June 3, 2017


Mythic Storytelling, and the Everyday Hero

As an author with a brand new superhero book coming out, I’m finding myself acutely aware of any and all references to superheroes and comics. Which, let’s be honest, is so many—and I love it. I love the obsession with larger-than-life heroes, I love the spectacle, I love the hype. I am so annoyed that my schedule doesn’t work out for me to see Wonder Woman until Wednesday.

But anyway: most of the references are what you’d expect. News of another movie or TV show, or the latest update to the train wreck of what they’re doing with Steve Rogers in the comics (do NOT even get me started), or things of that nature. So I was surprised a few weeks ago, when I heard a new song that was sort of about superheroes. That’s… not really the medium I expect to encounter them in, and I was immediately charmed by the idea of songwriters getting into the game too.

The song is “Something Just Like This”, a collaborative effort between The Chainsmokers and Coldplay. For a long time, I didn’t really listen to it that closely. The cover of the single had a little kid dressed up as a superhero, and it referenced both Batman and Superman, and when it came on, I would just bob my head and keep writing. I learned the chorus pretty quickly, just through sheer repetition—but didn’t give it much thought. Something kind of comforting, I guess, typical love song lyrics where it’s like, hey, you don’t need to be a superhero to be important to me? Okay.

Not sure what made me stop and listen to the lyrics more closely. But here’s how the song starts:

I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
Spider-man’s control
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list

The nerd in me wants to ask exactly what, exactly, Spider-man’s “control” is supposed to be about (I mean… his powers don’t exactly control things, the way that, say, Magneto does), but moreover, I was completely dumbstruck the first time that I heard this. Because the whole point of these epic stories, throughout all of human history, is that you’re supposed to see yourself in them, and this person… doesn’t? Which makes me wonder if that’s a common thing, to not identify with mythic heroes.

Listen, I’m not saying that you’re supposed to identify with the trappings of a superhero. Obviously not. Very few of us run around punching out bad guys, and nobody shoots webbing or flies faster than a speeding bullet. That’s not the point. Superpowers are not about the powers. That’s not why we like those stories. That’s not why we keep telling those stories, over and over, from Greek myths up to the latest summer blockbuster. What superheroes are supposed to do, is remind us of our own ability to stand up to injustice. To show us our inner strength. To inspire us to do better, be better, dig deeper. Keep going, even when all hope seems lost. They’re supposed to represent the best in us.

And for a song to just completely dismiss any connection with that message, especially in today’s sociopolitical climate, is kind of disheartening, to say the least. It also guts the later part of the lyrics: “[I just want] something I can turn to / Somebody I can kiss”. Really? So not only are we not identifying with the best of ourselves, we’re not holding our dearest loved ones to a higher standard either? Fine, so you’re not looking for “somebody with some superhuman gifts”—great, good, because you’re not getting that—but literally all you’re seeking is a warm body? I don’t know about you, but I’m a better person because my husband expects me to be. We hold each other up. Inspire each other to keep going, to do good even when it’s easier not to. Relationships (not just romantic) can easily serve the same role as heroic fiction, in that regard. This is another lesson that superheroes try to teach us: that love is important, that human connection helps us keep our humanity.

If it was just another love song, I wouldn’t be disappointed in it. I’ve come to expect terrible messages from love songs, once you stop and break down their meaning on a deeper level. But superheroes are supposed to be held to a higher standard, so that we in turn hold ourselves to a higher standard. And for me, that bleeds over into media about superheroes.

I do really hope that other songwriters pick up the idea, though. Even if some of them stumble and fall, I’d love a new subgenre in music to emerge. Because seriously, how wicked cool would that be?