Have you seen the HTC One cellphone ad with the synthesized breathing set behind some sky diving stunt? Eventually, the song starts to mention Superman and sounds just artistic enough to match the free-falling fashion student angle. It’s a weird but memorable ad that kind of sticks in your head.
Here’s the problem. The song being used is “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson. Anderson, one of my favorite recording artists, is a sharp, satiric writer unafraid of tackling big issues through experimental music. She did not have happy technology on her mind when she wrote and recorded this art piece.
The clearest level of text in “O Superman” is a statement against the rise of technology and its impact on the interconnectedness of the world. She mocks the separation created by answering machine message services with spoken dialogue over the synthesized “ha” chords in the background. She can’t reach her mother, the judge, or Superman, but she can leave a message and they’ll get back to her as soon as possible.
Then you start to dig into the more politicized aspects of the song. There are references to American planes flying overhead, possibly breaking up the communication patterns. Is the America of “O Superman” responsible for the machinery of poor communication? She quotes the US Postal Service creed in the same drone as the answering machine message, as if all communication is made impersonal by convenience.
Going even further, Anderson has given interviews where she says “O Superman” was inspired by the Iran hostage situation under Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The planes are a reference to the rescue mission and the failed communication the inability to prevent and resolve the crisis any faster. This would explain the repetition in the background–like the ticking of a clock or blank lines of Morse code–as well as the ominous climax of the song.This isn’t even getting into the genesis of the song, a clever tribute to a lovely 19th Century aria with some vague thematic similarities to Anderson’s song.
So how, in 2012, does a cellphone company hear a song like this and think it’s a genius advertising gimmick? The surface level is a critique of this kind of technology and its impact on modern communication. That’s not exactly a winning strategy. “Here, buy our product. It’s ruining society as we know it.”
More likely, it was chosen for style over substance. It is a catchy song. It’s not a pleasant song, but it bores into your brain. “O Superman” even surpassed the success of its source video installation “United States.” The average person hearing that advert either doesn’t know what the song is about or has never heard it.
Now I’m depressed. Somebody call me when “Fire on Babylon” is used to sell barbecues. Then we can have a real authentic rage fest.
Thoughts? I love it when Laurie Anderson fans get to squeeze out of the woodwork in an honest to goodness contemporary context. Sound off below.