The Birth of Dissociative Music and Laurie Anderson

On September 11, 2001, the course of American history changed forever when terrorist hijackers crashed two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Exactly 20 years ago, Laurie Anderson released 1,000 copies of “O Superman,” an obscure, eerie song unlike any you’ve ever heard. These are two completely unrelated events, but the song had an eerie foreboding, containing unintended but almost undeniable parallels to 9/11. The Oh Superman story is almost as weird as that coincidence, and just when you think you’ve found the weirdest thing about it, there’s more.

It starts with Anderson’s friend B. George convincing her to record the song in the first place. At this point, she was best known for her performance art, taking Duets on Ice worldwide – which involved freezing ice skates in a block of ice and playing the violin on top of them until they melted. They both worked at the Whitney Museum teaching art, and George soon co-directed her show, placing one of her pieces on an album released by his indie label.

He desperately wanted Anderson to also release “O Superman” on the label, which she did after they applied for a $500 grant from the National Endowment. Recorded in a quiet hallway, it was released in limited edition. Influenced by French opera in four acts and the hollow tone of automated voices, it was an absolute gem of a song, but it wasn’t destined for radio success until John Peel got hold of it.

George was writing Tom: The International New Wave Discography, which Peele was so impressed with that he invited him on his show to expose British audiences to unheard songs from New York. “O Superman” was released and immediately received significant UK airplay from other DJs. George later said The Guardian that before the track’s practically overnight success, he sent it to “major players in the industry” like Ahmet Ertegun and Richard Blackwell, who all said thanks, but you can keep your weird electronic convulsions.

It was number two in the UK Singles Chart in 1981. His success was so pronounced that George got into a taxi in England and was immediately recognized by his voice alone. The song opens with a chorus of “ha, ha, ha” disorientingly looping through the Eventide Harmoniser, sounding not like laughter but more like a hapless malfunctioning robot. The taxi driver dutifully handed it back to George as a parrot.

Colliding with the flat, robotic tone is a chorus of chirping birds. It’s amazing how strange a natural sound can seem out of context, because like the feeling you get in your gut when you’ve been awake too long and can hear the birds in the morning, it evokes a strange sense of liminality. Anderson was so good at creating that feeling Journal of Body, Space and Technology wrote a study about it. They conclude that in the case of her music: “Mediated forms and modes are used to reorder our sensory systems.”

Some argue that Anderson, with “O Superman” in particular, helped pioneer not only art-pop, but dissociative music as a whole. It’s a catch-all term not only for music that’s cool to watch on the wall, but also for songs that tackle complex subject matter with resigned flatness. O Superman, which draws on the drama of the 1885 opera And Sid but it delivers it with a strange monotony, it delivers in spades on that front. As a complex narrative unfolds, Anderson supports it with only sparse notes and robotic vocals, explaining that she “juxtaposed sinister and mundane imagery.”

This narrative includes a phone call with an anonymous speaker and their mother. “Hello? This is your mom, are you there? / Are you coming home?” he chimes. “I’ve got a message to give you / Here come the planes / So you better get ready, ready to go.” Where and why, no we know, but these are the lyrics that some associate with 9/11. Anderson’s monotone continues: “It’s the hand, the hand that takes / Here come the planes / These are American planes, made in America / Smokers or non-smokers?”

It’s entirely plausible that because 9/11 is so ingrained in the public consciousness, listeners made the connection where it didn’t exist. But the unpleasant feeling that permeates the song, combined with references to smoking American planes and the shape of the song itself, is amazing. Heartbreaking voicemails left by victims trapped in the Twin Towers may cloud judgment here, too, but there seems to be a powerful parallel in the panicked, “Are you coming home?”

Anderson herself explained at length that the song was written with the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 in mind. “We were left with dead bodies, a pile of burning debris, and the hostages were nowhere to be seen,” she said. “So I decided to write a song about all of that and about the failure of technology.” That said, a week after the 9/11 attacks, she reinstated the song in her set after it had long been retired. The line about the airplanes proved, if not prophetic, that her lyrics have an ongoing relevance.

This is a trend that has been going on for a long time. This year, some 42 years after the unknown recording was released, it became a viral sound on TikTok. It is used in videos for, mostly, strange coincidences that border on the impossible. While the legendary ride of “Oh Superman” and its enduring popularity and weirdness may not speak to the horrors of 9/11, it does highlight Anderson’s almost unbelievable talent. She created a song that was virtually guaranteed to disappear into the airwaves, and instead made a song that existed outside of it. It’s an unearthly masterpiece that’s had unexpected cultural momentum twice already.

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