Heroes —The Top 20 Heroic Song Anthems

Grey Swan Guild
15 min readJan 17, 2022

The Anthology of Heroic Musical Songs — Interpret our Billboard Chart of Great Heroic Music

News Wrap Edition #2b (Tapestry #1), Vol. 2

Author: Sean Moffitt

In our second edition on our “Heroes” theme, we become musical and lyrical sensemakers and build the playlist of our heroic lives. Here is Part 1 — The Deep Dive and Part III — Heroes — Superheroes, Everyday Heroes, Anti-heroes, Fake Heroes and Villains

Music has a lot of timeless observation to make about our lives and the concept of heroes; we apply them to our study of heroism here as part two of our deep dive exploratory into Heroes (here is part #1 — We Can Be Heroes, for Just One Day).

I’ve chosen the list of twenty songs with three prime criteria:

  • do they provide a deeper meaning & interpretation about heroes & heroism? (all pass this test)
  • do they tease out different facets of hero-dom? (we think we’ve done a good job here but we could add hundreds more to the list)
  • are they genuine good songs with great lyrics? (most pass this test)

On each song, we provide: the video, the year the song was produced, what was the original purpose of the song, what became the interpretation for heroes, the rank on the global music charts, its popularity & legacy (with the benefit of time hindsight) and the key “hero” lyric.

#1 Heroes by David Bowie

Year Produced: 1977

What Was it Really About: The lyrics for Heroes came late in the game and were inspired by Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti in the late stages of his marriage, finding the time to steel up the nerve and have an affair while producing this album by the Berlin Wall. Takeaway?: — Even if we can’t always sustain those moments of strength, love, or larger than life daring, we still need to catapult ourselves into them.

Interpretation: Everyday people can be brave even for a short time; the song was adopted by various movements that needed to muster courage in the face of fear including: the German reunification effort and the bringing down of the Wall, anti-Soviet sentiment and as a gay anthem.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #24 on the UK Charts

Popularity: Bowie’s second most covered song after “Rebel, Rebel” and recently ranked by Rolling Stone magazine #23 song of all-time.

Key Lyrics:

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day

#2 We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome) by Tina Turner

Year Produced: 1985

What Was it Really About: Theme song to the movie Mad Max : Thunderdome (which Tina starred in); title character Mad Max yearns for freedom beyond the ragged dystopia and nuclear disaster-driven desert.

Interpretation: People don’t need another messiah or saviour, they just want a better life. Set in a cold war nuclear turbulent moment the world found itself in, people were hungry for escape and lessening of the world-ending threat.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #2 on the Billboard Charts, #3 on UK charts and #1 in various countries around the world.

Popularity: Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song and a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, reignited Tina’s career at 45 years of age.

Key Lyrics:

And I wonder when we
Are ever gonna change, change
Living under the fear
’Til nothing else remains

We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

#3 My Hero by Foo Fighters

Year Produced: 1998

What Was it Really About: The song is dedicated to ordinary, everyday heroes, as lead singer/drummer Dave Grohl himself never had musical or sports heroes growing up as a child, so he identified with the common, ordinary person.

Interpretation: Everyday ordinary people have extraordinary potential. Some believe it may have also been passingly referring to his deceased band mate Kurt Cobain from four years back.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #6 on US Alternative charts and #23 on UK charts.

Popularity: Rolling Stone has it as the Foo Fighter’s 4th best song of all time. The band was ticked up off that John McCain used it for his Republican presidential campaign.

Key Lyrics:

Kudos, my hero, leavin’ all the mess
You know my hero, the one that’s on
There goes my hero
Watch him as he goes
There goes my hero
He’s ordinary.

#4 Superman (It’s Not even Easy) by Five for Fighting

Year Produced: 2001

What Was it Really About: Superman — the life of even a superhero is surprisingly difficult despite immense power, and in spite of best outward appearances, they get depressed and have breakdowns. Also a general frustration about the inability to be heard from a heroes’ vantage point.

Interpretation: Became an anthem in the days after the 9/11 attacks. Its lyrics resonated with people, bringing a sense of raw humanity and comfort to those who needed it most. Also was adopted by people going through depression.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #14 on US Billboard chart , #48 on UK charts and #2 on Australia/New Zealand charts.

Popularity: Nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals , played at the post 9/11 Concert for New York and in strange irony was a theme song for an episode about Clark Kent’s Smallville.

