Who better to explain the enduring influence of Superman than the man himself, or at least his most iconic portrayer, Christopher Reeve? He spoke about the superhero's significance in 2003:
"I think he is an essential part of our culture and our mythology. He is a friend, and he is an unassuming hero, and I also think the fact that he is both awkward and a shy newspaper reporter makes him like everybody else. And yet he has another identity, this larger-than-life superhero. Sometimes we feel like Clark Kent, and sometimes, if we are lucky, we feel like Superman."
It was a few decades before songwriters started using Superman as an expression of our humanity; the Brill building writers stayed away from the topic either because the metaphor was too complex, or because of copyright issues - if a song is about Superman, you could be on the hook (Chuck Berry had to fork over royalties for "Run Rudolph Run" since he didn't own the rights to the magical reindeer).
As the character developed through movies and TV shows, Superman became more complex and more like us. Famous musicians often felt like both Clark Kent and Superman, and they started writing songs about it. Some, like Five for Fighting, walk a precarious line between being hero and human, while others, like R.E.M., unabashedly shout their greatness from the rooftops. Some realize they can't be heroes at all.
In one way or another, they're all searching for Superman.
"Superman (It's Not Easy)" - Five for Fighting
2001It wasn't luck that propelled Five For Fighting's "Superman (It's Not Easy)" to the top of the charts in 2001; it was tragedy. John Ondrasik, the man behind Five for Fighting, had no way of knowing how poignant his song would be on the morning of September 11th, when terrorists struck the United States with attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. Average men and women realized they had the capacity to be heroes, and no, it wasn't easy. It's hard to be a hero with a human heart, especially when it's broken.
Told from Superman's point-of-view, "Superman (It's Not Easy)" is a weary ballad of a man who is both hero and human:
I'm only a man in a funny red sheet
And it's not easy to be me
He starts "digging for Kryptonite on this one way street," to relinquish his powers and become normal, because even "heroes have the right to bleed."
Ondrasik performed the song at the Concert for New York City, a benefit orchestrated by Paul McCartney in response to the terror attacks.
"It was an incredible experience," said Ondrasik. "I was sitting at a piano in Madison Square Garden playing my song, which seemed to provide solace to the emergency workers and their families. Halfway through, seeing these burly firefighters with tears falling down their faces – it was the most important thing I'll ever do musically," he told Songwriter Universe.
The experience was also humbling for the singer.
"I've learned 10 years later that it's pretty damn easy to be me. I could never write that song now," he confessed.
"Kryptonite" - 3 Doors Down
20003 Doors Down lead singer Brad Arnold excelled in Math class when he was a teenager, except for the Math part. While other students were learning about algebraic functions, he was tapping out a "skippy little drum beat" on his desk. It would become "Kryptonite," the first major hit for 3 Doors Down.
For a song containing such an overt reference to Superman, "Kryptonite" is surprisingly not about the hero at all, according to Arnold.
"That song is so little about Superman... that's just something that everybody can identify with," he said in our 2009 interview.
The core of "Kryptonite" is the nature of true friendship. Even at 15 years old, before fame would make it even harder to discern genuine loyalty, Arnold was grappling with the idea as he wrote:
If I go crazy then will you still call me Superman
If I'm alive and well, will you be there a-holding my hand
He isn't just wondering if his friend will stand by him in the hard times, but also in the good times where jealousy can creep in like a choking weed.
"Because it's easy to be there for someone when they're down. But it's not always easy to be there for somebody when they're doing good," he explains.
Still, it's easy to see how Superman could entertain similar thoughts. If kryptonite rendered him weak and helpless, would his friends give him strength? Would their words of praise quickly turn to scorn?
"Superman" by Eminem
2003To the above question posed by 3 Doors Down, Eminem would say yes - or a version of 'yes' laced with profanity and threats - people (especially women) will string you up by your cape when you're no longer useful to them. With this in mind, the rapper refuses to be anybody's hero in his "Superman."
In 2002, Eminem divorced Kim Mathers and subsequently released his acclaimed album, The Eminem Show. The failed marriage "fuels the slow Southern bounce of the hyper misogynist 'Superman,'" Rolling Stone noted.
The song is an open letter to all of the gold-diggers clamoring to get a piece of the newly-unfettered rap star and his fortune. Eminem, however, never lets a good "ho" go to waste (he can "leap tall hos in a single bound!"), so he decides to turn the tables and use them first:
You know you want me baby, you know I want you too
They call me Superman, I'm here to rescue you
If the tangle of black-thonged bodies surrounding the rapper in the music video is any indication, then the line works every time. Don't be fooled; he's not trapped. He raps:
I'd never let another chick bring me down, in a relationship
Save it bitch, babysit, you make me sick
Superman ain't savin' shit
It's not enough for Eminem to fight; he has to win.
