The subtlety of Randy Newman

Posted by – August 13, 2017

Randy Newman is best known for a couple of satirical humorous songs, Political Science and Short People. Political Science is a send-up of American wounded amour propre:

No one likes us
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect
But heaven knows we try
But all around
Even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one
And see what happens

We give them money
But are they grateful
No, they’re spiteful
And they’re hateful
They don’t respect us
So let’s surprise them
We’ll drop the big one
And pulverize them

Short People is racial prejudice translated to heightism:

They got little hands
And little eyes
And they walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet

[…]

They got lil’ baby legs
They stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That got beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time
Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
‘Round here

Perhaps because of these songs, Newman has a reputation among some people for “on-the-nose” satire, being too obvious by half. According to my dad, legendary Finnish songwriter Juice thought that. But if anything, that’s backwards. I think Randy Newman is so subtle, even smart people often miss a lot. This is from a song called Rednecks:

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we’re keeping the niggers down

Now your northern nigger’s a negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free

Now *that* is on the nose! In fact so on the nose that it seems like it’s satirizing the satire. Indeed, the song starts:

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool
If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that’s where I made this song

So the rest of the song is explicitly in the character of this second songwriter:

We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town
And we’re keepin’ the niggers down

The song is in fact a take on smug liberal attitudes from the opposite point of view. So is Newman making fun of it or not? Well, you can be pretty sure he’s not in favour of racial segregation or opposed to the civil rights movement. But when the Southern man says:

[…] the North has set the nigger free
Yes he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston

I think Newman is genuinely allowing his Southern character to put a strong foot forwards and allowing his point that the liberal north hasn’t really solved the black man’s problems either, and that some of its moral superiority is unwarranted. Also, he allows his Southern character to effectively be self-deprecating, *in character*:

We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And college men from LSU
Went in dumb, come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues
And they’re keepin’ the niggers down

I think this shows that the Southern character who is the voice of the song *does* admit that the South is backward and racist, while simultaneously claiming that it is misunderstood and blamed for everything. It’s really quite a deep setup, and of course Randy Newman himself *is* a “New York Jew” (though not really, he’s from New Orleans and Los Angeles, and not observant; supposedly when turned away from the country club where he was supposed to go on a date, he had to ask his father what a Jew was).

Here’s another one, called Christmas in Cape Town:

This English girl from the North somewhere
Is stayin’ with me at my place
Drinkin’ up all my beer
Talkin’ about the poor niggers all the time
It’s a real disgrace, she says
I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about things
You don’t understand
I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about something
You don’t know anything about
I tell her, Darling, if you don’t like it here
Go back to your own miserable country

You know my little brother, babe
Well, he works out at the diamond mine
I drove him out there at five this mornin’
The niggers were waitin’ in a big long line
You know those big old lunch pails they carry, man
With a picture of Star Wars painted on the side
They were starin’ at us real hard with
Their big ugly yellow eyes
You could feel it
You could feel it

It’s Christmas in Cape Town but it ain’t the same
The stores are open all the time
And little kids on skateboards cut in and out of the crowd
And the Christmas lights still shine
Myself, I don’t like to drink the way
I used to, man, you know
It don’t seem to get me high
And the beer don’t taste the way it
Ought to taste somehow
And I don’t know why

Don’t talk to me about the planes
Man, I’ve heard it
Just take a look around
What are we gonna do, blow up
The whole damn country?

Again, it’s not like he’s in favour of Apartheid, and this isn’t the sort of intelligent satirizing storyteller from Rednecks, but it is a genuine character. This is not a straight in-your-face moralization about the end of Apartheid. It’s about a character, not a hate figure, but an ordinary dumbass with relatable feelings.

And while he was in some sense on the opposite side ideologically from this character, I suspect Newman probably did think that people really didn’t understand what they were talking about when talking about South Africa, himself included. And he let this outgroup member say so. I really like that. And of course, the reality has turned out to be more complicated and depressing than newspapers at the time were probably expecting.

These are one idiosyncratic type of Randy Newman song. Here’s another, of an unsympathetic character laying down his flaws in such an endearing way that it’s hard not to go along with it to some extent. From It’s Money That I Love:

I don’t love the mountains
I don’t love the sea
I don’t love Jesus
He never done a thing for me
I ain’t pretty like my sister
Or smart like my dad
Or good like my mama

It’s money that I love
It’s money that I love

They say that money
Can’t buy love in this world
But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine
And a sixteen-year-old girl
And a great big long limousine
On a hot September night
Now that may not be love but it is all right

[…]

Used to worry about the poor
But I don’t worry anymore
Used to worry about the black man
Now, I don’t worry about the black man
Used to worry
‘Bout the starving children of India
You know what I say now about the starving children of India
I say, oh mama

It would be easy to listen to just part of the song and figure it as the character assassination of people who only care about money. But really it’s someone who’s laying down his shortcomings, his feelings of inadequacy and his self-awareness in going for “now that may not be love but it is all right”. You can’t condone it, but you can’t feel superior over it either. I’m so moved by this poor guy’s story that when I listen to that song and hear the part about a half-pound of cocaine and a sixteen-year-old girl, I’m going “Hell yeah that’s all right!” just in support of him. (Note: I have never used cocaine.)

Somehow he sells just about any character so well you can’t really truly see them just from the outside, as a clown or a villain. Even this violent homophobe who meets with an absurd transformation, in Half a Man:

This big old queen was standing
On the corner of the street
He waved his hanky at me
As I went rolling by

I pulled the truck up on the sidewalk
And I climbed down from the cab
With my tire-chain and my knife

As I approached him
He was trembling like a bird
I raised the chain above my head
He said, “Please, before you kill me
Might I have one final word?”

And this is what he said:
“I am but half a man, half a man
I’d like to be a dancer
But I’m much too large
Half a man, half a man
An object for your pity, not your rage”

Oh, the strangest feeling’s sweeping over me
Both my speech and manner have become much more refined
I said, “Oh, what is this feeling?
What is wrong with me?”
She said, “Girl, it happens all the time”

Now you are half a man,
Half a man
Look, you’re walking and you’re talking like a fag!”
Half a man,
I am half a man
Holy Jesus, what a drag

I don’t really even know what to make of that song. It’s closer to the absurd writing of Daniil Harms than anything else. But who else is going to write a song about an indended anti-gay murder where the murderer gets infected by homosexuality and you can’t really figure out what it’s all supposed to mean? Whatever it is, it’s not obvious satire.

There’s another fairly well known Newman song, You Can Leave Your Hat On, which paints a picture of a dirty old man:

Baby take off your coat (real slow)
Baby take off your shoes
(Here I’ll take your shoes)
Baby take off your dress
Yes yes yes
You can leave your hat on

Go on over there
And turn on the light
No all the lights
Come back here
Stand on this chair, that’s right
Raise your arms up in to the air
Shake ’em

But the delivery, if not the words, of the last verse must leave everyone siding with the dirty old man:

Suspicious minds are talking
Trying to tear us apart
They say that my love is wrong
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
I know what love is

And what about those obvious songs I started with, Political Science and Short People? In the middle of Short People, there’s this bridge verse:

Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die
(It’s a wonderful world)

Sung by a we-are-the-world choir together with Newman. Is that then supposed to be satire too? It certainly doesn’t seem like a genuine message either. Is it an attempt of the in-song character to make fun of we-are-the-worldism? I don’t really know. Even that song is a bit puzzling the more you think about it.

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