Lesson #1: Literary Analysis of "O Superman"

Part One: Literary analysis of "O Superman" lyrics

1. Mark up the text (Download "O Superman" lyrics handout)
Distribute a copy of the lyrics to each student and instruct them to mark up the text using the literary superpower tools of:

2. Class discussion
Use the following guide to help spark student discussion and encourage original interpretations.
Encourage students to use ASE (argument, support, explanation) when responding to each area.






"This is the hand, the hand that takes"

"smoking or non-smoking"

steps of logic in stanza in stanza seven: love--justice--force--mom

"so hold me, Mom, in your long arms"
automatic arms
electronic arms
petrochemical arms
military arms


Part Two: Exploring the origins of "O Superman"

Anderson constructed the song as a cover of the aria "O Souverain, o juge, o père" (O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from Jules Massenet's 1885 opera Le Cid. She was moved by the opera's powerful refrain "O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father!" and identified with the huge emotions at its center. She says, "O Souverain' is basically a prayer for help. All is over, finished! My beautiful dreams of glory, my dreams of happiness, have flown away forever!"

Activity: Watch a clip of this aria and answer the following questions:

How does "O Superman" elaborate on Massenet's themes of love and power?

How does it differ by appealing to more sinister, late-twentieth century forces?
From the aria "O Souverain, o juge, o père"
(O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father) from Jules
Massenet's 1885 opera Le Cid.


Part Three: Analysis of the music for "O Superman"
Focus Question: How does the music help establish the tone of the work and emphasize the meanings of specific elements in the work?

Note: In this activity students explore how music and sound help communicate the work's tone and theme. Therefore it is important to play only the audio track of the song and not show the visual elements of the performance. This will ensure that students focus only on the music and sounds.

1. Play the audio track for "O Superman".
2. Instruct students to listen and use their "O Superman" lyric handouts to note where and how music and sounds are used by Anderson to help communicate concepts in the performance. Suggest that students use the following list to help guide them in this process:

"ha-ha-ha-ha-ha" sound
electronic alteration of the human voice
synthesizer keyboard chords
singing birds
Ending melody

3. Lead a class discussion on how the sounds and music help support the tone and communicate the concepts of the performance.


Part Four: Analysis of the visual elements in the performance
Focus question: How does the characterization and imagery in the performance help establish the tone and emphasize the meanings of specific elements in the work?


1. Show the video recording of "O Superman".

2. Instruct students to analyze the following symbols and explain how they emphasize concepts in the work:

round white disk
figure silhouetted by a red background
Anderson's hand movements
falling snow

"Oh Superman" by Laurie Anderson


Part Five: Final Assessment

Assignment: Write an explication that includes the following:

1. Statement of the theme for "O Superman".

2. An explanation of how one element from each of the following categories helps present the theme of the work:


Remember the following formula for determining theme:

what is the main point/concept?)
how does the plot present the main point/concept?)



 Word Metamorphosis Lessons 

Lesson #1: Exploring the connection between language and music

This lesson helps illustrate to students the strong connection between language and music by having them listen to a "musical illusion". The students listen to a spoken phrase of words repeated in a loop until the phrase sounds like it is being sung. Students are then asked to share there own observations about this phenomenon with the rest of the class.

Activity #1: Listen to Radio Lab's audio interview with Diana Deutsch a professor specializing in the Psychology of Music. 

To listen to or download the entire show set your browser to the following link: 


Activty #2:Explore more deeply the phrase "Sometimes Behave So Strangely".

1. Listen to the mp3 clip of "Sometimes Behave So Strangely"
Go to the following address to listen to the clip: http://philomel.com/phantom_words/sometimes.php

2. Read the following commentary written by Diana Deutsch

Composers throughout the ages - Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, Steve Reich, and Jean-Claude Risset to name a few - have played with relationships between speech and music, either by composing music that has some of the qualities of speech, or by embedding short segments of speech in musical contexts.

In particular, Mussorgsky has argued that music and speech are in essence so similar that with practice a composer could even reproduce a conversation in music. As he wrote in a letter to Rimsky-Korsakoff:  'whatever speech I hear, no matter who is speaking...my brain immediately sets to working out a musical exposition for this speech'.

In this sample audio clip speech is made to be heard as song, and this is achieved without transforming the sounds in any way, or by adding any musical context, but simply by repeating a phrase several times over. The demonstration is based on a sentence at the beginning of the CD Musical Illusions and Paradoxes. When you listen to this sentence in the usual way, it appears to be spoken normally  - as indeed it is. However, when you play the phrase that is embedded in it: 'sometimes behave so strangely' over and over again, a curious thing happens. At some point, instead of appearing to be spoken, the words appear to be sung, rather as in the figure below. 

