When Randy Newman played the Kennedy Center in Washington last March, it was perfectly appropriate, on one level: No contemporary pop singer has serenaded America as far and as wide as Newman. He’s written songs about Birmingham, Louisiana, Baltimore, Dayton, Los Angeles, Gainesville, Kentucky, Miami, the Cuyahoga River, New Orleans. His appearance in a government-sanctioned performing space is somewhat perverse, though, since Newman is an ambiguous writer who uses vicious humor to make serious points; who laughs at his characters while also laughing at the people who laugh; who gives American places and people more specific attention than any other rock songwriter, yet frequently makes our lives seem sad and hysterical in equal degrees. Newman’s Kennedy Center gig serenaded a part of America that few Washingtonians would willingly embrace.
On a double-bill with a fellow veteran of the late 70’s novelty hit parade, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Newman chose to debut for the nostalgia-hungry crowd two songs from his latest CD, Bad Love. In “The Great Nations of Europe,” the United States is not explicitly mentioned, and the melody is light, bouncing, charming, filled with amusing rhymes and musical puns (missing in Newman’s piano-only live show) such as Yankee-Doodle-Dandy military drumming and horn flourishes. But the song casts a strange shadow on us, like seeing glimmers of a great-grandchild’s sly look in a faded old daguerreotype of his Civil War forebear. It describes a relentless litany of crimes and destruction, of the annihilation of whole peoples before the violence and disease spread by European ambitions for the New World.
Newman’s most destructively and bluntly funny song, “Political Science,” is certainly a child of (or parody of—a meaningless distinction in Newman’s writing) American Exceptionalism. Newman imagines dropping atomic bombs on all the nations that are ungrateful for all the wonderful things America has done, or tried to do, for them. “They all hate us anyhow,” he observes, “so let’s drop the big one now.”
This is one of his more obvious knee slappers, and yet some variant of this feeling is almost certainly behind many Americans’ relatively sanguine acceptance of NATO destruction and slaughter in the former Yugoslavia. Like most of Newman’s songs, it’s funny but true: Exceptionalism can turn with frightening swiftness into the belief that anyone who doesn’t see everything our way is worthy of destruction. “Boom goes London / Boom Paree / More room for you / More room for me.”
Through Newman’s work, a history of America can be traced. It is not a triumphal history—but neither is it a Howard Zinn-ish bill of indictment. Newman’s implied assaults are always double-edged. In his most famous song, the 1978 number-two hit “Short People,” he bludgeons us with both stupid bigotry (the verses-“Short People got no reason to live”) and ridiculously sententious Pollyanna crooning (courtesy of the Eagles—as befits a song-and-dance man, he’s learned to make the sound signify and entertain as much as the words): “Short people are just the same as you and I / A fool such as I / All men are brothers until the day they die / What a wonderful world.” What any sensitive listener is left with is pure discomfort—the knee-jerk, anti-bigotry reaction seems as foolish as the bigotry, and the bigotry, so gleefully expressed, seems almost, well, fun. Newman doesn’t usually give listeners an easy way out. Laughing at a Newman song is more of a self-implication than a jolly relief—whenever he appears to be mocking the character he’s singing as, he is also mocking the type of person who would mock that type of person, as well as the listener who laughs along.
His song cycle about the American South, Good Old Boys, is perhaps the best example of this. Newman spent some formative childhood years in New Orleans; in his misty autobiographical nostalgia number, “New Orleans Wins the War,” he remembers the party-hearty poltroons of that lovable city not realizing World War II was over until 1948—and then thinking that the victory was over the Yankees. His father realizes he’s got to get the kid out of there:
People have fun here
I think that they should
But nobody from here ever comes to no good
They’re gonna pickle him in brandy
Tell liim that he’s saved
Throw firecrackers ’round his grave.
Thus Newman grew up in Los Angeles, but his vocal style is a Southern blues drawl. He’s got the South in his blood.
