Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Five for Fighting – Superman (It’s Not Easy)”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #14 in 2002
When America looked for heroes after the collapse of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon in September 2001, it rested its sated eyes on George Bush stripped of a copy of My Pet Goat, blinking like a bad actor. A few months later America got the theme song it deserved when John Ondrasik wrote “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” Many readers will nominate something like Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” or Enya’s “Only Time” as the sappiest 9-11-drenched plaint; I like “Only Time” because, well, time. I have no hesitation shoving a piece of kryptonite at Ondrasik, known by the moniker Five for Fighting even though he’s only one and he did no fighting.
Superman allusions are’t new to pop. “Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not),” with its L.A. bizzer cliches about how to handle pianos and buoyant self-actualization embodied in a song about a permed superhero, peaked at #2 in the horrifying late summer of 1981, often considered the nadir of the chart pop era. A year before “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” hard rock act 3 Doors Down named their most lasting hit after the green ore that saps Superman of his powers. On any first listen Five for Fighting’s hit swings closer to the treacle of Joey Scarbury’s 1981 single, albeit with contemporary nods: the chowing-down-on-Kraft-Singles timbre of Ondrasik’s sounds an awful lot like David Matthews’, who had earned no more than a few airplay successes to this point.
What’s as clear as a ten-foot wall seen through X-ray vision is that “Superman” is yet another song that recoils from the fictive impulse: the singer-songwriter would rather share his pitiful little feelings than develop a metaphor. “I can’t stand to fly/I’m not that naive/I’m just out to find/The better part of me,” Ondrasik mewls. This isn’t Superman — it’s Therapyman. The development that induces vomiting happens when he ascends several notes to assure listeners he’s not a bird, a plane, or a pretty face beside a train: like Kermit, it’s not easy being green. Like Bowie and Peter Schilling’s Major Tom, David Johansen’s “Lonely Planet Boy,” or Duran Duran’s New Romantic looking for the TV sound on “Planet Earth,” Ondrasik’s Superman feels alienated from his adopted people; he’s Never Been to Me.
And maybe Charlene’s schlock-a-rama out of time classic from 1982 (but actually recorded in 1977) is the closest analogue. Stuck in a landscape dominated by the likes of Ashanti, Jennifer Lopez, and Ja-Rule, “Superman” emitted the faintest of yawns and insisted on flying around Earth dozens of times, hoping to turn the clock backward to a time and place when palsy didn’t shake a few last sad grey hairs or youth grew pale and specter-thin and died. Its vacuum-packed aversion to irony is “Superman (It’s Not Easy”‘s strength: it helped make it a hit during a time when Americans needed nostrums, kids needed emo, and Kevin Spacey needed the Lex Luthor part.