Key Lyrics:

It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream?
And it’s not easy to be me.

#5 Holding Out For a Hero by Bonnie Tyler

Year Produced: 1984

What Was it Really About: The theme song to Footloose with Kevin Bacon, the fast-paced drum beat and strong voice make people feel like dancing, strutting and singing along. A true 80s rock anthem, in the spirit of Meat Loaf.

Interpretation: The instinctive and pure emotional need to want to be rescued by a white knight. Context — Tyler was also worried about her abusive ex-husband at the time of its writing.

Rank on charts: #2 in the UK and #34 in the US Billboard Charts..

Popularity: Covered by many bands and included in many movie song tracks, including Shrek II.

Key Lyrics:

I need a hero
I’m holdin’ out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight

#6 No More Heroes by The Stranglers

Year Produced: 1977

What Was it Really About: Mourning the loss of strong figures in culture and mentions anti-heroes that writer/lead vocalist had great admiration for: communist leader Leon Trotsky, comedian Lenny Bruce, art forger Elmyr de Hory and Don Quixote side kick Sancho Panza.

Interpretation: A punk rock anthem bemoaning the absence of larger than life figures who tried to remake the world through a combination of idealism and ruthlessness, frequently misinterpreted by the western world. The band no longer gave out autographs after the song, suggesting to fans that they weren’t heroes nor did the world have any, so why should they worship them?

Rank on charts: Topped out at #8 on UK Singles chart.

Popularity: A video game series No More Heroes is named after this song and the album. Violent Femmes subsequently covered it.

Key Lyrics:

Whatever happened to
All of the heroes?
All the Shakespearoes?
They watched their Rome burn
Whatever happened to the heroes?
Whatever happened to the heroes? No more heroes any more

#7 Hero by Mariah Carey

Year Produced: 1993

What Was it Really About: Originally intended as the theme song for the movie Hero, featuring Dustin Hoffman and Geena Davis, and to be performed by Gloria Estefan, the lyrics are about looking inside yourself and being your own hero. Finding the inner strength to be yourself and your own role model even during the toughest times.

Interpretation: Trying to make it through any situation by really just having yourself to depend on first and look up to, like being your own role model, with self-assuring courage. A popular, big-voiced ballad for people going through struggles and considering suicide.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #1 in US and Canada and #7 in the UK.

Popularity: From the outset, not one of Mariah Carey’s favourite songs, it has become one of her preferred faves given her fans’ embrace of it. Played frequently on music reality show competitions and charity events. Nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 37th annual Grammy Awards, and has over 300MM views on YouTube.

Key Lyrics:

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you, oh, oh

#8 Believe It or Not (The Greatest American Hero) by Joey Scarbury & Mike Post

Year Produced: 1981

What Was it Really About: The theme song to early 1980s TV show The Greatest American Hero talks about an ordinary school teacher who has a chance encounter with aliens who give him a superhero costume (which endows the wearer with super powers) and his destiny to use it to save the world is foiled by losing the instruction manual.

Interpretation: Everyday man becomes superhero and has to cope with the resultant pressures, expectations and sacrifices. Also with a side of technology issues as an omen to the future-to-come and the perils of not reading user manuals.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #2 in US, the second most popular TV theme song in the 1980s after Miami Vice’s theme.

Popularity: Parodied on Seinfeld. Also used on Family Guy, Heroes, My Name Is Earl, Gilmore Girls, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and appearing in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Key Lyrics:

Look at what’s happened to me
I can’t believe it myself
Suddenly I’m up on top of the world
It should have been somebody else

Believe it or not, I’m walkin’ on air
I never thought I could feel so free
Flyin’ away on a wing and a prayer
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it’s just me

#9 Not All Heroes Wear Capes — Owl City

Year Produced: 2018

What Was it Really About: An ode to fathers everywhere, heroes don’t have to have super abilities, but all the subtle things that fathers do, and the importance of being a good role model add up to be a real life superhero.

Interpretation: People in reality can be just as good as the idealized heroes of comics and movies. The song title itself relies on the idea that most heroes, or at least most superheroes, do wear capes.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #26 in the US and #15 in UK for Independent albums.

Popularity: Released on Father’s Day 2017.

