Songs About Superman

Why was alternative rock inundated with hit songs about Superman throughout the 1990s and early 2000s? Consider the monoculture.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: One could argue that in the modern era, Superman’s stock hasn’t exactly been at the rate it was in prior generations. For one thing, Marvel’s pop-culture dominance sidelined many DC brands, Superman included. For another, Warner Bros. has really struggled to figure out what makes a good Superman movie. Finally, Superman already had his moment in the sun decades ago, and one might argue Batman offered better storytelling opportunities. But you know an area where Superman absolutely dominates? Butt rock. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Superman was a go-to metaphor for alternative rock. It was especially popular among the post-grunge set. And I want to know why. Today’s Tedium recalls how the Man of Steel shaped rock radio. — Ernie @ Tedium


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The year Larry Weiss, an entrepreneur, bought licenses for a number of major cartoon characters and comic book superheroes. The reason? He wanted to make branded two-piece underwear sets for kids, which became Underoos. The concept, soon picked up by Fruit of the Loom, helped to highlight the mainstream nature of Superman in particular, as Superman Underoos became kind of the iconic pair, thanks in part to 1978’s Superman: The Movie. (A lot of Underoo-wearing kids were adults by the ’90s.)

The two songs that made Superman perfect alt-rock songwriter fodder

By the 1950s, Superman had already lived multiple lives as a force in popular culture. Not only were there comic books, but he had appeared regularly in cartoons, on the radio, and in a live-action television show. (The latter of which is the subject of an underrated Ben Affleck movie.) Many of the rock stars that were referencing Superman in the 1990s weren’t anywhere near being born when the Man In Steel first started making his imprint on popular culture, and what an imprint it was.

And that has made Superman a popular culture force and a common source of inspiration for songwriters. It is pure monoculture, a story everyone understands from the word alone, and that makes it a great example of a universal theme to lean into. To give you an idea, here are a just a few artists that have written or performed songs titled “Superman” that don’t fit the alt-rock narrative today’s piece is about: Taylor Swift, Miles Davis, Eminem, Snoop Dogg (featuring, of all people, Willie Nelson!), The Commodores, Barbara Streisand, Robin Thicke, Herbie Mann, Dizzee Rascal, and Keith Urban. That’s one hell of a list.

If you write a song titled “Superman,” you should know that you are not the first to do so, but you have good company. Case in point: Olivia Rodrigo, currently one of the biggest pop stars in the world not named Taylor Swift, says that the first song she ever wrote, at the age of nine, was a short feminist anthem titled “Superman.”

But who did it first? The earliest example of a Superman-themed pop song I could find dates all the way back to 1940. The artist who recorded the song? Benny Goodman & His Orchestra. Given that Clark Kent first appeared on the scene only in 1938, it shows how quickly he had managed to take over pop culture in a real way.

If you want to understand why Superman became an alternative rock staple, I think you have to look closely at a pair of pop songs from the ’60s. The first is kind of an icon of the era from a deeply influential artist; the second is a nugget that was picked up by a popular band at a pivotal time.

Sunshine Superman

If you think this feat’s impressive, one of his other big hits inspired a soft drink.

Sunshine Superman,” by the Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan, was a very big hit from 1966, but more than that, it was a unique song for its time, and Donovan maintained an influential cult status well beyond the 1960s. He may have been one of the first counterculture icons to really stick. While he wasn’t the first artist of the rock era to mine Superman for inspiration, he was easily the most influential.

Meanwhile, The Clique’s “Superman,” from 1969, didn’t make much of a dent on the pop charts, in part because it was a B-side and in part because The Clique itself didn’t make much of a dent. But nearly 20 years later, R.E.M. not only covered the song, but made it a single from its album Life’s Rich Pageant. It’s worth understanding how influential R.E.M. was on the rest of alternative rock. It was as if your big brother just gave you the okay that something was cool.

On top of these influences, there was lots of room to reframe and rethink the Superman story. You could make Superman a metaphor for your own life. You could turn the Superman story into pointed commentary about media consumption. Superman could become an allegory for the fallibility of man. It was an easy way to work pop-culture references into your songwriting.

And, most importantly, you could use Superman in the title of your song just to get attention.

The most ambitious reimagining of the Superman myth came, of course, from Laurie Anderson, whose 1981 art-pop staple “O Superman,” still one of the most unusual songs to ever be a mainstream hit, was an abstract commentary on Cold War-era politics and American geopolitical might. (If you have never heard it, you should listen.)

Even when used in obtuse ways, Superman was not an obtuse concept. It was something that anyone with an interest in popular culture could mine into. And so, a lot of bands did.


The year that, in an attempt to help bring fresh attention to the Superman brand, DC Comics writers developed a broad crossover story called The Death of Superman, which was intended to emphasize the superhero’s importance to the audience, as well as to sell a hell of a lot of comic books—which it did, driving a reported $30 million in profit to comic book stores in a single day and reviving the brand in the eyes of the public. It also influenced at least some of the alternative rock songs about Superman throughout the 1990s.

Pocket Full Of Kryptonite

Band meeting: “If we just shoot a picture of a phone booth, do you think the metaphor will carry?” “Uh, yeah!”

The evolution of Superman, alternative rock superhero

The opening salvo of the Superman era of alternative rock may have been R.E.M., but it would only be a few years before it was racking up some big hits. The first big Superman-themed hit emerged in the spring of 1991, when Crash Test Dummies, the Canadian band best known for “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” in the U.S., scored a massive hit in Canada with “Superman’s Song,” a song that made them household names up north.

