[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

March 2008

Superman's Song
by Brad Roberts

Tarzan wasn’t a ladies’ man
He’d just come along and scoop ‘em up under
   his arm
Like that, quick as a cat in the jungle
But Clark Kent, now there was a real gent
He would not be caught sittin’ around in no
Junglescape, dumb as an ape doing nothing

Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never
Another man like him

Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job
Even though he could have smashed through
   any bank
In the United States, he had the strength, but
   he would not
Folks said his family were all dead
Their planet crumbled but Superman, he
   forced himself
To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going


Tarzan was king of the jungle and Lord over all
   the apes
But he could hardly string together four words:
   "I Tarzan, You Jane."

Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I’ll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn
   his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on
   changing clothes
In dirty old phonebooths till his work was
And nothing to do but go on home


Repeat last couplet of refrain.

Intriguing Tribute to the Man of Steel: "Superman’s Song" by Brad Roberts

Crash Test Dummies is not on everyone’s short list of favorite bands. But it’s on the list of Grammy Award-winning bands. And its songs are more interesting than most pop hits. The best songs rarely get much airplay and can take a while to become known -- that’s the way the marketplace works. So it’s hard to know which of the thousands of songs that find any audience at all will stand the test of time. I’ll make a case for "Superman’s Song" by Crash Test Dummies songwriter Brad Roberts. Its unique-but-simple blend of lyrics, melody, harmony & tempo and its much larger message than initially meets the ear give it the ineffable impact of a classic, as I hear it.

Complex character

The singer-persona of this deceptively simple tune is immediately intriguing. He praises Superman’s altruism by pointing out in the thrice-sung refrain that he "never made any money / For saving the world from Solomon Grundy," an arch-criminal threat to humanity who nearly destroys Superman. And with Clark Kent, Superman’s famous "mild-mannered reporter" cover, "a real gent" according to the first verse, he contrasts Tarzan, who "wasn’t a ladies’ man." Superman wasn’t (the song’s use of the past tense is of interest) greedy or self-serving -- "could have crashed through any bank / In the United States … but he would not." He even "forced himself / To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going" after losing his entire family when "[t]heir planet crumbled."

The singer doesn’t explicitly specify why he considers Superman’s character so important or why he finds it useful to compare Superman with Tarzan. Why not with other modern fictional superheroes? Why not with actual human heroes, or with anyone who might be admired for any reason? As if illustrating the maxim, When Peter talks about Paul we learn about Peter, the song’s details, all taken together, plus its loose ends tell us a lot about the singer and in doing so indicate how superheroes operate in the human imagination.

Superman and Tarzan dead?!

Standard practice is to speak or write of fictional characters in the present tense, the literary present. Regardless of their fate in story, the works in which they "live" and sometimes "die" continue to exist, so the characters do, too. But the character who sings Roberts’s song describes Superman and Tarzan in the past tense, as if he thinks of them as having died or in some way having ceased to exist. Or he might not know about the literary present. And if he doesn’t, perhaps it is because he doesn’t fully comprehend Superman and Tarzan -- and fictional characters generally -- as imaginary, as not existing in the actual world but only in story. Maybe the singer-persona is a fictional representation of someone who conflates fiction with real life. Certainly it isn't Roberts merely expressing his personal thoughts.

For much of humanity, Superman exists today as a fictional character just as he did when the comic book versions of his story were first published, when the black & white TV series appeared in the 1950s, when the color movies came out many years later, when the color TV show appeared years after the movies. The Superman story can still be experienced in all of these forms, and in any event, he is a fictional character, so the literary present is the technically appropriate way to speak of him. So it is particularly striking that Superman has apparently ceased to exist in the singer’s mind. This suggests that the name "Superman’s Song" makes it not only a tribute but a sort of eulogy. That is consistent with its sounding much like a dirge -- in tune, tempo, somber cello line, and in some other respects. But a eulogy for whom exactly, or for what?

Who "was" he in the first place?

Superman plots follow a familiar and predictable formula: Bad guys plan sinister crime; plan becomes known to a few characters -- including reporter Clark Kent so there’s a way Superman can know he’s needed -- and to the audience; Superman halts the crime and turns the villains over to police without revealing his identity as Clark Kent. Little mystery, suspense, or complexity is involved: Except for the criminals, all concerned want the same thing. Superman comes to the rescue in the nick of time, once again melting the heart of Lois Lane, provoking the envy of Jimmy Olson, and awing everyone else, including the audience.