"So many people judge me that I have to throw it back at everybody. I'm not going to let anybody get the last word. I have to outsmart everyone or I lose," he told Vh1.
The last words to his "hos"? I can't be your Superman.
"Superman" by Taylor Swift
2010Eminem can't be your Superman, but John Mayer can... or so Taylor Swift mistakenly thought.
Swift, born in 1989, was about negative 11 years old when the comic book hero made his big-screen debut in 1978. But with her song "Superman," she proves she can relate to Lois Lane, who fell in love with the Man of Steel but could never seem to hold onto him long enough before his red cape went flapping in the breeze.
Swift explained the back-story to a Kansas City audience in 2011 before giving her first live performance of the song.
"This is about, well, a guy, as usual. This was a guy that I was sort of enamored with. This song got its title by something that I just said randomly in conversation. [When] he walked out of the room, I turned to one of my friends and said, 'It's like watching Superman fly away."
That utterance inspired the simple chorus to the acoustic-driven song.
I watch Superman fly away
Come back I'll be with you someday
I'll be right here on the ground
When you come back down
So, who is this Superman Taylor Swift is "sort of enamored with"? John Mayer, who dated Swift from 2009-2010, seems to fit the bill, or the cape, according to the lyrics:
Tall, dark and beautiful
He's complicated, he's irrational
But I hope someday you'll take me away and save the day, yeah
Something in his deep brown eyes has me sayin'
He's not all bad like his reputation
And I can't hear one single word they say
Bad reputation, indeed. Mayer had already left a trail of broken hearts and nasty tweets in his wake before he met Swift. Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston were two of the most famous women seen dangling from the singer's arm in the early 2000s. But, like the song says, Swift couldn't "hear one single word" anyone said against him. She should have listened harder (or read his Playboy interview where Jessica Simpson = "Sexual Napalm").
Maybe that's why "Superman" was bumped from Speak Now and relegated to a special deluxe edition of the album... and could only be purchased at Target. Instead, Mayer was left with "Dear John."
It was wrong. Don't you think nineteen's too young to be played by your dark, twisted games when I loved you so.
"Sunshine Superman" by Donovan
1966The 1960s was an era vibrant with sunshine, not caused by any weather phenomenon but by an abundance of LSD. "Sunshine" was one of many nicknames for the drug, whose trippy effects inspired a new wave of innovative music: psychedelic rock. Among the forerunners of the genre, which included The Beatles and The Beach Boys, was Scottish singer Donovan.
In 1966, he released the hit song "Sunshine Superman," and made some pretty bold claims regarding the Man of Steel.
"Superman or Green Lantern ain't got a-nothin' on me," he sang.
So what was so special about Donovan? Was he more powerful than a locomotive? Could he leap tall buildings in a single bound? Did he know Lois Lane wore pink panties?
In a word: no. But he had something to prove.
Donovan wrote "Sunshine Superman" after being dumped by then-girlfriend (and future wife) Linda Lawrence. The title implies that Donovan gains his super powers from LSD, but in the first lines of the song, he explains how he's going to change his ways. He's turned away from "sunshine."
Sunshine came softly through my a-window today
Could've tripped out easy a-but I've a-changed my ways
Linda was no stranger to the highs and lows of the Swinging Sixties scene. In 1964, she dated the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, whose self-destructive path led him to his death by the end of the decade.
She probably expected, even feared, much of the same from Donovan. He had to prove that he was better than Jones. Better than Superman, even. He's pretty cocky about it, too:
You're gonna be mine, I know it, we'll do it in style
'Cause I made my mind up you're going to be mine
But a subtle lyrical shift at the end of the song lets us know that the choice is really Linda's.
When you've made your mind up forever to be mine
I'll pick up your hand
Linda finally did make up her mind in 1970 when she and Donovan were married. In 2011, they celebrated their anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall where the singer, along with the London Contemporary Orchestra, performed the entire Sunshine Superman album at Linda's request.
"Black Superman" by Johnny Wakelin and the Kinshasa Band
1975You can argue all you want about who would win in a fight between Muhammad Ali and Superman - the answer will always be Muhammad Ali, at least until DC Comics stages a re-match.
DC Comics published the comic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali in 1978, where the boxer creamed the superhero in the ring, surrounded by a throng of cheering celebrities. In all fairness to Superman, his powers were deactivated before the fight.
