Laurie Anderson: O Superman

July 3, 2006


“O Superman” was Laurie Anderson’s first big HIT: it made it to number 2 in the UK but didn’t do as well in America. Her music is marvelously in-the-cracks reminding me of Steve Reich, Lou Reed (her husband), David Byrne, and Joni Mitchell, but it would be an insult to say that she is only made up of her influences. She is a composer, an artist, a dramaturg, a performance artist, a musician, a poet, and a plastic artist. She is bubbling with expression and we are fortunate to have her with us as an ever-evolving artist. If you’ve never seen or heard her, buy some music, watch her movies, and see her concerts.

I first saw Laurie Anderson while a Masters student at Harvard in 1980. She gave a concert in Paine Hall. She was dressed completely in white; even her violin was painted white. She sat on the stage cross-legged, walked around, spoke and sang into microphones and seemed to play mostly half notes on the violin — it was thrilling. So naughty. She was one of “us” (meaning nerdy academic student composers) who “crossed over” into, well, fame. She said ‘screw academia, I’m going out on my own’ and this of course is not so far from what her peers like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, and Philip Glass did. They all shunned academia and have flourished (mostly) as composers. That being pointed out, I was thrilled to see that Laurie is now Dr. Anderson after receiving an honorary doctorate from Columbia (where she had done some collegiate work).

There are a number of interesting things I’d like to point out in this song:

“O Superman” begins with a tiny clip of Laurie’s voice that is “looped” or repeated over and over as a steady eighth note pulse. The pulse goes throughout the entire song; think of it as a scaffolding, a click track or metronome, or the white lines on a highway. The pulsing C is concordant with every chord in the song: the Eb (I add-6), the Ab (IV), and the f (vi) and provides a rhythmic tactus that does not change through the entire song. The harmonic essence of this song is as follows:


Laurie is singing through a device invented by the US Government called a vocoder. Without getting overly technical, the voice (or other sound) through a microphone and then into the vocoder; the vocoder extracts the rhythmic utterances minus the sounds themselves. The formants in your mouth also shape the sound it is controlling. The utterances of your vocal cords, together with the “wa-wa” of the formant of how your mouth sounds speaking (we call it “words”), a “trigger” plays any sound making module, and in this case, a no-frills synthesizer.

You’ll notice there is another timbre besides her voice that is a part of the sound: it’s like a harmonic shadow or aura. In this case, when this song is performed live, she stands with a simple keyboard in front of her and two microphones: one attached to the vocoder, one is regular without any effects. (That way she doesn’t have to rely on a technician throwing a switch between the two effects from a mixing console.) She keeps her hand on the keyboard and oscillates largely between 2 chords — easy to do when her energies are better spent on delivering words, melody, attitude, and style.

Laurie is not what you call a virtuosic musician, or at least judging by her output, flashy technique is of no interest to her, her music is very much about the story, embued in beguiling melodies, with simple but unusually refreshing harmonic progressions.

Laurie floats back and forth between two chords: (A flat (IV) and c minor (vi)). Oscillation between these two chords is not common in classical music, and somewhat rare in pop music as well. One chord that is blatantly missing is the dominant (V): the chord progression, I – V – I is at the core of most tonal music throughout the world, but here there is no dominant. No dominant (V) and no secondary dominants (V/V), so through her chordal choices, Anderson, not unlike Erik Satie, is flipping off conventional functional harmony — refusing to bow to the traditionally accepted places chords are expected to go.

These two chords are heard triggered by Laurie’s voice via the vocoder to the synthesizer. Listen very carefully to her “voice” — it is a fusion of her real voice, and the formants in her mouth controlling the sound of the synthesizer. All that is required of her is holding down C and E flat through the whole piece, while her thumb shifts back and forth from the G to the Ab. So simple and so effective.

One other harmonic detail is worth pointing out: we only hear the tonic, E flat major, twice in the song. Both times it is the chord sounding under the title “O Superman.” Besides those two VERY brief appearances, the rest of the piece oscillates back and forth between IV and vi, avoiding completely the tyrany of I and V. The tonic was used like a turkey-baister pregnancy so that Laurie can live happily ever after without needing the tonic: ever. At this point we could argue about what key 99% of the song is in: A flat? or c minor in 2nd inversion? I choose to say that we DON’T modulate, and that we are just hanging, left abandoned, and unable to find our way back home. The coda at the very end is clearly in c minor, but that doesn’t dissuade my attraction to the tonal ambiguity. No one said I ever had to make up my mind… Here is a transcription I did of the opening music. Notice I’ve called her a “tenor” as that is really what the range is, ok, techically a contralto — bit she doesn’t sound like a contralto


Take a listen: this is not your typical pop song as it’s 8:30 long. K Duffy has a snappy analysis of the lyrics if you are interested, otherwise the video and lyrics are below.

O Superman
by Laurie Anderson, from “Big Science” (1981).

O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad.
Hi. I’m not home right now. But if you want to leave a
message, just start talking at the sound of the tone.
Hello? This is your Mother. Are you there? Are you
coming home?
Hello? Is anybody home? Well, you don’t know me,
but I know you.
And I’ve got a message to give to you.
Here come the planes.
So you better get ready. Ready to go. You can come
as you are, but pay as you go. Pay as you go.

And I said: OK. Who is this really? And the voice said:
This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the
hand, the hand that takes.
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom
of night shall stay these couriers from the swift
completion of their appointed rounds.

‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice.
And when justive is gone, there’s always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me,
Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms.
In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
In your electronic arms.

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