Affirming that order is restored and "Metropolis" continues functioning as always, the editor Mr. White (his name suggesting the dominant order) tells everyone to get back to work. Superman so thoroughly neutralizes the threat to normalcy that it isn’t even appropriate for Kent, Lane, and Olson to continue thinking or talking about what has transpired. Intermittently, it begins to dawn on Olson that Kent could be Superman, but he suppresses his hunch and goes along with the status quo.

Superman maintains his stature as "the man of steel" not only through his amazing feats but also by keeping his feelings and personality, and hence any possible human-like weaknesses, unknown to those around him and to the audience -- Kent and Superman never reveal themselves as one and the same. To maintain the deception, Kent, believed an Earth-born human being by those among whom he lives and works, must suppress his true nature, too. He expresses little, if any, emotion -- no relief at having prevented a calamity, no lust for Lois, no contempt for weak humans he rescues, not much indignation at evildoers he busts, just cursory platitudes about crime’s not paying and learning one’s lesson.

Google Superman and you’ll probably find reams of sociological and psychological material on Superman’s catching on so intensely with the Boomer generation because it offered positive explanations of fathers who in World War II and Korea performed heroic feats saving the world from evil enemies but at home in subsequent years were emotionally empty, suppressing post-traumatic stress disorder or hiding the fact that mundane lives among loved ones and friends could not compare with the intensity of their military experience. To very young kids, they must have seemed somewhat alien, as if from another planet. And it must have been reassuring to know they would always come to the rescue even if they seemed unengaged most of the time.

Singer has other ideas

Superman is thought of very differently by the singer of "Superman’s Song," who treats the "man of steel" as if he were a real human being rather than a fictional character -- Tarzan, too. Though he "had" the physical capability to crash through walls and rob banks and in that way was the "man of steel," the singer departs from the myth by attributing to Superman ordinary human emotions. Since they are not concerns of the actual Superman -- the Superman of myth and fiction -- the singer must be projecting his own concerns onto Superman. Otherwise, the details would be entirely arbitrary, fit no particular pattern, have no particular significance -- the song would be incoherent. It isn’t, though: Each time we hear the refrain, it seems an appropriate comment on the details provided in the verses. Then what are the singer’s concerns, and how does he express them via Superman and Tarzan?

Well, he has a typical young American male’s interest in getting a girlfriend. Why else would he start by faulting Tarzan for "scoop[ing] ‘em up under his arm / Like that, quick as a cat in the jungle"? The singer has obviously learned you’re not supposed to just grab a girl, you’re supposed to be polite. Hence "But Clark Kent, now there was a real gent …." But wait! Is he singing about Superman or Clark Kent? Everyone knows they’re one and the same. But as compared with Kent who interacts with Lois and other characters regularly, Superman only does so for a few seconds, on special occasions. Entering the picture to bust the crime and restore the status quo, he quickly exits, retrieves his clothes, and shows up where Kent is expected so no one will suspect his identity.

Part of the song’s humor is in the singer’s knowing, on the one hand, that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same in the fictional story, but, on the other hand, appearing not to know that the story itself is fiction -- that neither Kent nor Superman is a real human being. In ostensibly telling us about Superman, he doesn’t appear to know he’s actually telling us about himself. And what he tells us is both funny and touching -- hence the song’s pathos.

Men think of only one thing

Rather than describe Clark Kent’s way with women -- where his initial thought seems to be leading -- he tells us Kent "would not be caught sittin’ around in no / Junglescape, dumb as an ape doing nothing." But wait: He’s again confusing art and reality: A junglescape is a picture of a jungle, not an actual jungle. Yet he’s described Tarzan as an actual person in an actual jungle. Is the singer signaling to us that he knows he’s inventing his own versions of both characters? He implies Clark Kent’s penchant for the city not only makes him more likely to be "a ladies’ man" than Tarzan -- though he provides no evidence -- and that he’s superior to apes in the jungle whom he describes as "dumb." Since apes are both intelligent and communicative, the singer either doesn’t know this or has a personal need to see them otherwise.

Could it be the singer has trouble meeting women and would much rather the reason be that he’s intelligent and sophisticated like Clark Kent/Superman rather than "dumb" like Tarzan and his nonhuman (subhuman in his mind) pals? Is it too far fetched to suggest that he might have come of age jealous that "dumb jocks" got the girls, wanting to see himself as superior to them and more deserving of girls, and now, as a young adult, he works in an office and feels encouraged by fancying himself a Clark Kent rather than a Tarzan? Isn’t that why he says in verse 2 that "Supe had a straight job"? Lois Lane is somewhat keen on both Kent and Superman in Superman, though more bedazzled by Superman. To the extent that our singer might be a Kent hiding a Superman within, maybe he has a chance.

Our next superhero?

