco floor-filler (I imagine), this is a prime example of the SuperMAN school of songwriting.

I could have used Eminem's "Superman" but, much though I like a lot of Marshall Mather's oevre, I have to draw the line somewhere! I should warn you that Celi Bee is a) not very good and b) quite scary. It also goes on far too long, like a lot of disco tracks of the period.

Speaking of songs that go on for a long time, I was thinking of including Lori Anderson's superb modernist classic "Oh Supeman" but despite the title I can't honestly say I ever thought it had anything to do with Superman. There's a very strange cover by David Bowie that's unusual in that Bowie, for once, sounds less futuristic than the artist he's covering.

Instead, let's finish with a radio regular from what was arguably Superman's heyday, the 1960s, the same decade when Donovan peaked, although I did once own his 1973 album "Cosmic Wheels", which I quite liked.

Ancient French TV features heavily on YouTube these days, luckily for the rest of us. There are some very strange performances on display but this is extremely straight, with the cameraman barely cutting away from the singer at all. Donovan looks a bit bored, most likely because he's lip-synching, but his white suit carries him through to the end.

If that's just whetted your appetite for songs about Supes, I found this alternative list after I finished combing YouTube. If I'd fiund it before I started I could have just ripped it off and saved myself an hour! I'm going to listen to them all later. Looks like some good stuff in there and it's just one of a series, too, but I'm about Supermanned out now, as I'm sure is everyone else.

Next time I'm thinking Pony Club. That could run long... maybe two posts. Or three...

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