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O Superman

In writing the song, Anderson drew from the aria O Souverain, o juge, o pere
( O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from Jules Massenets 1885 opera Le Cid. She
got the idea after listening to a recording of the aria made by African-American
tenor Charles Holland, whose career was hampered for decades by racism in the
classical music world. The first lines (O Superman/O Judge/O Mom and Dad)
especially echo the original area. Susan McClary suggests in her book Feminine
Endings that Anderson is also recalling another opera by Massenet; his 1902
opera, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame. The opera is one in which the arms of the
mother the Virgin Mary embrace/bless the dying Rodrigo.
Overlaid on a sparse background of two alternating chords formed by the
repeated spoken syllable Ha created by looping with an Eventide Harmoniser,
the text of O Superman is spoken through a vocoder. A saxophone is heard as
the song fades out, and a sample of tweeting birds is subtly overlaid at various
points within the track.
The songs introduction consists of a repetition of the O superman/O judge/ O
mom and dad stanza. The rest of the songs lyrics are loosely structured around
a phone conversation between the narrator and a mysterious voice. At first, the
voice leaves a message claiming to be the narrators mother but, upon not
receiving a response, reveals itself as someone who the narrator doesnt know
but who knows the narrator. The narrator finally responds, asking who is this
really? The voice then identifies itself as the hand that takes and informs the
narrator that the American planes are coming. The song concludes with the
stanza When love is gone, there is always justice/and when justice is going,
there is always force/and when force is gone, there is always mom, with the
narrator pleading to be held in her moms long, electronic, and
petrochemical arms.
As part of the larger work Unites States, the text addresses issues of technology
and communication, quoting at various points answering machine messages and
the slogan Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers
from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. That line is inscribed over
the entrance of the James Farley Post Office in New York and is derived from a
line in Herodotus Histories (8.98), referring to the ancient courier service of the
Persian Empire. This line is also interpreted in the accompanying music video
into American Sign Language by Anderson wearing white gloves, white
sunglasses and a white coat.
All of this is in the context of an attack by American planes and arms. In an
interview with the Australian magazine Bulletin in 2003, Anderson said that the
song is connected to the Iran-Contra affair, but she meant the Iran hostage crisis
which took place in 1979-1980. Anderson appeared as a guest co-host on WFMT
Chicago to say the song is directly related to the crash o the military rescue
helicopter outside Tehran a disheartening incident where US military
technology essentially let down the government. This equipment or pilot failure,
she continued, was her primary impetus for the creation of the song/performance
piece. When it became an emerging hit in the UK, she was as surprised as
everyone else, and the need to press more singles to meet emerging UK demand
was what led to her first multi-album record deal.

The lines Cause when love is gone, theres always justice/And when justice is
gone, theres always force/And when force is gone, theres always Mom derive
from the fourth sentence of Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching: When Tao is lost,
there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is kindness. When kindness is
lost, there is justice. When justice is lost, there is ritual. Now ritual is the husk of
faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.
O Superman did not appeal to all listeners. According to the 1982 book The
Rock Lists Album, compiled by John Tobler and Allan Jones, polls conducted by
several unidentified British newspapers saw O Superman voted readers least
favourite hit single of 1981 (even though the song had been championed by John
First released as a single by B. Georges One Ten Records, the songs popularity
led to Anderson signing a distribution contract with Warner Bros., who went on to
release Andersons album Big Science in 1982; the album included O
Superman and Warner also reissued the single. A live version of the song also
appears in Andersons 4-disc box set United States Live (1984)
Although Anderson had, almost two decades before, dropped the song from her
performance repertoire, she revived the piece in 2001 during a concert tour that
included a retrospective look at some of her older pieces, an idea conceived by
her companion, Lou Reed. A live performance of O Superman was recorded in
New York City the week following the 9/11 attacks. In this context, certain lyrics
appeared to many to take on a more topical significance: This is the hand, the
hand that takes/Here come the planes/Theyre American planes. Made in
America/Smoking or non-smoking? The 2001 live performance appears on
Andersons 2002 album Live in New York.
The B-side of the original single was a spoken word piece called Walk the Dog,
which would also be performed in a live version on the United States Live album.
Unlike O Superman, this studio version of the track had never been issued on
any album until the 25th Anniversary re-release in 2007 of Big Science, where it
was included as a bonus track in MP3 and .wav formats.