MacGuffin Pop

Randy Newman's latest Academy Award nomination makes it easy to forget how truly deceptive his songwriting really is. His music, which rarely wanders far from New Orleans R&B, ragtime, or Brill Building pop, is the stuff of familiarity and comfort, an unassuming foundation of Americana into which subversive (confrontational, even) ideas can be planted.

Randy Newman means different things to different people. To the child-rearing, film-going public sector, he is an innocuous composer of songs and scores for movies such as The Natural, Toy Story, and Meet the Parents. Newman's knack for manifesting fundamental human sentiment in family-friendly piano pop has earned him 17 Academy Award nominations since 1981 -- including "Our Town", from Cars, that will battle Melissa Etheridge and three Dreamgirls songs this Sunday -- but he has won only once, in 2001, for "If I Didn't Have You", a song from the film Monsters, Inc. One theory is that Newman's film compositions are so exquisitely functional that they render themselves surreptitious in the star-studded court of pomp and circumstance.

To the minority, Newman is something else entirely, something darker, funnier, and more morally complicated than any Disney film could ever indicate. Newman's solo albums (the bulk and best of which were released between 1968 and 1979, before his film work took professional priority) are populated by racists, drunkards, stalkers, atheists, social rejects, romantic dilettantes, cruel fathers and crueler sons, and people who swear that their intentions are good when they're so obviously not. His music, which rarely wanders far from New Orleans R&B, ragtime, or Brill Building pop, is the stuff of familiarity and comfort, an unassuming foundation of Americana into which subversive (confrontational, even) ideas can be planted. Newman does not possess a "good" singing voice in the conventional sense -- he has no range, and frequently leaves a slurred Southern accent fumblingly intact -- but he uses his voice to the songs' benefit, creating the illusion of a character's improvisational speech or adding important subtext in the way a particular line is delivered.

The way to avoid misinterpreting Newman is to doubt the narrator: either his tone is intentionally facetious or his beliefs cannot be trusted. "He Gives Us All His Love", a delicate ballad that claims to hail the omnipotent greatness of God, is in fact a tongue-in-cheek discrediting of such conviction. "He knows how hard we're trying / He hears the babies crying / He sees the old folks dying / And he gives us all his love," Newman sings, patiently, suggesting the exact opposite of a literal lyric reading. ("God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)", a point-blank denunciation of a higher power told from the point of view of the Big Man himself, posits a more logical argument.) In Newman's Disney-free zone, the narrator of Toy Story's "You've Got a Friend in Me" would stick to the song's lilting melody and lyric, but use the endearing sentiment merely as a con, to mask the sort of ulterior motives that lurk behind every human façade.

Of course, letting us in on that con is Newman's compositional sleight-of-hand, the device that transforms his songs from narratives into narrative-commentaries. Take "Yellow Man" or "Short People", for example. Both songs expose the absurdity of prejudice -- racial and otherwise -- through unapologetically "bigoted" or ignorant narratives; the rub, if you will, is that one need recognize the songs' ironic methodology. To many listeners, this sort of strategy is counterintuitive to what they've been conditioned to expect from pop music. Pop is often accepted, consciously or not, as a preoccupation or transitory seduction meant to counteract the absurdities and indignities of otherwise lamentable existences. We turn to pop for solace, sympathy, to remind ourselves that we still feel.

Newman's songs don't passively blanket their listeners or offer an easy "in" for relatable conviviality. They are unfriendly truths or argumentative examples of musical form, and sometimes their humor is a product of uncomfortable frankness and absurdity. "They say that money can't buy love in this world / It'll get you a half-pound of cocaine and a 19-year-old girl / A big long limousine on a hot September night / Now that may not be love, but it's alright," sings the narrator of "It's Money That I Love", invoking one of pop's most idealist fallacies before debunking it with teeth fully bared. Newman's music is MacGuffin Pop: purposely deceptive in spite of its own structural decorum; a simultaneous undermining and execution of traditional form.

