1. The Flaming Lips, “Waitin’ For A Superman (Is It Gettin’ Heavy?)”
Like any true folk hero, Superman—the last son of Krypton and the world’s most famous spandex-wearing crusader—has had a few songs written about him. Actually, that’s an understatement: Kal-El is a bona fide musical muse, having been referenced in enough tunes to fill up Jerry Seinfeld’s entire iPod. Most of these tracks, which run the gamut from hip-hop anthems to folk ballads to crunchy alt-rock jams, aren’t really about Superman. Instead, they use the Man Of Steel as a metaphor—for the perfect guy, for physical or artistic prowess, etc. The Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ For A Superman,” however, may be the exception. Wedged into the middle of The Soft Bulletin, the band’s 1999 sci-fi concept record, this gorgeous piano-pop gem features lyrics just oblique enough to be taken literally. When Wayne Coyne sings about Supes lifting the sun into the sky, isn’t it possible he’s revealing another plot turn in the album’s quasi-narrative? Maybe the star really was just too heavy for Metropolis’ finest, and those two racing scientists had to “rescue everyone” themselves, per the earlier “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton.” Then again, maybe the song is symbolic, a vague ode to forgiving heroes for cracking under pressure. Either way, it’s one of the best Superman-related works of the ’90s, right up there with that episode of the animated series in which the Man Of Steel has to pretend to be Batman.
2. Crash Test Dummies, “Superman’s Song”
DC’s “The Death Of Superman” storyline from 1992 may have been a gimmick to sell a ton of comic books (which it did), but the idea of a world without the Man Of Steel was potent and worth exploring. Too bad DC wasn’t the first to explore it. One year before scary rock-monster Doomsday beat the crap out of poor Kal-El, Canada’s Crash Test Dummies imagined a super-less world in “Superman’s Song.” The track is something of a eulogy for ol’ Supe, with lead singer Brad Roberts lamenting that the “world will never see another man like him.” More importantly, Roberts uses Superman (and alter-ego Clark Kent) as a paradigm of virtue and selflessness, noting how Superman could have easily “smashed through any bank in the United States,” and how he continued to trudge along with his super-duties even though his planet and family had been blown to smithereens. Strangely, Roberts uses Tarzan as the polar opposite of Superman, depicting him as a lazy, monosyllabic rube who would rather be lounging around in the jungle—“dumb as an ape, doing nothing”—than saving the world. Odd as that Superman/Tarzan dichotomy may be, “Superman’s Song” remains a sad and strangely moving song from Crash Test Dummies, a band that is now simply remembered as “those ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ guys.”
3. Barbra Streisand, “Superman”
A year before Christopher Reeve made audiences believe a man could fly in the first Superman film, Barbra Streisand was donning the iconic S shield on the cover of her 1977 album, Streisand Superman. The opening track is an ode to a man whose love makes the singer feel like the primary-color-clad hero, and songwriter Richie Snyder turns to all of the familiar bird and plane imagery as Streisand sings about flying through the sky when “you touch me with your eyes.” (Apparently Streisand and Snyder’s version of Superman has the extra power of being able to experience physical sensation through vision.) Taking advantage of Streisand’s huge range, each repetition of the chorus pushes the singer higher into her vocal register, mimicking Superman’s flight through the ascension of the notes. By the end of the song, Streisand is soaring with glee despite a lack of alien biology. That’s the power of love.
4. Five For Fighting, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”
A song written, ostensibly, from Superman’s point of view, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” marked Five For Fighting’s big musical breakthrough. The sappy ballad details the Man Of Steel’s struggles with flying (which he can’t stand), his looks (he’s “more than some pretty face beside a train”), and capes (he’s not sold on wearing “a silly red sheet”). All of this might seem trivial were it not for John Ondrasik’s plaintive voice. After all, while being incredibly strong and powerful might seem like a sweet gig, the fact that the song’s Superman has “a home I’ll never see” is pretty heartbreaking.