After listening to the repeated phrase, listen to the full sentence again. You might find that it begins by sounding like normal speech, just as before, but that when you come to the phrase that had earlier been repeated: 'sometimes behave so strangely', the words again appear to be sung.

So I leave you with a conundrum: Why should the simple repetition of a phrase, without any change at all, cause our perception to shift so dramatically from speech to song?

Lesson #2: Touching Sounds
Anne Fernald, head of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford studied the cross-cultural similarities in the music of speech parents use to talk to their infants. She identified four universal underlying melodies occurring in many languages: approval/happiness, stop/disapproval, look/pay attention, and comfort. Anne Fernald explains our need to goochie-goochie-goo at every baby we meet, and absolves us of our guilt. This kind of talk, dubbed motherese, is an instict that crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries. Caecilius was goochie-goochie-gooing in Rome; Grunt was goochie-gooing in the caves.

The 4 universal melodies

  • praise/approval: rising then falling melody (Good Boy)
  • stop/disapproval: short, sharp staccato melody (No, no)
  • look/pay attention: high, rising melody (where's the doggy?)
  • comfort: long, smooth, low frequency (It's Okay)

Anne Fernald says that "we are used to thinking that sounds are about something" but she argues that "sound is more like touch at a distance".

Lesson #3: Phantom Words

Deutsch's Phantom Words

The brain is constantly attempting to find meaning in things, even where there is no meaning. This can often lead us to experience illusions. Just as, when we look into a cloudy sky, we may see strange faces and figures, so when presented with ambiguous sounds, we may hear words and phrases that are not really there.

The CD is named after the first few tracks, which contain sequences of repeating words and phrases that arise simultaneously from different regions of space. These illusions should be heard through stereo loudspeakers that are placed in front of you, with one to your left and the other to your right. The words coming from the different spatial locations are offset from each other in time. As a result, listeners are given a palette of sounds from which to choose, and so can create in their minds many different combinations of sounds. After continuous exposure to these repeating words, listeners begin to 'hear' words and phrases that are not really there. These 'phantom words' are generated by the brain in an attempt to extract meaning from the chaos of sound that is presented.

Since the illusions develop with repetition, you need to listen to long segments in order to experience them fully.  I suggest having a pen and paper in front of you, so that you can jot down the words and phrases that you hear. Most likely they will suddenly appear to change into different words and phrases as you continue listening. Whenever this happens, jot down the new ones that you hear. You will sometimes find that the left and right loudspeakers appear to be producing different words or part-words. When this happens, jot down separately the words you hear as coming from the speaker on the left, and those you hear as coming from the speaker on the right. Once the illusions have begun to appear, try turning your head in different directions, and even walking around the room. This often causes new words and phrases to emerge.

People often report hearing words that are related to what is on their minds. If they are on a diet, they may hear words that are related to food; if they have had a stressful day they may hear words that are related to stress; and so on. In fact, so strong is the influence of meaning on what is perceived, that people sometimes hear voices speaking in strange or unfamiliar accents, so as to create for themselves words and phrases that are particularly significant to them.

If English is your second language, you might find that some of the words you hear are in your native language. For example, native speakers of Chinese sometimes hear Chinese words, and native speakers of Spanish sometimes hear Spanish words. This impression can be so strong that people are sometimes convinced that such 'foreign' words have been inserted into the tracks, though in reality this never happens. Also, the words that are heard often appear to be spoken by different voices, each of which has a distinctive quality. Occasionally, people hear musical tones or other types of sound mixed in with the words.

So what is really being played? Each track contains either two words, or a single word that is composed of two syllables, and these are repeated over and over again. The identical sequence is played through both loudspeakers simultaneously, but when the first sound is coming from the loudspeaker on the left, the second sound is coming from the loudspeaker on the right; and vice versa. The identical sounds are repeatedly presented throughout each track, even though the words we think we hear appear to change from time to time.

Set your browser to the following address to hear the example of phantom words on the CD:


Laurie Anderson Biography

Laurie Anderson is one of today’s premier performance artists. Known primarily for her multimedia presentations, she has cast herself in role as varied as visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronics whiz, vocalist and instrumentalist.

