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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchMusical Geopolitics: Masculinity, Nationhood, and the Scoring of Superman (1978-2006)

Musical Geopolitics: Masculinity, Nationhood, and the Scoring of Superman (1978-2006)

Author: Philip Kirby 

Affiliation: School of Education, Communication & Society, King’s College London, London-UK 

Organization/Publisher: Geopolitics Journal  

Date/Place: Sep 19, 2021/ UK 

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 24 



Keywords: Geopolitics, Geography, Film Music, Superman, Gender


Studies in critical geopolitics have covered a range of topics, such as the impact of media on public opinion, computer games, cartoons, and documentaries. However, according to Philip Kirby, film music has typically been viewed as a supportive element of a movie’s visual component rather than an independent subject. This sets it apart from most references in popular literature, where film music is usually mentioned briefly as a component of movies and the film industry.


This article examines how film music conveys a wealth of geopolitical information to the general public through proper research tools in geopolitics, using the Superman movie as a detailed case study. The author aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of musical scores and notation. The article is divided into two primary sections, in addition to the introduction and conclusion:


  1. Theoretical frameworks of music in geography, geopolitics, and film music studies.
  2. Methodology, which includes a case study of “Superman” (1987) and “Superman Returns” (2006).

The Theoretical Framework offers a critical overview of how music has been conceptualized in geography and geopolitics. It argues for a closer examination of how musical form and structure convey geopolitical information, with a focus on studies that consider gender and identity.


In the first section, Kirby attempts to clarify whether geographers have ever studied music. He highlights three approaches: regional accounts, which are prevalent in North American cultural geography and trace the geographic spread of musical genres and the music industry; representational accounts, which aim to analyze the geographic influence of music, focusing on lyrical music; and non-representational accounts, which reject the idea of representation in favor of examining musical practice and performance.


In critical geopolitics, scholars have primarily adopted the second and third approaches mentioned earlier. Representational accounts have mainly focused on analyzing the geopolitical content of song lyrics, such as expressions of nationality in Australian indigenous music and songs at the China central television Spring Festival Gala. Non-representational accounts have examined the political geography of musical performances, like those of the Russian band and Taiwanese-American rock musicians. This article seeks to navigate a path between these two approaches.


The author notes that non-representational accounts of music have drawn attention to how music is experienced, felt, and performed. They have largely avoided considering lyrics because of the representational focus on them. However, they have not been well-equipped to determine whether music can express the representational-referential system that non-representational critique. Therefore, non-representational accounts remain open to criticism for their resistance to traditional forms of identity, which remain crucial in contemporary life, particularly in popular culture where stereotypes are common.


Regarding musical studies, the author starts by discussing the development of these studies before delving into how film music can influence the audience’s perception of the film’s narrative. Kirby argues that the interdisciplinary field of film music studies is best suited to examine how representational forms create identity and difference, given critical theories’ attention to questions of ideology. However, musical studies, which merge semiotics and critical theory, may be the field that most closely aligns with the goals of popular geopolitics. As a result, this article sits at the intersection of these two approaches.


In the same context, the author has shifted to gender as a form of identity that is of sustained interest in film music studies. Gendering has always been a part of Hollywood films, historically in which music is used for both the love theme and the heroine’s theme, suggesting that the heroine existed in the film primarily to be the love interest for the hero. Furthermore, neo-Romantic film music conveys gender through the different types of instruments and rhythms that frequently accompany male and female characters.


Another key point raised by the author is that gender impressions that a listener experiences are based on a network of previously established gender schemata that operate at a subconscious level and rely on widely held stereotypes of the relative characteristics of men and women. For instance, fast-paced music is more likely to be associated with masculinity and vice versa. Jazz, for example, denotes an urban environment, and musical movies can even express race and ethnicity, as well as gender, nature, and the environment.


In the case study found in the author’s second section methodology, Kirby examines two scores from John Williams’ Superman (1978) and Superman Returns (2006) films to allow for a detailed but not overly burdensome study. The analysis focuses on three musical passages in these two scores for practicality: the opening fanfare, the Superman march, and the love theme. The article unpacks these musical passages through semiotic analysis. Both Superman (1978) and Superman Returns (2006) have musical scores with a lot of depth, and each of them is examined separately in this part of the article. The sections begin with brief reviews of the movies, followed by an in-depth semiotic analysis of their music that demonstrates how, in each, geopolitical information is conveyed using a variety of musical approaches and features.


Superman (1978): The Hollywood Superman film series started with Superman (1978), which the author briefly describes before delving into the meanings behind the music pieces. The “Main Title” features three recurring themes from the score—a fanfare, the Superman march, and the love theme, with the love theme being the most well-known section. The fanfare lasts for approximately 25 seconds and is rich in spatial and geopolitical meanings. The French horn plays the opening note, an instrument traditionally used to herald momentous occasions, and with its association with grandeur and nobility, conveys a variety of spatial information during the hunt. Music plays a significant role in realizing Superman’s gendered heroism in the film, and the music structure distinguishes between Superman’s active geopolitical role and other characters’ typically reactive roles. The music also connects Superman’s heroism with an upbeat view of the world in which American beneficence is ultimately beneficial.


Superman Returns (2006): A part sequel to Superman (1978), the author demonstrates how set pieces highlight Superman’s physical and moral strength, with the film being uncertain about his sexual identity. Additionally, the film is aimed more toward a female audience, and Superman’s on-screen parental relationship is with his mother, Martha, rather than with his father. The author discusses several melodies from the film that are recycled by John Ottman, most notably the “Main Title.” Ottman neglects the opening fanfare, instead starting with the Superman march before switching to a similar rendition of Williams’ love theme. Ottman’s composition becomes leaner, but the bravura of Williams’ opening fanfare and its links with a particular style of openly male Western heroism are lost. 


Kirby discusses a geopolitical message that emerges from the complexity of Superman’s personal and professional lives, which is also connected to the flying scene. During the scene, Superman asks Lane what she can hear, while the musical score’s thematic parts remain unclear. When Lane replies with “nothing,” Superman says, “I hear everything,” highlighting the fact that people cry for a savior every day, despite her belief that the world doesn’t need one. This symbolizes Superman’s inability to help everyone, and the ambiguity surrounding who he should and shouldn’t help, thus representing clear geopolitical symbolism.


The author concludes his analysis of the film by sharing reviews from IMDB platform, which demonstrate how listeners are sensitive to the structural elements of the music, such as the comparison between the scores of Superman and Superman Returns. William’s scoring of Superman aligns the image of Superman as a distinctly American hero with the traditional gendered binary of masculinity and femininity. This preference for societal and geopolitical clarity over the “messy geopolitics” of real life may suggest that people prefer to see things in simple terms.


Kirby concludes by stating that his analysis is only the first step in a larger field of future geopolitical studies. Additionally, he reminds readers that his focus was solely on Hollywood film music, and future research should explore the extent to which other types of music are amenable to this approach. The author also suggests that the enormous film industries of China, India, and Japan, with their unique cultures of film music, offer rich terrain for future analysis.

By: Chourouk Mestour, MA in Security and Strategic Studies



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