It was a different match, however, that inspired the British musician Johnny Wakelin to pen his signature song, "Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)."
It was October 30, 1974. Kinshasa, Zaire, set the stage for "The Rumble in the Jungle," where Ali faced off against the reigning champion of the boxing arena, George Foreman. No one thought he had a chance.
Meanwhile, Wakelin was looking for inspiration to write something, anything that would guarantee a hit. He found it when Ali shocked the world and knocked Foreman out in the 8th round, and reclaimed his title as the heavyweight champion. Thanks to Wakelin, he gained another title: "Black Superman." The lyrics made it clear that no one, not even Superman himself, could surpass Ali.
He says "I'm the greatest the world's ever seen
The heavyweight champion who came back again
My face is so pretty you don't see a scar
Which proves I'm the king of the ring by far"
And that other Superman? They call him the White Muhammad Ali.
"Superman" by R.E.M.
1986While Clark Kent was growing up out in the farmlands of Smallville, he wanted more than anything to use his powers, but his adoptive father warned him about showing off.
"Is it showing off if somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?" Clark asked.
R.E.M.'s "Superman" is not intentionally about Clark's boyhood, but it captures the enthusiasm he felt when he was finally able to wriggle into those blue tights, strap on those red boots and throw that red cape over his shoulders. In the song's triumphant and insanely catchy chorus, Clark Kent becomes Superman for the first time (and so does anyone who sings along, usually at the top of their lungs after a few drinks).
I am I am I am Superman and I know what's happening
I am I am I am Superman and I can do anything
That can-do attitude includes looking into your very soul, which is useful for a growing superhero looking to pick up girls:
You don't really love that guy you make it with now do you?
I know you don't love that guy cause I can see right through you
Not to mention a little stalker-ish, but surely that activity is frowned upon within the Justice League:
If you go a million miles away I'll track you down girl
Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart
"Superman" was originally released by a Texas group called The Clique in 1969 and covered by R.E.M. on their 1986 album, Life's Rich Pageant. Bassist Mike Mills was able to do a little showing off himself. "Superman" was the first song to feature his soaring lead vocals.
"Superman" by Snoop Dogg, featuring Willie Nelson
2011As R.E.M.'s hypnotic "I am Superman" chant finally began to fade in the new millennium, we suddenly realized a few things: No, they can't do anything. Yeah, she probably really does love that guy she makes it with, and they can't really track her for a million miles - more like ten before they would lose interest (or before she got a restraining order).
Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg aren't afraid to admit the truth. In their song "Superman," which debuted on Snoop Dogg's Doggumentary album (2011), the seemingly incongruous duo of country singer and rapper prove they have something, other than a penchant for marijuana, in common: "I'm not Superman," they sing.
Both men have pushed themselves beyond their limits and are paying the consequences. They toss their troubles back and forth until they reach a humbling conclusion.
Too many pain pills, too much pot
Trying to be something that I'm not
I blew my throat and I blew my tour
I wound up sipping on soup d' jour
Their message is clear:
I'm trying to do more than I can. I got a little outta hand
I wasn't Superman
"Superman's Dead" by Our Lady Peace
1996Superman: "I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way."
Beavis: "I am the great Cornholio. I need T.P. for my bunghole."
If spastic morons like Beavis and Butthead were the heroes of the '90s generation, no wonder Our Lady Peace thought Superman was dead. The band released the hit song "Superman's Dead" on their second album, Clumsy.
"I grew up with the old Superman, the black-and-white one. There was something so honest about it, and it's evolved into Beavis and Butthead," Our Lady Peace's frontman Raine Maida told the Winnipeg Press.
Former B-movie actor George Reeves first brought the Man of Steel to the small screen in 1952 with The Adventures of Superman. "He was a real hero, good values, strong willed... a gentleman," Maida remembered.
While writing "Superman's Dead," he wasn't only concerned about the lack of reliable modern heroes, but the overwhelming influence of the media on young minds and the push to conform.
Do you worry that you're not liked
How long till you break?
Emulating Superman meant being kind to others and lending a helping hand, not buying Clark Kent's signature glasses or mimicking Superman's slicked-back hairstyle. Superman represented a moral code, not a dress code. Sure, a kid might have tied a red towel around his neck as a makeshift cape (how else could he fly?), but today's kids don't do makeshift. They're encouraged to value style over substance, to fit in or be thrown out.
An ordinary girl an ordinary waist
But ordinary's just not good enough today
"[Superman] was also a real hero, good values, strong willed, a gentleman, but I think Beavis And Butthead wins today," Maida said.
