Old Things That Are New To Me: ‘O Superman’

We all come to music differently, but it never ceases to amaze me when I discover an artist from an unlikely source. I had been hearing this voice in a television commercial for weeks before I finally decided to check it out. It was just a tiny snippet of a song in some smart phone commercial in frequent rotation during baseball games played on MLB.tv — and if you’ve ever watched live sports on the web, you tend to notice they play the same spots over and over. It has a way of getting inside your head.

That voice was hauntingly cold, filtered through a vocoder, and the robotically looped “ha”‘s sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

Finally I pulled out my phone, fired up the ol Shazam app, expecting to discover it was a brand new synth pop band, who licensed its music for this ad. Maybe it was The Books. Or maybe it was a new song from Imogen Heap, the singer best known for employing a similar vocoder sound on her hit “Hide and Seek.”

Instead, it was an old song: Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet),” a minimalist half-sung, half-spoken word 8-minute single from her 1981 record Big Science.

Needless to say, it was a jolt: Here was this groundbreaking, but not-so-user friendly 30-year-old piece of electronic music — based on the aria “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père” (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera Le Cid — that felt so vibrant and completely of this time. There’s something almost subversive about the ad’s use of this song, especially as the lyrics philosophize about our relationships to technology and on the nature of communication.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit I didn’t know the song, nor Laurie Anderson’s music much at all. I’ve read about her in passing when reading about other artists from the same time, but her exploratory and idiosyncratic music always seemed so daunting. Like so many experimental or challenging artists, it can hard to know where to start, and easy to put off diving in. And yet, here I was connecting to this artist through a phone commercial no less. Still, thanks to that advertisement, I felt encouraged to start addressing a blind spot. That’s sometimes all you can ask for from a commercial.