As befitting the world’s most famous superhero, there have been hundreds of songs referencing Superman. In fact, it’s more than a little unfair to fans of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Avengers that while their favorites have dominated this millennium’s big-screen box office, the Man of Steel continues to conquer its music charts. With so many songs to choose from, however, how does one select the best? Pure instinct. Music is perhaps the most subjective of all arts, and the following selections, with popularity holding little sway over them (no Five For Fighting or Spin Doctors here, I’m afraid), are bound to inspire controversy. But since it’s no fun arguing in a vacuum, please let me know what your favorite Superman songs are in the comments below. My next theme party needs a playlist!
7) Crash Test Dummies, “Superman’s Song”
DC Comics decided to (temporarily) kill off Superman in the company’s infamous 1992 crossover storyline. A year prior, however, Canadian alt-rockers the Crash Test Dummies recorded a funeral song for Earth’s champion with “Superman’s Song”, the band’s first single, featured on their debut album The Ghosts That Haunt Me. Singer-songwriter Brad Roberts pays tribute in mournful lyrics that contrasts the Last Son of Krypton with the Lord of the Jungle, Tarzan, while marveling that Superman, who could do anything with his powers, instead “never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy.”
It’s easy to dismiss the music of Bonnie Tyler as pure ’80s power-pop cheese. But cheesy or not, “Holding Out for a Hero” packs a punch worthy of Superman. Though he’s only mentioned once, the Man of Steel’s spirit soars through the song’s five minutes, laced with Tyler’s tornado vocals. Written by her “Total Eclipse of the Heart” tunesmith (and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell collaborator) Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford for the latter’s 1984 Footloose soundtrack, it was was made famous via the scene in which Kevin Bacon’s protagonist engages in a chicken fight, fought with tractors no less, against his evil arch-rival. Superman fans could later claim it as their own when “Holding Out for a Hero” was used for the scene in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman‘s pilot in which Dean Cain’s Clark Kent suits up as his alter ego for the first time.
Scottish import Donovan wrote and recorded this Billboard Charts-topping single, released in July of 1966 and a quintessential work of ’60s summer psychedelia. “Sunshine Superman” soon wound up as the title track on the singer-songwriter’s third album. Backed by future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page on electric guitar and John Paul Jones on bass, it not only pays homage to Superman but to his Justice League teammate Green Lantern as well. The song in turn was paid the ultimate homage to any piece of Superman-related music when it inspired comics writer (and fellow Scot) Grant Morrison to create an African-American take on the Man of Steel named Sunshine Superman during his run on DC’s Animal Man. Morrison would go on to write one of the most acclaimed of all Superman comic runs with All-Star Superman.
4) Laurie Anderson, “O Superman (For Massenet)”
Performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson broke into the music biz with her 1981 single “O Superman” (later included on her 1982 debut album Big Science), which makes allusions to the Man of Steel as the ultimate paternal figure, and, for better or for worse, a symbol of the most powerful nation on Earth. Anderson’s trademark spoken word riffs aren’t to everyone’s tastes, and the synthesizer effects may sound dated to some, but there’s an undeniable power to this eight-and-a-half-minute experiment that remains timeless.
Though Superman was created in Cleveland, Ohio (by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster), his fictional home city of Metropolis is said to be based on Chicago, the largest city in the Midwest. Sufjan Stevens paid tribute to both factual and fictional towns in “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”, the twelfth track on his much-acclaimed 2005 album Illinois, fittingly released on the Fourth of July and comprised entirely of songs inspired by the Prairie State. French horns and choruses make for as lush a listening experience as anything on the LP; and Stevens makes full use of the state’s association with Superman’s trademark alloy steel, while touching on his frequent use as a messiah figure. Fun fact: The Big Blue Boy Scout appeared in the album’s original cover art (pictured above) until Stevens’ lawyers requested he be removed, lest they face the wrath of DC Comics.
’60s Texas pop act the Clique is probably best known these days for what was originally a b-side on their 1969 single “Sugar on Sunday” (a cover of the Tommy James’ tune). Breezy, lazy, and cheerful — with more than a hint of the Beatles’ influence — “Superman” perfectly captures the feel-good vibes found in the best Silver Age comic-book stories about the Last Son of Krypton. Fellow southern rockers R.E.M. covered it on their Lifes Rich Pageant LP. Though Michael Stipe apparently wasn’t all too fond of the endeavor (small wonder, since the band doesn’t really add all that much to it), so bassist Mike Mills performed its lead vocals. R.E.M.’s version was used in a third season episode of TV’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (“Tempus, Anyone”?) and is also featured in Glee‘s “Dynamic Duets” episode.
Subtitled “Is It Gettin’ Heavy??” for its U.S. release, the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” is arguably the finest track on the band’s finest album, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. It’s all the things that make the Lips’ music memorable, by turns dreamy and practical, hopeful and melancholic. It speaks to the limitations that even a Man of Steel must face, bringing him one step closer to humanity, and making us love him all the more for it.