Maybe that’s why he uses "Supe" when telling "Bob" -- the audience or anyone the singer might imagine sharing his musings with -- that Superman "had a straight job." Everyone in the singer’s culture already knows that, so he isn’t asserting it to inform but as context for his observation that Superman could easily have robbed banks but chose not to. Does he, the singer, think of himself as not yet having revealed some larger-than-life quality of his own? See how ordinary Superman seemed in his workaday disguise? How do you know I’m not extraordinary, too? Maybe pretending he’s on familiar terms with Superman helps him convince himself. Completing his conflation of fantasy with reality, he denies his own reality by portraying himself as knowing "Supe" personally.

In the bridge, the singer again invokes Tarzan as Superman’s antithesis, saying even he who rules over everyone else in his milieu might be stupid -- barely able to string a few words together. Perhaps feeling inferior to others who not only have girlfriends but also have achieved more than he has, the singer finds it important to let us know his alter ego, Clark Kent, the "mild-mannered reporter" whose superhuman nature isn’t known to anyone around him, might be much brighter than his boss and maybe brighter than any of the other "apes" in the singer’s life.

All of this gives the refrain special resonance. In never making any money for his superhuman deeds, Superman is altruistic. But to the singer that may not be the only significance. Maybe he isn’t making as much money as he would like. And what better proof that this makes him larger than life rather than just another insecure average guy! Likewise, in despairing that "the world will never see / Another man like him," the singer laments what he tries to resist by indulging the thoughts articulated in the song: that he himself is not the superhero he’s been pretending to himself he is in order to salve past wounds to his ego and soothe his insecurities. That's why the loss of Superman doesn’t launch him on a list of threats liable to overcome humanity with Superman gone. The real-fictional Superman lives forever; it’s the singer’s inner Superman that requires the past tense.

Or just singing the blues?

The final verse gives the strongest clues to the singer’s thoughts and feelings that he reveals through his ruminations on Superman and Tarzan. He conjectures that "Supe" probably sometimes wanted to give up on humanity and "join Tarzan in the forest" -- seeing so much evil when "stopping crimes." The "real" Superman is usually pretty peppy, not pessimistic about our species. But as already mentioned, we simply don’t know his inner thoughts. So it’s transparent that the singer fantasizes abandoning his uninspiring existence for something exciting but would feel like he was admitting failure if he didn’t project the wish onto someone else. Much better that a superhero should share his feelings than someone ordinary.

And why "forest" when "jungle," used earlier, is the accurate term for Tarzan’s habitat? No doubt, as an American, the singer lives not terribly far from a forest into which he can imagine himself disappearing. Who’d want to be all alone, though? More pleasant to imagine finding Tarzan there. The two of them could lord it "over all the apes" together.

The final, tawdry image of Superman’s existence -- "changing clothes / In dirty old phonebooths" must mirror how the singer feels about his daily grind, since the changing-clothes part of the actual-fictional Superman’s life is not particularly dirty. That is consistent with the singer’s claim that Superman "did" that "till his work was through" even though when Superman once again does it, it occupies only a few moments of an exciting episode in which Superman comes into his own. The singer might experience long dreary days at work, but Superman doesn’t. "And nothing to do but go on home"? Sounds like the singer lacks friends to go out drinking with -- or even bowling or TV-watching?

Is it a ditty, is it a song -- it’s a masterpiece!

A significant part of this unusual song’s impact comes from putting forward Superman as the topic but making its actual topic the singer’s inner life. Whose song is it? The name says it’s Superman’s, but Superman doesn’t sing it and will never hear it. Unless the name refers to the "Superman" the singer is in his own mind -- the one to whom the song serves as a eulogy. The paradox generated by the song’s multiple ironies is that, although Superman makes a fine myth that captures the imagination of multiple generations, the contours of one ordinary man’s mental improvisation on the theme is more interesting than the various Superman plots, which, though dramatic, are less complex.

Not thinking through the fictional reality that "the man of steel" only exists to protect good humans against evil ones and isn’t subject to normal human desires and foibles, Roberts’s fictional singer invents a scenario in which his own shortcomings arise from his at least not being dumb as an ape in the jungle -- so he can feel less bad about himself and less pessimistic about his prospects. He doesn’t save the world, but he isn’t hurting anyone, he’s just trying to make it through a perplexing modern existence that, after all, isn’t the natural one in which humans evolved -- that would be the one Tarzan managed to find, tweaking the jungle into savannah.

What an amazing gem of a song, accomplishing so much through a few verses, a refrain, and a two-line bridge! This ability to weave insight and songwriting together into such a tight, appealing work is almost superhuman! What planet is this guy from?!

...David J. Cantor

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