But "today" was 1997. Maybe Our Lady Peace found a glimmer of hope when, over a decade later, superheroes rose again from the comic book pages and onto the big screen with Batman Begins, Spider-Man, Iron Man and even Superman - but probably not.
In 2011, Cornholio came back, too.
"Superman's Song" by The Crash Test Dummies
1991Our Lady Peace was a bit late to the funeral when they declared "Superman's Dead" in 1997. Six years late to be exact. The Crash Test Dummies burst onto the charts in 1991 with "Superman's Song," a eulogy to the fallen hero. (The song appears on the aptly-titled Ghosts That Haunt Me album.)
With his slow-burning bass-baritone, lead singer Brad Roberts reminds us Superman didn't have to save the world; he chose to, and it was a thankless job.
Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
How tired Superman must have felt fighting endless crime on the dirty city streets of a planet that wasn't even his own. Maybe he was even "tempted to just quit and turn his back on man," but he always chose to stay and fight the good fight.
But if Superman is dead, who's left to save the world?
Just hope it's not Tarzan, whom the Crash Test Dummies regard as a selfish "hero," who sits around the "Junglescape, dumb as an ape doing nothing."
He doesn't even have the decency to show up for Superman's funeral or to lend a mighty arm as a pallbearer in the "Superman's Song" music video. Instead we're left with a ragged group of heroes, looking less-than-super, weeping over their lost companion. The sight isn't lost on Brad Roberts:
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him
"Superman (Scrubs theme)" by Lazlo Bane
2000Lazlo Bane may inadvertently share half their name with a Batman supervillain, but the Boston-born alt-rock band's claim to fame involves an entirely different superhero: "Superman." Well, kind of. Unlike our trusty Man of Tomorrow - who has little difficulty balancing his double life as a mild-mannered reporter and the foremost protector of "truth, justice, and the American way" - Lazlo Bane admit the hectic demands of everyday life are too much for a bunch of regular guys. Frontman Chad Fischer sings:
Well, I know what I've been told
You gotta work to feed the soul
But I can't do this all on my own
No, I know, I'm no Superman
The song first showed up on the soundtrack to the 2000 movie The Tao Of Steve but is best known as the theme song to Scrubs, a medical comedy-drama that follows the lives of daydream-prone interns at Sacred Heart Hospital. Series star Zach Braff heard Lazlo Bane's CD at a party and was struck by "Superman."
He told The Boston Globe: "I finally heard the lyric: 'I can't do it all on my own, I'm no Superman,' which is so appropriate to these young doctors. Everyone thinks they're superheroes but they're not. They're just people. It was so perfect, it was almost like they wrote it for the show."
The song also appeared on Lazlo Bane's second studio album, All The Time In The World, in 2002.
Some other uses of Superman in song:"Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang (1979)
He's a fairy, I do suppose
flyin' through the air in pantyhose
The Gang was assembled by producer/rap impressario Sylvia Robinson (the same Sylvia who sang on the '50s hit "Love Is Strange"), and one of the rappers she found was a bouncer who went by "Big Bank Hank." He lifted the Superman rhyme from Grandmaster Caz, who was in a crew called the Cold Crush. Listen to Hank's rap and you'll hear him say, "I'm the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, and the rest is F-L-Y" - he's spelling out Caz' nickname, Casanova Fly.
"Jam On It" by Newcleus (1984)
Superman had come to town to see who he could rock.
He blew away every crew he faced until he reached the block
This track by the Brooklyn electro-rappers placed Superman in the "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" context, dropping by for a battle with speakers three stories tall. After he rocks his set, Newcleus counters with "Disco Kryptonite," winning the battle and earning praise from the Man of Steel, who concedes: "You rock so naturally."
"Jam On It" appeared five years after "Rapper's Delight," but Cozmo D of Newcleus had been using his version at Brooklyn block parties for years before putting it on wax. "Everybody had a Superman rhyme," he told Songfacts. "But I had the BEST superman rhyme."
"You Don't Mess Around With Jim" by Jim Croce (1972)
You don't tug on Superman's cape... And you don't mess around with Jim
These days, we know that Superman can control his temper, but in 1972 he was Jim Croce's example of a guy you don't want to mess with. The "Jim" in this song is not Croce, but a scary dude named Big Jim Walker who Croce ran into in Philly. Croce was not an intimidating guy: he joined the National Guard so he could stay out of Vietnam, and was such a lousy soldier that he had to repeat basic training.
May 8, 2012, updated March 22, 2021
Here's our list of songs with superheroes in the title
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