Saturday, December 20, 2008

Randy Newman...songwriter, singer, social commentator

Below are excerts about an extraordinary songwriter, one of my favorites. I would highly recommend reading the entire article here at The High

If there’s any American pop musician who embodies the notion of knowing something is no good but loving it anyway, it’s Randy Newman. The most supremely ironic songwriter ever produced by a country that has never had a particularly friendly relationship with irony, Newman might be a superstar if he was French, or even French-Canadian. Unfortunately, he’s not only a product of the U.S. of A., he’s a resident of Hollywood, a city that simultaneously generates massive amounts of irony and seems superhumanly immune to it. Evidence of this curious duality can be found in his best known song, “I Love L.A.”: it became a massive hit and was even used as an anthem for the 1984 Olympics, and listening to the overblown synthesizers and canned drums, it’s easy to mistake the song for what it appears to be: a big, blowsy love letter to Los Angeles. But then you hear him singing the praises, inexplicably, of run-down Victory Boulevard; you hear him sing about “that bum over there, man, he’s down on his knees”; you remember that this is Randy Newman singing — the least likely man on the planet you can picture tooling along with the top down, the Beach Boys cranking, and "a big nasty redhead" at his side.


But the most misunderstood of all his songs, and the one that comes closest to showing the nature of the man who is both sincere and cynical in his best moments, is “Rednecks.” The opening track to his stunning Good Old Boys album, it’s a song that receives a wide range of receptions, almost all of them based on a fundamental misreading of the song. I’ve seen two live performances of the song where it was received quite warmly — once by an audience of white southern, well, rednecks, who seemed to think it was an anti-P.C. celebration of their own ignorance and racism; and once by an audience of well-bred, wealthy east coast liberal types who seemed to think it was nothing more than an attack on white southern rednecks. AllMusic’s review of Good Old Boys features a typical read on the song, calling its songs “simplistic,” “mean-spirited” and possessed of “willful cruelty” — but against who? Were the rednecks right, or the liberals? The answer is painfully clear, when, after giving voice to the song’s main character, a Jew-hating, virulently racist Georgian, he twists the knife in the final chorus:

Down here we’re too ignorant to realize That the north has set the nigger free Yeah, 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 He’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston.

Randy Newman is kidding, but he’s kidding on the square. He’s anticipated — and repudiated — almost every possible reaction to the song. He’s damning the southern redneck, tempting you into what he’s often accused of: a patronizing, sneering contempt for the subject of the song. But the second you succumb to it, he steps aside and lets you throw yourself over a cliff: and how are you keeping the niggers down today? In every petty lowlife character study Newman has written — from the bewildered square of “Mama Told Me Not to Come” to the impotent hillbilly of “A Wedding in Cherokee County” to the two-bit hustler of “Can’t Fool the Fat Man” to the abusive monster of “I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do” — he has discovered that sweet spot where contempt and understanding muddle together, where you know that they’re no good, but you love them anyway. Randy Newman is neither a righteously angry Phil Ochs, condemning the evils of the world with his every word, nor a too-sympathetic Lou Reed, who all too easily finds himself inhabiting the headspace of even the worst of his creations: he’s musical proof of Richard Rorty’s notion that irony creates solidarity, that an ability to formulate an understanding of even those things you condemn lets you find a basis for dealing with them.


ButtonHole said...

I saw Randy Newman in concert about a year ago. I'd never been a huge fan, though my husband is. But the concert was fantastic! I ended up a fan myself. He played alone and with the Atlanta Symphony. My husband once met him after a concert in Bham in the
70's and on a whim asked Randy to come to a little party at his house later if wanted. Surprisingly, Randy showed up and hung out til dawn. Really nice guy, I hear.

Pris said...

What a neat story!