Superman in pop music: Bulletproof hits, lumps of kryptonite

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Image Credit: DC Entertainment

A Superman movie threatening to make noise at the box office?

It’s become a rare occurrence — Superman Returns (2006) is the lone Metropolis movie of the past 25 years – like a blue moon lining up with a red-sun eclipse. But Superman has stayed in our ear thanks to a surprising number of songs that mention him.

In fact, by our count, Clark Kent’s alter ego is in more hit songs over the past 50 years than all other superheroes combined – which is doubly impressive considering rivals (especially the grump in Gotham) have soundtracks with hired-gun rock stars.

What is it in Superman grabs the attention of R.E.M., Eminem, Taylor Swift and Barbra Streisand? That’s super-easy: Songwriters and star know a bulletproof metaphor when they see it flying past. Here’s a rundown on some of the super tunes you might remember:

Sunshine Superman (1966) by Donovan
Scotland’s answer to Bob Dylan scored his only No. 1 single in the U.S. with this plucky hit (featuring Jimmy Page on jazz-tinged guitar) that pulled off a rare combination by mixing psychedelic swoon with focused flirtation – a Ken Kesey version of Casanova. And, reading these lyrics, he might be Aquaman:“Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got a-nothin’ on me/I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea.” Super Random Bonus Fact: Sunshine Superman was written for Donovan’s future wife, Linda Lawrence, who shares initials with Superman’s three most famous love interests: Lois Lane, Lana Lang and Lori Lemaris.

Superman (1969) by The Clique and (1986) by R.E.M.
This obscure ditty from the Texas-based band the Clique found mainstream success with R.E.M.’s peppy 1986 cover (featuring bassist Mike Mills on lead vocal because Michael Stipe wasn’t feeling the pep). Super Random Bonus Fact: Peter Buck, who played guitar for R.E.M., was the title star of a comic book in the 1980s; there’s a scintillating video about it by a Georgia fan.

You Don’t Mess Around with Jim (1972) by  Jim Croce
Croce’s debut single tells the tale of a pool-hall brawler, but it also works as an ode to 2013 summer film if you add one word at the end of the chorus: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with Jim [Kirk].” Super Random Bonus Fact: A year after the Top 10 success of Jim, Croce returned to the scene of the crime with the similar Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, but instead of Superman it was old King Kong who did the heavy lifting.

Superman (1973) by Donna Fargo
Fargo hit No 1 on the country charts with this energetic but rather limited rant-as-song that targets a haughty boyfriend. “Your mama should have named you Superman,” Fargo sings. And everyone laughed — except Donna’s withdrawn brother, Wells. Super Random Bonus Fact: Yvonne Vaughan named herself after Fargo, which was also the name of the Oscar-winning 1996 film that costarred William H. Macy, who IMDB says was once in a Superman cartoon.

Superman (1977) by Barbra Streisand
Newly minted Oscar winner Barbra Streisand was arguably the most powerful woman in show business coming off A Star is Born, and she declared it by announcing her secret identity: “I am Superman,” was the opening line of on Side One of Streisand Superman, a double platinum. Super Random Bonus Fact: The cover of the album featured the singer in hot pants, pretending to fly.

(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman (1979)  by the Kinks
The song presents an unnamed sad sack (let’s call him Clark) who looks in the mirror with self-loathing. “I’m too weak, I’m so thin, I’d like to fly but I can’t even swim.” The song’s disco beat vexed some longtime fans but the album, Low Budget, became the band’s bestselling studio album in the U.S. Super Random Bonus Fact: The Kinks liked to perform the theme from the Batman television series at concerts, and it sounded like this.

Jimmy Olsen’s Blues (1991) by the The Spin Doctors
Is that Kryptonite in your pocket or just a Spin Doctors cassette tape? For younger readers: Spin Doctors were an alt-rock band with one big album and a clever song about Jimmy Olsen’s dark thoughts: “Lois Lane you don’t need no Superman/Come on downtown and stay with me tonight, I got a pocket full of kryptonite.” (For “cassette tape,” just Google it.) Super Random Bonus Fact: Jimmy Olsen isn’t in Man of Steel, and we hear he and Superman don’t even speak to each other anymore.

Superman’s Song (1991) by the Crash Test Dummies
Lighting an ironic candle in an imaginary wind, this quirky hit from Canada gave us a funeral dirge for the fallen superhero: “Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy/And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.” Super Random Bonus Fact: The song became a self-fulfilling eulogy — DC Comics killed off the Man of Steel the next year.

Waitin’ for Superman (1999) by the Flaming Lips
Panic is breathless, but surrender sounds like a sigh in this — the saddest song on this list. It tells us to pass the word, Superman wants to help us with our burden. The sad part is the fact that we are the burden, pretty much: He hasn’t dropped them or forgotten them or anything. It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.

Superman (It’s Not Easy) by Five for Fighting
It’s either about Superman or someone off their meds: “I’m only a man in a silly red sheet, digging for kryptonite on this one-way street/Only a man in a funny red sheet, looking for special things inside of me.” Super Random Bonus Fact: Five for Fighting have a new album out called What If?, which is also the title of a Marvel comic book that shows alternate endings to classic tales.

Superman (2003) by Eminem 
Marshall Mathers chose the title became he felt like he was defying gravity – and not because of applause, awards, or riches. “I’m single now/Got no ring on this finger now,” he says, and notes that he can “leap tall hoes in a single bound.” If you missed it: Lois Lane just rolled her eyes. Super Random Bonus Fact: Eminem teamed up with the Punisher in a comic book once and he also dressed as Robin the Boy Wonder in one of his videos.

“Superman (2010) by Taylor Swift 
Swift never dated the Man of Steel (she seems more like Booster Gold’s type) so this isn’t a breakup song. It’s more like a “give this girl a break” song. The lyrics tell us she’s yearning for an unnamed thoughtful, famous dreamboat do-gooder. But we still think Booster Gold is a better fit. Super Bonus Fun Fact: Taylor Swift has a perfume that sounds like it would be perfect for Wonder Woman.

Read more:
This Week’s Cover: Superman at 75

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