“Truth, justice and the American way!”
That’s Superman’s whole deal, right? He’s supposed to be a bright, sunny and most of all hopeful character. Yet it seems like nearly every song written about him is depressing, which is downright perplexing. Take, for example, the Scrubs theme song, “I’m No Superman” by Lazlo Bane, about a dude who’s totally overwhelmed by his life. “I can’t do this on my own, I’m no Superman,” laments the refrain.
Or how about “Superman’s Song” by the Crash Test Dummies, in which singer Brad Roberts begs us to consider the tragically selfless life of the Man of Steel: “Sometimes, when Supes was stopping crimes, I’ll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back on man … but he stayed in the city, kept on changing clothes in dirty old phone booths till his work was through, nothing to do but go on home…” It is not, shall we say, upbeat.
There are dozens more, running the gamut from slightly pathetic gimme a break, I’m not Superman, jeez (Five for Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”) to near-suicidal I’m not the strong person I thought I was (Pouya’s “Superman Is Dead”) to, well, whatever the fuck weird thing Eminem was trying to say about his sex life.
Now, admittedly, there are upbeat Superman songs, too: R.E.M.’s “Superman,” Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” and Tarrus Riley’s “Superman” come to mind. There are also at least a few other songs besides Enimem’s about how good Superman is at fucking, like Monica’s “Superman,” Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Superman Lover” and much of Redman’s later “Supaman Luva” series. And then there’s, um, this?
But that doesn’t change the fact that most of the more memorable songs make you want the planet to explode underneath you. If you listen to these songs, they generally deal with one of two depressing subjects: 1) what it’s like to see the world from Superman’s lonely perspective; or 2) shouldering too much responsibility, i.e., feeling like they have to be Superman for everyone else.
The latter are by far the most common — everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about not feeling good enough. “When I wrote ‘Superman (It’s Not Easy),’ I was face-first into the wall of rejection that is the music business,” Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik tells me. “I had a deep desire to be heard but was struggling, like so many singer/songwriters. Perhaps that’s where the, ‘It’s not easy to be me’ came from.” As far as why Superman specifically, Ondrasik explains, “Superman is a unique and easy symbol to metaphorize,” a universal reference point (which explains why there are some 600 songs about him).
“Superman (It’s Not Easy)” was Ondrasik’s first song to hit the Top 40, but he admits that it got there in a fairly unique way: “An odd thing happened when my ‘Superman’ came out — the record label said, ‘Old people are buying your record!’” By old people, he continues, they actually meant people in their 30s and 40s — people who generally don’t dive into new music. For some reason, the song was resonating with this older demographic. “In the past 20 years, I think I’ve figured it out to some extent,” says Ondrasik. “In my version, Superman doesn’t want to be Superman. I think it comes down to the expectation that adults feel an obligation to be the rock for everyone, particularly their families. Traditionally, we feel like we have to take the hits and pressures of all our loved ones onto our backs, for better or worse. At the end of the day, if we’re everyone for everyone else, there’s nothing left for ourselves.”
It’s an idea that crops up again and again, in everything from “Waitin’ for a Superman” by the Flaming Lips to Goldfinger’s “Superman” (even if the latter, a song about getting older, sadder and more confused, is so deceptively upbeat it made the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater).
“The idea of being a Superman and being someone who can come in and rescue everyone can be a burden to a lot of people,” says forensic psychiatrist H. Eric Bender of Broadcast Thought. Bender explains that he often sees this in his practice — patients feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility, usually to their families, and often feel they can’t ask for help because they are supposed to be the rock.
Of course, while the idea of the undue burden may speak to a sense of selflessness — a core part of Superman himself — in some cases, it may also speak to the inflated egos of the people singing the songs. “With the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic, it deals with the idea of celebrity, which relates to the hero worship thing musicians face,” says Chaz Kangas, radio host at Go 95.3 and a music writer who’s written for the New York Times and Complex. “Ultimately, it winds up becoming incredibly masturbatory in terms of them being like, ‘They think I’m Superman, but I’m not,’ and, ‘I am Superman, but for this one flaw.’”
Ondrasik admits as much, telling me, “In retrospect, ‘Superman’ isn’t a song I could write today, as I’ve found in the intervening years that it’s pretty damn easy to be me.”
