Monday, September 25, 2006

Seven Songs 4: The Essay

(This is the fourth in a series of seven posts, written in response to a meme that asked me what seven songs I held in highest esteem. The first of these posts is noted here.)

Superman (Five for Fighting)
- written by John Ondrasik

Halfway through this series of posts, I'm starting to run out of words to say. I suppose that there are only so many ways by which you can describe the quality of a song, much less enumerate your favorites among the pack.

For that matter, there are only so many things that can be expressed through song, as well. I remember once reading a hypothesis that states that the more complex a form of media is, the more restrictions it has with regards to its choice of subjects. There is a point, I think, where the artistic process suddenly becomes difficult to execute: You don't see many moviemakers tackling the concept of still-life paintings, for example. While I'm not saying that each form of art has its limits, of course, we do have to admit that certain topics pose more of a challenge than others, depending on the medium.

And that's where "Superman" comes in, because for all intents and purposes, out of all the available topics in the world, despite the fact that it's much easier to sing about love or hate or life or death or freedom or rapture, this song talks about Superman. Superman, of all people.

And strangely enough, it works.

I believe that "Superman" works because it decided to ignore the obvious angles to its subject. It brushes aside the things that are common knowledge about the superhero, and instead presents us with insights as to the possible nature of the character. As a result, the song is less about what occurs on the surface, and more about what the inside is like. It presents us with a different and very personal viewpoint, and it somehow does this through the most unlikeliest of forms: Music and lyrics.

This is the kind of topic that can be covered far more easily through writing alone. This is not the kind of thing that you place into the context of a song, because you risk too many things when you commit thoughts like these to music: You risk the lyrics sounding hokey, you risk the melody sounding like an practical joke, and at the very least, you risk the end product sounding really strange when you put it all together.

This didn't turn out that way. Quite the contrary, in fact: The end product is practically its own treatise on what one can do with the art form.

"Superman" may not be the best composition ever made, but it is almost unparalleled in that it makes a very deep point -- an almost philosophical one, I must say -- through a very unlikely form of media. It's really a plain, undecorated song that raises possibilities on the nature of a human icon, and by doing so, it causes us to question exactly who and what we are. I feel that it succeeds in a place where its art form normally fears to tread, and that's why I have it in the fourth spot on my list.


kat said...

A friend in college told me that he can relate to this song, because like Superman, he (or we) presents a certain image to the world, and there are times when it's hard to live up to it, and you just want to let everything go. That there's more to him (or us) than what that image presents. And it shows that even superheroes have their weaknesses too, and it isn't often physical.

Sean said...

Kat: *Sigh* You just pretty much summarized everything that I wanted to say in this article in one paragraph. I guess I really do need a good night's sleep... :)