5. Brian McKnight, “Superhero”
The title track of Brian McKnight’s 1999 album, Back At One, became a fixture at weddings and high-school dances, but the same can’t be said for his 2001 follow-up, Superhero. Maybe that’s because the title song rhymes “Kal-el, son of Jor-el” with “All my secrets, you can never tell.” McKnight’s attempts to incorporate Superman facts into an uptempo R&B ballad are laughably sloppy, epitomized by the third verse: “I can’t see through lead / But I am faster than a speeding bullet / You are all I need to make it / Through this lonely, daily planet.” It’s as if McKnight wrote a bunch of Superman ideas on a piece of paper, drew lines to connect them, and then added a chorus to turn disparate ideas into a song. While McKnight probably isn’t going to pick up many women with “Superhero,” he does get geek cred for using comic-book knowledge to prevent the creation of any actual romance.
6. 3 Doors Down, “Kryptonite”
Like many songs on this list, “Kryptonite,” 3 Doors Down’s breakout single from 2000, uses the Man Of Steel as a basis for comparison with the song’s narrator. Asking, “If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman?,” singer Brad Arnold wonders whether his lover will stick by him through thick and thin, promising to do the same for her “with my superhuman might.” Given the tenor of the song and Arnold’s voice, it’s doubtful that the singer and his lady will actually be able to live up to those superheroic standards. “Kryptonite” is also a bit of a misnomer: While the debris from Kal-El’s home planet is the title and last word of the chorus, it doesn’t mean anything in the song, besides a name-check to the man in the red cape. The plot of the accompanying music video is actually more interesting than Arnold’s love story, following an elderly superhero as he tries to save his next-door neighbor from an abusive pimp.
7. The Spin Doctors, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”
Jimmy Olsen had a thriving career in the comics, serving as Superman’s best pal and an intrepid adventurer in his own right. (Also, there was that time he married a gorilla.) But in most other media, he remains an also-ran, the guy Superman rescues when he’d rather be rescuing his sexy reporter girlfriend. The Spin Doctors’ 1991 single “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” tried a different approach. The song—which gives the band’s first studio album, Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, its name—is told from the redhead’s perspective as he bemoans his doomed affection for Lois Lane. Bad guys have a hard enough time trying to best the Man Of Steel, but this version of Olsen is even more screwed, vying for love against a guy who is basically a god in human form. He pleads his case, using the classic hipster appeal with, “He’s leaping buildings in a single bound / I’m reading Shakespeare in my place downtown,” but it’s clear it’s a lost cause. So he busts out the atom bomb, switching from lovelorn sidekick to outright villain: “Come on down and stay with me tonight / I got a pocket full of Kryptonite.” It’s hard to imagine this alternate-reality version of Olsen lasting too long, but the kid’s got pluck.
8. Eminem, “Superman”
Eminem is typically sensitive in this minor hit from 2002’s The Eminem Show, first telling moaning female singer Dina Rea that he’s “here to rescue you,” before pulling the rug out and claiming he can “leap tall hos in a single bound.” (Doesn’t seem that high, does it?) But eventually Eminem comes around to his point about the Man Of Steel—that he’s not Superman, and he’s not willing to put up with any sort of female trouble at all, really. The song is about Mariah Carey, who’s even mentioned by name, and Eminem missed a huge opportunity by not comparing her to Lois Lane.
9. The Kinks, “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman”
The Kinks’ highest-charting album in the States—1979’s Low Budget, which reached No. 11—also earned them a minor hit single (No. 41), albeit one that required them to dip slightly into the disco realm. Having finally broken away from concept albums and embraced the commercial glories of AOR, either by creative drought or explicit orders from the group’s label, Ray Davies penned a paean of sorts to the Man Of Steel. Davies offers up a narrator who’s a self-described “nine-stone weakling with knobbly knees,” living a life filled with “gas bills, rent bills, tax bills, phone bills.” While he’s decidedly more like Clark Kent without the secret identity, Davies sings of the solace he’d almost certainly find if he’d been born on Krypton and then sent to Earth by his parents to bask in the rays of a yellow sun. Granted, most of it is written between the lines, but it’s inherent in the titular wish as well as his profound desire “to change the world / And save it from the mess it’s in.” Alas, despite Davies’ good intentions, it’s simply not to be: He sighs in the last verse, “I’m too weak, I’m so thin / I’d like to fly, but I can’t even swim.”