Good Old Boys can be heard as a ringing indictment of Southern foolishness—as most of Newman’s liberal rock critic fans hear it. But as the emblematic opening number, “Rednecks,” demonstrates, Newman’s humor isn’t at the expense of the low-status, unappreciated people in whose voice he so often speaks. The song’s chorus—”We’re rednecks / We don’t know our a– from a hole in the ground /We’re rednecks / Keepin’ the niggers down”—seems like an overly obvious attack on the stupidity of rednecks. But it’s really about the attitude of Northern sophisticates toward rednecks, since the opening verse establishes that the song is written by a Southerner angry when he sees a “smart-a– New York Jew” (give or take a major metropolis, that’s Newman himself) making fun of Lester Maddox on TV. The narrator goes on to lay out all the typical Northern intellectual complaints about the South, mixing with them some of his own blunt assaults on the racial troubles of the North while listing all of its strife-filled ghettoes.
The rest of the album is similarly scabrous toward the patronizing hand of Northern sympathy for benighted, troubled, dirt-poor Southerners. Good Old Boys mostly presents scenes and characters from Southern life that, while sometimes hilarious, show people trying to maintain dignity and individuality in the face of a world full of powerful, successful, influential people from far away who “place themselves high above us.”
The most vivid description of the numb indifference of the professional helper toward the helped is found in “Louisiana 1927,” a song about a tragic flood which causes the Southern narrator to darkly suspect that “They’re trying to wash us away.” Here’s how he regards Northern benevolence: “President Coolidge come down in a railroad train / With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand / The president say. Little fat man isn’t it a shame what the river had done to this poor crackers’ land.'” The real sympathy in Newman’s Good Old Boys is for unsophisticated Southerners who don’t believe that the movers and shakers of the world are really any better dian they. As the narrator of “Rednecks” says of the “smart-a– New York Jew,” “If he thinks he’s better than us, he’s wrong.” A childish truism, perhaps, but also the basis of all civilized politics.
A similar thread of understanding can be traced through all of Newman’s songs about low-status freaks, ignorant bigots, drunken do-nothings, small-time grifters. As a cosmopolitan liberal Jewish writer from Los Angeles, Newman is almost a traitor to his class. But he’s a clever one, because his songs are almost all deeply ironic—they are not speaking his truths, but the truths of his subjects.
Such irony has undoubtedly hurt Newman’s career. As he once lamented in a Playboy interview, people don’t like to work for their entertainment. Newman cares about these things. He is, and loves being, a popular entertainer, and despite his one-time hit, he likes to complain about not selling enough records.
As Newman’s pop song output dwindles (in the past 17 years, he’s only recorded three regular LPs), like a good American hustler, he is eagerly trying out new entrepreneurial configurations, from show-tune writer (for the way-off- Broadway play Faust) to composer and songwriter for kids movies (Toy Story, Antz). Film music is a family tradition: His uncle Alfred composed the 20th Century Fox theme, plus dozens of movie scores.
The simultaneous tawdriness and charm of typical American entertainment has been a perennial Newman theme, and he ties it in with what could be seen as his one grand theme, the key that explains how this smart Hollywood liberal can speak with such understanding about a panoply of American life so different from his own experience: the American romance with the Other. That’s what entertainment is all about, Newman seems to suggest, in his songs about old-fashioned traveling freak shows such as “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” set to a gently bouncing music hall melody, or the painfully sad and hilarious “Davy the Fat Boy” (“I think we can persuade him to do / The famous Fat Boy Dance for you”) or Bad Love’s opening track, “My Country,” a stately, lilting tune about how American families bond, or don’t, over television. This fascination with the Other streams through Newman’s American history, beginning when the first Europeans caused the death of the first American native. It influenced the events that filled the West and made the dream factories which make us want to watch Daw the Fat Bow and to reach out to other lands—and bomb them when we feel rebuffed. With television, this fascination with the Other has been domesticated and broadcast to us in the comfort, or discomfort, of our own home.
Randy Newman loves it, he hates it, he laughs at it, and perhaps, sometimes, even sheds the tears of a clown. At his best, which he reaches a respectable percentage of the time, he’s both funnier and more empathetic than his reputation as a sneering Tom Lehreresque piano pounder would suggest. “This is my country, these are my people,” he keens proudly on Bad Love, “and I know ’em like the back of my own hand.”