Randy Newman - Ambivalence and Irony

September 25, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Randy Newman has perfect pitch. Maybe not for musical tones (or maybe he does, I have no idea) but cultural and political ones. He sings most of his songs in character, and the characters are a variety of unreliable narrators who embody different strands of American culture.

“Political Science,” written at least 35 years ago, still sounds like the voice of American foreign policy based on American exceptionalism – a belief in our inherent goodness and innocence, a disregard for the decent opinions of other countries, and a readiness to use violence on those who disagree.
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.
It’s a more closely reasoned version of John McCain’s “Bomb, bomb Iran.”

Most of Newman’s characters are not people like us or like him. But he makes us have some sympathy with them despite their distasteful ideas, even the anti-Semitic, anti-elitist, racist voice of “Rednecks.”* Instead of “Ebony and Ivory,” it’s Ambivalence and Irony.

The ambivalence haunts even the love songs, like “Marie,” which seems merely beautiful until you listen to the lyrics and realize that this guy is a cad.
And I'm weak and I'm lazy
And I've hurt you so
And I don't listen to a word you say
When you're in trouble I just turn away
And yet, his feeling is real.

In “The World Isn’t Fair,” the narrator drops his child off at an exclusive school and imagines a conversation with Marx
All the young mommies were there,
Karl, you never have seen such a glorious sight
as these beautiful women arrayed for the night
just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens
And they'd come there with men much like me –
Froggish men, unpleasant to see
It’s like Harold Brodkey’s line, “To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die.”

I just saw Newman in concert at Carnegie Hall, so I could go on. But I realize this might not be what younger, blogger-rockers are looking for. (“My demographic,” Newman told the audience, “is white males, fifty-two to fifty-five.”) You can see Newman doing most of the songs he did at Carnegie Hall by going to YouTube and searching for the concert he did in Stuttgart two years ago. But to hear his more recent political song, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” catch him at the MacWorld expo.

* “Rednecks” is another song from the 70s that could have been written last week (except maybe for the refrain line about “keepin’ the niggers down.” Even rednecks don’t speak that explicitly today).

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