10. Soulja Boy, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”
Superman: bird, plane, man… verb? Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” is lyrically spare, but introduces “Superman” as not just the nom de guerre of a beloved superhero, but also as an action… performed… on women. The curious can search Urban Dictionary for the rest of that definition, but “Crank That” marks a low point for the mythos of America’s greatest superhero, even as the song climbed international music charts. What’s most tragic about the song is the way the Man Of Steel’s powers and prowess are reduced to his cape—less than that, the facsimile of a cape, in the form of a tissue or sheet—stuck to the back of an unwilling and non-consenting woman. Is it an expression of power? A practical joke? A subversive effort to give women the powers typically ascribed to Superman? Perhaps it’s even a lyrical reference to the age-old question, “How does Superman have sex with Lois Lane without killing her?” Either way, it’s a totally infectious song with a killer hook that makes no attempt to engage with traditional Superman stories, but rather creates some new, bizarre thing to worry about. For that boldness, it deserves applause.
11. Stereophonics, “Superman”
As the first artists signed to Richard Branson’s V2 label in May 1996, the Welsh band Stereophonics started their U.K. career with a high profile that’s earned them five platinum albums. But U.S. success has been negligible, with its highest-charting effort to date—2005’s Language. Sex. Violence. Other?—only crawling to No. 127 on the Billboard Top 200. The band still pulled four top-20 U.K. singles from the album, however, including the opening track, “Superman.” The song features frontman Kelly Jones seemingly playing the part of an airplane passenger and grousing about another gentleman on the flight, some fellow with a “drunken mouth” and a resemblance to Jesus who can charm anyone despite being a complete cad. Likening the man’s charisma to that of the last son of Krypton, Jones continues the metaphor by noting that, even though the guy is already “sitting next to Lois Lane,” it’s still not good enough for him, and grumbles, “You got that woman, but you want her gone / So you can sleep with a teenage blonde.” He seems unwilling to rationalize that the Kryptonian libido is also enhanced by a yellow sun.
12. The Clique, “Superman” and R.E.M., “Superman”
“Superman” was an early hit for R.E.M., which was a bit surprising considering it doesn’t sound much like the rest of the band’s 1986 masterpiece, Lifes Rich Pageant. Also, it’s a cover, and bassist Mike Mills sings the lead. But it’s an incredibly catchy song—originally performed by a Texas band called The Clique, back in 1969—so it makes sense that those looking for a sunny side of R.E.M. would latch on to it. The lyrics are typical ’60s-pop nothing: The “superman” of this track has super powers only insofar as he can tell the girl he’s lusting after doesn’t actually like the guy she’s with, and that he’s able to track her down from a million miles away. That may just be empty boasting.
13. Sufjan Stevens, “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”
Although Superman was created in Cleveland, his hometown of Metropolis was partially modeled on Chicago. Thus, it made sense that state-friendly singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens would include a track about Clark Kent on his 2005 record, Illinois, and even put a drawing of the superhero on the album’s cover until his label got a little wary about some potential copyright problems. Written as a bit of a love letter to the Man Of Steel, “Man Of Metropolis” finds the song’s narrator mourning the fact that “only a real man can be a lover,” saying that the “steel man” is too troubled to really tame his ways and commit to a long-term relationship. Who could blame him, though? He’s got a planet to save.
14. Above The Law, “Black Superman”
After the breakup of N.W.A. in the early ’90s, Above The Law was the highest profile group on Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. Above The Law’s biggest hit, “Black Superman,” strips away everything from the superhero motif except the idea of the hero as a savior and supporting figure. The track re-imagines Kal-El not as an alien orphan, but as a drug dealer taking care of his single mother. The back half of the song tells the story of the character Black Superman, who started dealing at age 15, taking the risk of jail time in order to avoid the risk of his mother not receiving enough welfare to keep their house. It’s a bleak appropriation of the superhero figure, aimed at the economic system perpetuating black poverty in Los Angeles—though Above The Law originated in the eastern L.A. suburb of Pomona.