Key Lyrics:

He built me a house in the arms of a tree
He taught me to drive and to fight and to dream
When he looks in my eyes I hope he can see
That my dad’s a hero to me

#10 Hero — Enrique Inglesias

Year Produced: 2001

What Was it Really About: Love and assurance with a desire to be a hero for the love of a woman. Declaring true feelings for a girl whom he loves very deeply and letting her know that he will stand by her forever, if she’ll let him.

Interpretation: Enrique’s debut performance of the song was supposed to be on September 11, 2001 for the Miss Venezeula pageant. After its cancelleation, he sang t for the first time 10 days later for America: A Tribute to Heroes concert on 21 September, ten days after 9/11 — the theme of standing by a loved one resonated at this time.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #1 in UK, Canada and USA and numerous other countries.

Popularity: The video has been viewed 430 million times on YouTube.

Key Lyrics:

I can be your hero baby
I can kiss away the pain
I will stand by you forever
You can take my breath away.

#11 Kill your Heroes by Awolnation

Year Produced: 2012

What Was it Really About: Live your life, soon it won’t matter, because you will die. So, stop looking up to other people and learn to be yourself.

Interpretation: At worst, you and everyone you know will be gone and forgotten forever, and best case scenario, you fulfill your full potential and leave some of a legacy. But either way, in the sense of the big picture, the pressure of failure is off. So just go for it. Kill your heroes. Disregard the bar set by the people you hold up on a pedestal, and in doing so remove the power they have over you.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #7 in US Alternative Charts

Popularity: The video has been viewed 13 million times on YouTube.

Key Lyrics:

Well I met an old man dying on a train
No more destination, no more pain
Well he said one thing: “Before I graduate
Never let your fear decide your fate”

#12 Superman’s Song by Crash Test Dummies

Year Produced: 1991

What Was it Really About: True heroes give without any thought of reward like Superman, unlike Tarzans who take off and do their own thing.

Interpretation: Relentless commitment to helping us and making our lives better, often goes unnoticed and is found rarely in people. We often don’t think of our heroes as human beings, but as of otherworldly gods. Also tinged with left vs. right wing politics and against the backdrop of a Superman funeral.

Rank on charts: The group’s first hit, topped out #4 in Canada, #56 in the United States and #87 in Australia.

Popularity: Many people comment that this is an overlooked and grossly under-appreciated classic.

Key Lyrics:

Superman never made any money
Savin’ the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair
The world will never see another man like him

#13 Everyday Superhero by Smash Mouth

Year Produced: 2006

What Was it Really About: The day-in, day-out mission of being a hero people look up to, despite being flawed and having self-doubt.

Interpretation: Not wanting any fame or rewards for doing what comes naturally.

Rank on charts: n/a.

Popularity: Used on soundtrack for movies The Pacifier, Zoom and TV show The King of Queens.

Key Lyrics:

I’m just your average ordinary everyday superhero
Trying to save the world, but never really sure
I’m just your average ordinary everyday superhero
Nothing more than that, that’s all I really am

#14 Superheroes by The Script

Year Produced: 2014

What Was it Really About: Tells of a family that has gone through a difficulty and is still experiencing it, but instead of giving into the shear helplessness of their circumstances, it just fuels them to try harder to be the best that they can be.

Interpretation: The video celebrates the everyday heroes of the city of Johannesburg. The song was borne out of the band frequently sitting around and talking about issues and unsung heroes late at night on tour.

Rank on charts: #1 in Ireland, #33 in UK and #9 US Adult Top 40.

Popularity: n/a

Key Lyrics:

All his life he’s been told
He’ll be nothing when he’s old
All the kicks and all the blows
He won’t ever let it show

’Cause he’s stronger than you know
A heart of steel starts to grow

#15 Heroes (we could be) by Alesso

Year Produced: 2014

What Was it Really About: There are some people with a greater calling than doing everyday things. They are even more invincible when they do it together with someone.

Interpretation: Reach high for the sky if you are driven and talented enough. Also deals with camaraderie and/or love — gives the feeling that something might be over, and it might be the last time we’ll be in that specific moment, but we can create new ones afterwards.

Rank on charts: #1 on US and UK Dance Charts.

Popularity: 225 million+ views on YouTube

Key Lyrics:

Every day people do everyday things, but I
Can’t be one of them
I know you hear me now, we are a different kind
We can do anything

We could be heroes
We could be heroes, me and you

#16 Gonna Fly Now (Rocky song) by Bill Conti

Year Produced: 1976

What Was it Really About: Part of American pop culture, get back off the canvas and work even harder in the face of steep odds or defeat.