Anderson was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where she graduated from Glenbard West High School. She graduated from Barnard College magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, studying art history. In 1972, she obtained an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. Her first performance art piece -- a symphony played on automobile horns -- was performed in 1969. In the early 1970s, she worked as an art instructor, as an art critic for magazines such as Artforum, and illustrated children's books.

Laurie Anderson began her career in the 1970s as a performance artist in New York City. One of her most-cited performances, Duets on Ice, which she conducted in New York and other cities around the world, involved her playing violin along with a recording while wearing ice skates with the blades frozen into a block of ice; the performance ended only when the ice had melted away.

O Superman launched Anderson’s recording career in 1980, rising to number two on the British pop charts and subsequently appearing on Big Science, the first of her seven albums on the Warner Brothers label. Other record releases include Mister Heartbreak, United States Live, Strange Angels, Bright Red and the soundtrack to her feature film Home of the Brave. In 2000 a deluxe box set of her Warner Brothers output, Talk Normal, was released on Rhino/Warner Archives. 

In 2001 Anderson released her first record for Nonesuch Records, entitled Life on a String, which was followed by Live in New York, recorded at Town Hall in New York City in September 2001 and released in May 2002.

Anderson has toured the United States and internationally numerous times with shows ranging from simple spoken word performances to elaborate multimedia events. Major works include United States I–V, 1983; Empty Places, 1990; The Nerve Bible, 1995; and Songs and Stories for Moby Dick, a multimedia stage performance based on the novel by Herman Melville. Throughout 1999 and 2000 Songs and Stories for Moby Dick toured internationally. In 2001 Anderson toured the United States and Europe with a band, performing 
music from Life on a String. She has also presented many solo works, including Happiness, which premiered in 2001 and toured internationally in 2003.

Anderson has published six books. Text from Anderson’s solo performances appears in the book Extreme Exposure, edited by Jo Bonney. She has also written the entry on New York for the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Laurie Anderson’s visual work has been presented in major museums throughout the United States and Europe. In 2003 the Musée Art Contemporain of Lyon in France produced a touring retrospective of her work, entitled The Record of the Time: Sound in the Work of Laurie Anderson. This retrospective incorporated installation, audio, instruments, video and art objects and included works dating from 1970s, as well as Anderson’s most current works. From 2003 to 2005 the exhibition continued to tour. In 2005 Anderson’s 
exhibition of visual art, The Waters Reglitterized, opened.As a composer, Anderson has contributed music to films by Wim Wenders and Jonathan Demme; dance pieces by Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown, Molissa Fenley; and a score for Robert LePage’s theatre production, Far Side of the Moon. She has created pieces for National Public Radio, the BBC and Expo ’92 in Seville. In 1997 she curated the two-week Meltdown Festival at Royal Festival Hall in London. In 2000 her most recent orchestra work Songs for A.E. premiered at Carnegie 
Hall, performed by the American Composers Orchestra. It later toured Europe with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

Recognised worldwide as a leader in the use of technology in the arts, Anderson has collaborated with Interval Research Corporation, a research and development laboratory founded by Paul Allen and David Liddle, in the exploration of new creative tools, including the Talking Stick. She created the introduction sequence for the first segment of the PBS special Art 21, a series about art in the 21st century. She was the recipient of the 2001 Tenco Prize for Songwriting in San Remo, Italy and the 2001 Deutsche Schallplatten prize for Life on a String. She has also received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

NASA's first artist-in-residence
In 2002 Anderson was appointed the first artist-in-residence
of NASA, during which time she developed her solo
performance The End of the Moon which premiered in 2004
and toured internationally through 2006. In 2004 her score
for Trisha Brown’s acclaimed piece O Composite premiered
at the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Anderson was also part of
the team that created the opening ceremony for the 2004
Olympic Games in Athens. Other recent projects include a
commission to create a series of audio-visual installations
and a high-definition film, Hidden Inside Mountains, for
the World Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, as well as a series
of programs for French radio called Rien dans les Poches/
Nothing in my Pockets. Currently she is working on a series
of very long walks, a new album for Nonesuch Records
and an accompanying touring performance. She lives in
New York City.

Currently Anderson is touring with her newest work, Homeland, a musical portrait of contemporary America. Moving through many worlds - from Greek tragedy to American business models - Homeland addresses the current climate of fear and obsession with information and secruity. The music, built on a foundation of groove electronics and featuring many new melodic forms with which Anderson has been experimenting, is truly revelatory.

(text sources: wikipedia, www.melbournefestival.com.au, Spoleto