The song, similar in vibes to their later hit, pondered whether Superman would’ve been better off quitting:

Sometimes when Supe was stoppin’ crimes / I’ll bet that he was tempted to just quit / And turn his back on man / Join Tarzan in the forest / But he stayed in the city / Kept on changin’ clothes/ In dirty old phone booths ’til his work was through / Had nothin’ to do but go on home

A few months later, The Spin Doctors released their popular debut Pocket Full of Kryptonite, whose opening track, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,” leans into the idea that Lois should give Jimmy, the Superman franchise’s third wheel, a second look:

I got it so bad for little Miss Lois Lane / Oh, Lois Lane please put me in your plan / Yeah, Lois Lane you don’t need no super man / Come on downtown and stay with me tonight / I, I got a pocket full of Kryptonite


Other songs simply referenced Superman without actually being about him. Stone Temple Pilots’ “Silvergun Superman,” for example, appears to be a veiled reference to Weiland’s heroin use. And Juicifer’s “Superman,” released around 1998, hangs heavy on vibes rather than capes.

The Superman dying thing seemed to be a common point of discussion. The industrial rock band Powerman 5000 released a song titled “Even Superman Shot Himself,” which suggests that the awfulness of the world was such that Superman would rather commit suicide than help. (While on the band’s first album, it was first recorded in 1991, suggesting lead singer Spider One knew something the rest of the public did not.)

If there was any song that perhaps pushed the fate of Superman into the public consciousness in a big way in the 1990s, it was definitely Our Lady Peace’s “Superman’s Dead,” a 1997 song about the decline of the monoculture, and the impact it was having on kids. (It directly references the 1992 Death of Superman plot line, of course—it’s an excellent example of the point being made.)

Some sample lyrics hint at the band’s commentary on how normalcy is no longer valued:

Do you worry that you’re not liked? / How long ’til you break / You’re happy ’cause you smile / But how much can you fake? / An ordinary boy, an ordinary name/ But ordinary’s just not good enough today

At some point, a producer got frontman Raine Maida to stop singing with his distinctive high-pitched nasally vocals, which did him a real disservice for a long time, but he was in his full nasal glory on this song, which was the band’s U.S. breakthrough.

Perhaps this was the swing in consciousness Superman needed, because at least three other fairly prominent songs directly referencing Superman mythology hit the mainstream in the years to follow. The first, The Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ For A Superman,” wasn’t a massive hit, but the rhythm-heavy track shared a truism about life—that the hero of the story doesn’t always appear, or that there are limits to his infallibility. A few sample lyrics:

Tell everybody / Waitin’ for Superman / That they should try to hold on best they can / He hasn’t dropped them / Forgotten or anything/ It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift

The song, the most popular single from an extremely well-received album, helped turn The Flaming Lips into a band for the long haul. (No matter that Chris Daughtry directly ripped off the idea more than a decade later.)

Months later, 3 Doors Down released “Kryptonite,” which is also about imperfections—but the imperfections of a seemingly perfect partner in a relationship:

If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman? / If I’m alive and well, will you be there and holding my hand? / I’ll keep you by my side with my superhuman might / Kryptonite

This song, the subject of a Pat Finnerty “What Makes This Song Stink” video, is not well-loved in the modern day. But it is probably the most prominent “Superman” song of the alternative rock era, even if it means you probably already heard it this morning.

Finally, we get to the point where alt-rock fully evolved into schmaltzy adult alternative. That’s right, Five For Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” First released in 2001 and taking on a new role after 9/11, this song launched a long career as an adult-contemporary standby for its singer, John Ondrasik. It is whisper-soft unlike 3 Doors Down, using more traditional instrumentation than The Flaming Lips, but it touches on a similar point:

It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive / Even heroes have the right to bleed /I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede / Even heroes have the right to dream? / And it’s not easy to be me

What’s fascinating about these three songs, combined with the Crash Test Dummies’ “Superman Song,” the Scrubs theme song, and (I guess) Powerman 5000’s “Even Superman Shot Himself,” is that each of them are really parables about fallibility, the human weakness in the face of challenges, which I think says a lot about where we were as a society during the peak of the Gen X era.

Everyone listening, young and old, grew up with this piece of monoculture, and it was influencing popular culture in a big way, to the point where you had multiple songs on the radio, targeting similar-but-slightly-different demographics—college radio, mainstream rock, and adult alternative—telling three different variations on the same story: You may want a hero, but that hero has limits.

One could imagine a comic book being written that combines each of these songs into one Superman-themed storyline. (“Superman’s Dead,” despite looking like it’s about the same thing on the surface, is really a tale about what influences us—in a way, it was a meta-commentary on the whole Superman song movement.)

If Discogs releases are anything to go by, the peak of Superman’s musical influence topped out during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Occasionally, Superman would be referenced in a very weird way, like as a part of Soulja Boy’s viral “Crank That” dance from the mid-2000s:

(Definitely not a Gen-X point of inspiration there—at the time that song came out, Soulja Boy was 16.)

Since then, Superman has seen something of a decline as a source of musical inspiration, and I think a big reason for that points to how the monoculture has changed. Sure, we have our tent poles still—Taylor Swift, Marvel, The Office—but we pull inspiration from a much broader pool of cultural ideas such that I think the odds of seemingly every rock band having a song about the same superhero will become increasingly low. (Presumably they weren’t all talking to one another when they each landed on this same idea at nearly the same time.)

I guess, to close it out, I’ll share my favorite variation on a Superman song, Iron & Wine’s cover of “Waitin’ For a Superman,” which somehow feels more isolated than the original:

And if we all start writing songs about the same superhero again anytime in the near future, that’s when we know the monocultural well is starting to get a little shallow.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And now to think about something else besides Superman.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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