Interpretation: He can go far, he can win, he can fly in the sky — the song builds in intensity as Rocky climbs the Philadelphia steps. We feel passion, we feel inspiration, and the confidence this lowly contender can maybe beat the odds, to go the distance.

Rank on charts: #1 on US Billboard charts.

Popularity: Nominated for Best Original Song at the 49th Academy Awards. The goal song for the Finnish professional ice hockey team Jokerit and kickoff song for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Key Lyrics:

Getting strong now
Won’t be long now
Getting strong now

Gonna fly now
Flying high now
Gonna fly, fly

#17 Nobody’s Hero by Rush

Year Produced: 1994

What Was it Really About: A “hero” is not a singer, actor or athlete, but people who really make a difference in the world, either in a global way or in a personal way.

Interpretation: Discussion about the nobody hero — a gay man in a time of AIDS and a high profile murder case of Kristen French in the early 90s . Examining the difference between what popular media calls a hero and what should really be considered a hero but are all too often are forgotten about.

Rank on charts: Platinum album in Canada and Gold in the USA.

Popularity: n/a

Key Lyrics:

Saves a drowning child
Cures a wasting disease
Lands the crippled airplane
Solves great mysteries

Not the handsome actor
Who plays a hero’s role
Not the glamour girl
Who’d love to sell her soul
If anybody’s buying
Nobody’s hero

#18 Something Just Like This — The Chainsmokers featuring Coldplay

Year Produced: 2017

What Was it Really About: You don’t have to be perfect or a superhero to be someone’s love and comfort.

Interpretation: It gives the nostalgia of youth and love. The Chainsmokers and Coldplay detail one of the biggest problems in any kind of relationship — the difference between our idealized longings and the harsh reality of who we really are.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #2 in UK and #3 in US.A

Popularity: 2 billion+ views on YouTube, song was one of the three songs performed by Coldplay at the One Love Manchester concert to help the people who became victims of the Manchester Arena bombings of 2017. Grammy Award nomination at the 2018 Grammy Awards for best duo.

Key Lyrics:

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

But she said, where’d you wanna go?
How much you wanna risk?
I’m not lookin’ for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some superhero
Some fairy-tale bliss
Just something I can turn to
Somebody I can kiss

#19 Hero by David Crosby & Phil Collins

Year Produced: 1993

What Was it Really About: Being involved in a heroic act, but having to do time because you break the law in the process and the lost relationships that ensue, likely a song written from the son’s point of view.

Interpretation: Fairly autobiographical of Crosby’s life — during the time of writing this song Crosby needed a liver transplant, was on the run from the law, and penniless. Crosby spent a year in prison, but Collins agreed to pay for the liver transplant and get the album produced. Sometimes the hero needs to make the biggest sacrifice.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #3 on US Adult Contemporary and #1 on Canadian Adult Contemporary.

Popularity: n/a

Key Lyrics:

Well it was one of those great stories
That you can’t put down at night
The hero knew what he had to do
And he wasn’t afraid to fight
The villain goes to jail
While the hero goes free
I wish it were that simple
For me
Were that simple for me

#20 My Heroes Have All Been Cowboys by Willie Nelson

Year Produced: 1980 by Willie Nelson, 1976 by Waylon Jennings

What Was it Really About: Narrator compares his childhood dream of revering a cowboy’s life and becoming a cowboy himself, to the reality he faces after he realizes the hard truth of cowboy life.

Interpretation: The song is really about squandered chances and coming to terms with a life lived without responsibility, something akin to a mournful life admonition than a macho boast or continued reverence for cowboy ways.

Rank on charts: Topped out at #1 US & Canadian Country Charts.

Popularity: Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time, ushered in the Outlaw country movement, used on Robert Redford movie The Electric Horseman.

Key Lyrics:

My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are, it seems
Sadly, in search of, and one step in back of
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams

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Making Sense of the World’s Biggest Challenges — curating and creating knowledge through observation, informed futurism, and analysis🦢



Grey Swan Guild

Making Sense of the World’s Biggest Challenges & Next Grey Swans — curating and creating knowledge through observation, informed futurism, and analysis🦢