Superman Teaches Ethics, Through Music

Let’s throw together some highly unlikely elements for a song: We’ll take a male singer with a startlingly deep voice. We’ll have him sing lyrics over a funeral dirge, complete with  lachrymose cellos. But he won’t sing about blues or heartbreak, which would sort of make sense. Instead, he’ll sing an ethical lament.

About superheroes.

As odd as that premise is, that’s the gist of “Superman’s Song” from the Crash Test Dummies. Odder still, the song works. I realize I was a philosophy major, and there’s no accounting for taste, but the song charted in the US and Canada. And its video has been viewed over 1.6 million times on YouTube.

Go ahead and listen while you read. It’ll be a multimedia experience!

I like the song for all its improbability, and that it uses characters from comic books and crafts something wise and moving. Instead of the Superman with the giant, gleaming pectorals and impeccable jaw naively fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way, we get this:

Sometimes when Supe was stopping 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, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phone booths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home

In other words, it’s not always a highlight reel; it’s often a series of small, unglamorous, almost forgotten decisions to do the right thing.

A few months back I played the song for my cousin … and then time passed, events occurred, and I forgot about my Canadian-artist evangelism.

A few days ago, he sent me an email telling me he played the song for his fifth-grade class, and asked them what they thought the song’s message was. Here’s what one boy wrote:

The lesson is to live your life helping people even if you don’t get anything back. One piece of evidence is that “Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy,” but he still continued helping people and that is what you should do even if you don’t get anything for it. “And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.” But I think a lot of people can be like him even if they don’t have super powers.

If you ever wanted to know whether a song works, you can’t ask for a much clearer testament than that.