Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, then and now

I visited the excellent exhibition of postmodernism (as opposed to a postmodernist exhibition, which could mean something entirely different) at the V&A recently. One of the most striking moments in a gallery full of amazing work was Laurie Anderson performing ‘O Superman’ on an enormous video wall.

I remembered this song from when I was younger (I was surprised to learn it reached number 2 in the UK pop charts in 1981) . It’s unforgettable; but I hadn’t really paid attention to its meaning. I had been mesmerised by the sound and Anderson’s voice. It seemed like a lullaby almost and entirely new to my ears. But something more sinister was being sung, something I was shocked to discover listening again 30 years later in the gallery. Here are the lyrics from the section of the song in the excerpt above:

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 arms. In your electronic arms.

The idea of ‘mom’ has become something chilling and sinister by the end of the song, a source of safety and security inverted to suggest instead the military power and industrial might of the unnatural and dangerous contemporary world (more specifically, it’s more likely to refer to a modern America, which is the title of the performance piece in which ‘O Superman’ originally appears). I wonder if, all those years ago, it left its mark on me somehow, alongside films like ‘When the Wind Blows’, the ‘disaster’ novels of JG Ballard, and my growing awareness of the world’s troubles? In any case, it’s an amazing song with disturbing lyrics, and which says something as powerful now as when it was first written – although little did I know it then.

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