15. Taylor Swift, “Superman”
From the deluxe edition of Taylor Swift’s 2010 record, Speak Now, “Superman” finds the then-20-year-old singer assigning superhuman properties to a boyfriend who’s “tall, dark, and beautiful,” “complicated,” “irrational,” and somehow old enough to work somewhere that requires that he “puts papers in a briefcase.” In the song, Swift watches her Superman “fly away” to work, noting that while he’s “got a busy day today” to “save the world,” she’ll “be right here on the ground when you come back down.” Taylor, you’re 20 and waiting for some old guy with a briefcase. Please, get a life.
16. The Game, “Superman”
Not only does The Game claim affinity/oneness with Superman in “Superman,” but he also takes time to diss other superheroes, or at least their alter egos: Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker, he posits, will get their asses laid out. (He talks shit about Soulja Boy, too.) While the song—particularly The Game’s stunted flow—isn’t terribly exciting, the rapper does at least get one great line in: “It’s a bird, it’s a plane / Naw nigga, it’s the motherfuckin’ Game.”
17. T-Pain, “Superman”
It’s no wonder that T-Pain’s “Superman” is available only on a grey-market mixtape, Pr33 Ringz, since it so distinctly samples John Williams’ score from the late-’70s movie. Beyond that, he’s not as obvious as The Game in comparing himself to the Man Of Steel, mixing up his own qualities with Superman’s: “Louis Vuitton kicks / X-ray vision.” (Quick side note for T-Pain: Referring to yourself as “T-Pizzle” does not sound cool.)
18. Lazlo Bane, “Superman”
In Lazlo Bane’s world, we know immediately that Superman is figurative because, instead of flying to work, the protagonist is out the door and cruising on the 405 before 8 a.m., so as not to be late to meet his boss. (This is entirely understandable, however; L.A. traffic is certainly as big a deterrent as Kryptonite.) The narrator is also married—his wife is “working hard… [and] running late tonight again”—harried, and juggling the mundane demands of everyday life. In fact, he sighs that he “can’t do this all on my own.” Rather than an infallible Man Of Steel, he’s an overwhelmed everyman who’s no superhero—not even in his own little corner of the world. Where’s the rest of the Justice League when you need them?
19. Our Lady Peace, “Superman’s Dead”
Four years after “The Death Of Superman” storyline in the DC comics gained international traction, Toronto band Our Lady Peace came around to an unexpected hit that had nothing to do with that storyline. Lead singer Raine Maida watched the George Reeves Adventures Of Superman series and, to him, the song is about kids growing up and being inundated by media telling them how to act and what they need to look like. The lyrics bear that out with body-concept and bullying imagery, although Maida’s metaphor that “the world’s a subway” didn’t make sense then, and it makes even less sense now. Outside of the title and its presumable reference to Reeves, the song became notable for Maida’s increasingly violent scream in the chorus and his screeching falsetto.
20. Johnny “Guitar” Watson, “Superman Lover”
Johnny “Guitar” Watson was so goddamn smooth—not to mention ridiculously proficient with his chosen instrument—that he didn’t really need any superpowers to win over the ladies. The lyrics of 1976’s “Superman Lover” are a bit of Kryptonite: Watson basically interpolates Superman’s various powers into the verses, claiming that he’s “faster than a speeding bullet,” and can “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” The twist: When it comes to getting over you, baby, he can’t get off the ground. Cue the guitar solo.
21. Bonnie Tyler, “Holding Out For A Hero”
Bonnie Tyler’s gravel-tinged voice accentuates her desperation when she belts out, “It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet.” The 1984 Footloose hit, ostensibly about waiting for the perfect man, has been used in at least two Superman TV revivals. In the pilot episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, Clark Kent realizes that if he’s going to be partnered with the best investigative reporter in Metropolis—who also happens to need her life saved quite often—he’d better have a good disguise. Luckily, Martha Kent apparently has a closet full of spandex back in Smallville, and the song scores a scene where she sews up every combination of cape and mask, trying to figure out Supes’ new duds. (She points out that he doesn’t really need a mask after all: “One thing’s for sure… nobody’s going to be looking at your face!”). In “Idol,” a season-nine episode of Smallville, “Holding Out For A Hero” appears as Lois Lane’s ringtone for The Blur. Lois doesn’t know that The Blur is really Superman in further disguise, but she does know that she “can feel his approach / Like the fire in my blood.”