There’s another egocentric idea that keeps popping up in some of these songs, too — the “damsel in distress” trope, which can be found in songs like Brian McKnight’s “Superhero” and Brown Boy’s “Superman,” both of which are about a woman who needs saving via a Superman. And while you’d hope that more prominent female songwriters diving into that bottomless Superman song well would reject such silliness, it seems the allure of overly-sentimental super-sadness is too strong. Take Taylor Swift’s “Superman,” which “seems to be written from the perspective of the desired female in some of the other male Superman songs, in that it’s a woman letting the man know how much she observes and appreciates his sacrifice for her,” says Kangas. “It’s meant to be a comfort food of a song for guys who really dig that masturbatory burden-of-being-Superman mentality.”
While use of Superman as a metaphor for finding adulting hard is rife (looking at you too, Skylar Spence’s “I Can’t Be Your Superman”), as mentioned earlier, a few songs take a more literal route, exploring the character himself, especially his profound loneliness. Roberts, lead singer of the Crash Test Dummies, tells me that, in terms of the inspiration for “Superman’s Song,” “Superman’s family exiles him to Earth just before their planet is wracked with complete destruction. His connection to his family and his world is shattered. His only consolation is the possession of his newfound superpowers, which he uses solely in the service of good. Simply put, he does his best in spite of the great shadow under which he lives, not unlike a Greek tragic hero.”
“There’s that sense that Superman is alone,” agrees comic book writer Jim Kreuger, who won an Eisner Award for his Superman-led series Justice. After all, Superman is the last of his kind, so he really has no one who totally gets him. As Kreuger ponders, “I wonder what the Fortress of Solitude really is about, and if he goes there to grieve the people he can’t save, or to grieve the world of Krypton that he never knew? I don’t know.”
Even the classic 1978 Superman film touches upon the idea of a lonely Superman, using it as a way to anchor Superman and give the audience a way to connect to him. Kryptonite and other alien things do play a role in that movie, of course, but the film is primarily a love story about a lonely guy who’s struggling to get the girl. Comic book purists might argue that turning Superman into a rom-com character is a waste of his potential, but due to his invulnerability, this loneliness — perhaps the most relatable of all human feelings — was vital to getting a mainstream audience to side with the character.
Still, it’s a balancing act — this loneliness should help humanize Superman, but not become his defining characteristic. As Krueger explains, we want Superman to represent the idealistic figure that the Crash Test Dummies sang about — we want him to be optimistic and hopeful while retaining just enough melancholy to keep him down to Earth.
That delicate balance — or rather, the lack of it — may explain why our present, grimly depressing cinematic Superman has failed to connect with audiences. Instead of flawed-but-inspiring, we end up with broken-and-disheartening, weighed down by all the responsibilities those songwriters warned us about to the point where his “adventures” are more like a joyless slog. As psychologist Andrea Letamendi opines in her blog Under the Mask, Henry Cavill’s Superman “is driven by emotions like anger and desperation,” questioning “whether humanity is worth saving.”
As a human being, I don’t empathize with that: Instead, it makes me think, “Fuck you, dickbag! We raised you!”
It’s been pointed out already by countless others, but movie studios please take heed: Brooding may lend itself well to Batman, but it just undercuts Superman. As Krueger puts it, “People want Superman to be Superman. They want ‘up, up and away’ and they want ‘the American way.’ They want ‘truth and justice.’ They want to believe in all that.”
Just compare Superman to that other cornball superhero, Captain America: While Cap still has some vulnerability in the form of his pining for lost love Peggy Carter, the cinematic Cap is still very much an idealistic — and somewhat corny — guy. As Avengers: Endgame screenwriter Stephen McFeely recently remarked, “Captain America shows there are certainly ways to do a really good Superman movie in this day. You don’t have to dirty him up, you don’t have to get rid of his earnestness.” In other words, Superman should make us hopeful and optimistic — God knows we need that right now, far more than we need angry space-Jesus.
It’s a note that all the sad Superman song-writing men should pay attention to as well, because there’s one very important thing about the character that they always seem to forget: Even Superman doesn’t expect us all to be Superman — the example he sets is not to be like him, but rather to always strive to be the best version of ourselves.
So dudes, next time you’re getting that E-minor chord ready for a song about how you can never measure up to his impossible, square-chinned ideal, maybe go do something useful instead. It would make Superman happy.