Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

I Am, I Am, I Am Superman, And I Can Do Anything

Posted in comics, music by Andrew Hickey on February 3, 2009

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF

There’s a joke doing the rounds of various comic blogs at the moment – started by Doctor K – asking what the song is that Superman is singing in Final Crisis 7, the song with which he kills Darkseid. Here’s a couple of photoshopped guesses

This is actually an interesting question (even though it is not of course actually answerable using only the text). Morrison does, after all, talk about comics as if they were music – a lot of the difference between him and the average comic writer is that most comic creators think of comics as films, while Morrison thinks of comics as music. Morrison also talks a lot about how, when he’s writing for a character, he always knows what kind of music they like (Animal Man liked paisley pop, according to Morrison – and this is borne out by the only song we ‘hear’ him listening to – REM’s cover of Superman. King Mob, on the other hand, pretty obviously loved British pop music from the precise moment when Mod turned into psychedelia). So what kind of music *would* Superman sing? What music would kill a god of evil?

We must first dismiss the ‘tastes’ given to Superman in the 90s, when he was shown liking grunge-lite pop music. Much like the mullet and big-shouldered jackets, this clearly never happened. So what *would* he be singing here?

Many people have suggested John Williams’ Superman theme, and that makes a kind of sense, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were the author’s intent, but it’s always seemed too martial to me for Superman. The Wagnerian feel would actually fit much of the rest of the story, but there’s not enough joy to it for it to fit here.

My original thought is Bach, simply because Bach’s music is the closest I’ve ever heard to perfection (Douglas Adams used to tell a story about how NASA were sending out a deep-space probe with examples of human culture and eventually decided *not* to send any Bach, because they didn’t want to seem like they were showing off), and Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring or the third Brandenburg Concerto could certainly fit the bill, but they’re a bit too much of the head rather than the heart.

The Ode To Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth? No… Superman’s an essentially simple man, and very American.

Elvis.

Elvis was born six months before Superman, and Alan Moore had Superman die ten years to the day after Elvis (something I’ve never seen anyone note other than myself about Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? even though Moore is clearly riffing on the ‘Elvis Alive?’ headlines that were around at the time) in a story that Morrison is clearly playing off in FC 7 (having the whole thing narrated by Lois Lane in much the same voice as she had in Moore’s story). Superman and Elvis both have similar iconic statuses (Kinky Friedman talked about going to Borneo and meeting tribes who’d never seen a white person before, but who knew three words in English – Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola. That’s roughly the kind of company Superman is in…) and Elvis even desperately *wanted* to be a superhero (specifically Captain Marvel Jr. His ‘TCB’ lightning bolt was based on the Captain Marvel logo, and his jumpsuits were based around his costume. He even dyed his hair to look more like him…). Elvis just seems *right* for Superman.

But at the same time, you can’t see Superman defeating Darkseid by singing Hound Dog or Heartbreak Hotel – much less Do The Clam or Queenie Wahini. So what *could* he be singing?

It’s obvious, when you think about it.

One of Elvis’ last hits was An American Trilogy, a horrible mush of patriotic sentiment, bashing together three songs without much regard for musical or lyrical coherence, or taste, or anything else. It’s tasteless, tacky Vegas kitsch, the very kind of thing that makes Elvis a laughing-stock today. But the thing is, no-one told Elvis that.

In his last years, Elvis lost any sense of taste he once had, seemingly choosing songs completely at random. But he *believed* in those songs, and he still had that voice. He was taking utter *shit*, songs like “You Gave Me A Mountain”, and turning it into art through pure force of will. Which is why, incidentally, he was a better artist than Sinatra. When Sinatra sang My Way, you could hear the contempt in his voice. When Elvis sang it, he believed every word, and let you know he believed every word.

And it’s that sincerity, that ability to take cliche and platitude and make you believe in them, which Elvis shares with Superman (and if you don’t believe me look at thisIf I Can Dream may be one of the most banal songs ever written, yet hardly anyone seems to have noticed, mostly because of Elvis’ voice on the middle-eight) that makes the first few minutes of An American Trilogy listenable despite the material. But then he gets to The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

For those who don’t know that song, here’s its history in brief. Originally a campfire song, after the execution of John Brown, the anti-slavery campaigner, it became a song about freedom, and freeing the slaves, and about how ideals can live on after death, and how it’s sometimes worth dying for a cause you believe in – “John Broan’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave/His truth is marching on”. John Brown later became God, when the song became a hymn, but the song remained about freedom – “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”. And it contained lines like “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,”

And Martin Luther King’s last speech, before his death, ended with the opening line of the ‘spiritual’ version – “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”.

So we have a song with resonances with current events and the election of a black man to President (as also shown on page one of FC7), with freedom, with sacrifice, with dead comrades acting as an inspiration for a continuing struggle, and with liberation from slavery. And the chorus to this song is the ending to Elvis’ American Trilogy (I could here go into a digression about how you could make the three parts of American Trilogy into Truth, Justice and the American Way, but it would be a hell of a stretch). And while most of American Trilogy is pabulum, lifted only by Elvis’ conviction, there’s a moment right on the last line, where the orchestra builds, and JD Sumner and the Stamps do their low white male harmonies and the Sweet Inspirations wail over the top with their perfect black female voices, and Elvis sings “his truth is marching ON!” and holds that note for what feels like eternity…

THAT is what Superman sang to Darkseid. I can guarantee it.

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