22. The Ides Of March, “Superman”
The ’70s blue-eyed soul group The Ides Of March hit the big time after founding member Jim Peterik decided to stick a horn section on the group’s Vehicle album. The move paid off since the album’s title track became The Ides Of March’s biggest hit single, reaching the second spot on the Billboard charts. The group’s tribute to the guy in the red-and-blue tights started as a bonus track and also got a single release. However, it wasn’t able to leap to the top of the charts in a single bound. “Superman” uses the legendary attributes of the Man Of Steel to convince that special woman that “I’ll be your Superman” and will “give you super lovin’ every chance that I can.” Rather than attempting any deep symbolism or allegorical use of the DC icon, the song crams just about every major reference to the comic-book character into its short lyrics sheet, all belted out over a pulsing pop-funk beat punctuated by Peterik’s game-changing horn section.
23. Matchbox Twenty, “Real World”
Matchbox Twenty’s “Real World” isn’t explicitly about Superman so much as it is about the hassles of everyday life. In the song, a droopy-haired Rob Thomas wonders about what it would be like to be a “rainmaker” before musing aloud about what life would be like as both a superhero and a “head honcho.” As a head honcho, he thinks he could “shout out an order” and have an employee answer his query; as a superhero, he could “fly around downtown” and, since he’s “from some other planet,” “get this funky high on the yellow sun.” Super wordplay!
24. Hank Williams Jr., “Man Of Steel”
The former performer of ABC and ESPN’s Monday Night Football theme song focused more on the “blue” of ol’ Supe’s red, white, and blue persona for one of his more personal and autobiographical songs. Just like the only surviving son of Krypton, Junior had to learn how to say goodbye at a young age; his father, Hank Williams Sr., died at 29. Between having to toughen up at a young age and learn to deal with all the usual lovin’ and leavin’ that women have done to him—as women do to guys in most country songs—Hank’s friends bestow him with the title of “The Man Of Steel” because he “kinda got toughed up and hard and learned not to feel.” The sound is appropriate for a bluer-than-average pop-country tune to punctuate its message about how even the steeliest men can crumble under the heavy burden of hard times.
25. Alanis Morissette, “Superman”
The plucky little girl from You Can’t Do That On Television first tried to make a break for the charts in the early 1990s, in a style much different from her angst-ridden alternative mega-hit album Jagged Little Pill. Her self-titled debut album was her attempt to become the Canadian Debbie Gibson; better suited to the bubblegum ’80s than the gritty ’90s, it included a ditty that called out for a man just like Superman. For Alanis, the ideal guy had to be “fair and treat me properly,” and just like the Man Of Steel, he would have to “understand equality.” Its recycled pop sound may have been popular at the time, but it’s laughable to hear now next to a face-scratching anthem like “You Oughta Know.” That might explain why it’s no longer in print.
26. “O Superman (For Massenet),” Laurie Anderson
Few songs confront Superman’s dual origins as a paragon of American justice and an exemplar of master-race theorizing, but Laurie Anderson’s unlikely pop hit does it, folding in the Tao Te Ching, a 19th-century opera, and the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service for good measure. Anderson starts by riffing on French composer Jules Massenet, subbing Clark Kent’s alter ego for the French “souverain” (sovereign), then shifts to a disembodied answering-machine voice whose rambling message occupies most of the song’s more than eight minutes. Somewhere along the way, the sky is filled with planes, apparently ready to drop bombs on unsuspecting targets at a moment’s notice. (“Smoking or non-smoking?” Anderson coyly asks.) The chipper chauvinism of Anderson’s reference to “American planes, made in America” gives way to a deteriorating litany of moral authority: “When love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force.” Being affected by “neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night,” like the post office, sounds less like a promise than an ominous threat, darkly evoking the notion that being “faster than a speeding bullet” is only a good thing when you know where that bullet’s going.