"Marie", the stand-out ballad from the 1974 song cycle Good Old Boys, feels like a love song with its lullaby melody, soft strings, and tender chorus ("I loved you the first time I saw you / And I always will love you, Marie"). Look closer, though, and it's more a devastating portrait of human weakness than romantic confession. "I'm drunk right now baby," the narrator admits, "But I've got to be / Or I never could tell you / What you mean to me." In the final verse, he follows up a few sweet nothings with these self-pitying lines:

Sometimes I'm crazy

But I guess you know

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

A song like "Marie" serves up frailty and cowardice in the guise of a love song. (Even creepier is "Suzanne", which places a secret admirer's narrative in the hands of a would-be rapist.) Selfishness and desperation have a habit of sabotaging potential love songs in the Newman canon. In "Lover's Prayer", the narrator's condescending neuroses overshadow the chance of meaningful human connection: "Don't send me nobody with glasses," he implores the Lord in his prayer, "Don't want no one above me." Desperation reaches a comical low in "You Can Leave Your Hat On", a supposed seduction song that wallows in herky-jerky rhythm and bumbling instruction to a lover: "Go on over there and turn on the light," the narrator requests, and then, changing his mind, "No, all the lights." He continues: "Now come back here and stand on this chair...that's right / Raise your arms up in the air...shake 'em." The awkwardness of the song's come-on is so uncomfortable that it's impossible to take the narrator seriously. (In public appearances, Newman enjoys pointing out that the artists who have covered the song as a manly pre-coital affirmation -- namely, Joe Cocker and Tom Jones -- completely misinterpreted its intended tone.)

Some of Newman's older songs have found renewed relevance in recent years. "Louisiana 1927", a 1974 ballad about the great Mississippi River flood that destroyed cotton fields and displaced scores of black Americans, was unexpectedly resurrected as a lament during the months immediately following Hurricane Katrina. And 1972's foreign-policy satire "Political Science" has proven especially prophetic, reflecting the xenophobic nature of the current US administration; its selfish narrator, frustrated by the world's rejection of Americanization, concludes "They all hate us anyhow / So let's drop the big one now". Of course, Australia will be spared: "Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo," the narrator so wisely rationalizes.

More relevant still is "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country", Newman's first new solo song since his 1999 album Bad Love recently released via iTunes; last month, the New York Times ran its (slightly amended) lyrics as an op-ed piece in "response" to President Bush's State of the Union speech. It's not much of a song, per se, since the verses are delivered as spoken word meant to sound off-the-cuff. As a political satire, the song takes aim at an easy target (the Bush administration) with a clever device (citing former tyrants and dictators as intended examples of worse leaders in history), but it preaches to a proverbial choir very much in on the joke. When attempting to prove the Caesars more deplorable than the Americans, he points out that one "appointed his own horse Consul of the Empire -- that's like vice president or something", and then, taking the gag further, adds, "That’s not a very good example, is it?"

Newman debuted "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" during his brief US tour last year. In Boston (and surely in other cities as well), it elicited the appropriate laughs at the desired moments, and seemed more a transparent reaction to the times than a truly subversive one. Allowing the audience to immediately sympathize with the perspective isn't exactly how Newman's songs have worked in the past. "Rednecks", the most infamous song from Good Old Boys, is the sort of audacious composition that "A Few Words" isn't, one in which that same liberal audience is the joke. It's set up to seem like a ridicule of the titular Southerner: the narrator declares "We talk real funny down here", "We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground", and "We're keeping the niggers down" against a blithe backbeat. This characterization satisfies an existing stereotype within the audience's mind; it is also (like the soothing arrangement of "Marie" or matter-of-fact lyric in "He Gives Us All His Love") the song's ruse, brightly lit but ultimately misleading. The narrator speaks from a self-conscious perspective, one invoked to appease those who perpetuate it and relish in its figurative assassination -- namely, the redneck-condemning audience. When, in an indicting verse describing social segregation in Northern cities, he accuses that audience of likeminded discrimination, the narrator isn't excused of his opinions; those of the righteous throng's, however, are called into question.

Some people may not know where they stand with Newman, and that's fair. After all, passive listeners aren't exactly used to being implicated in their music's comedy or commentary, nor do they look forward to dissecting the level of irony hidden within their entertainment. Some will see Newman at the Oscars this weekend and recognize his ubiquitous children's-film voice as the guy who snidely sang, "Short people got no reason to live" some 20-odd years ago. And perhaps it's better that way -- perhaps Newman's greatest professional subversion is in how he's seen, as a for-hire soundtrack hack with a sheep's piquant wit. This is not to suggest that he is a wolf, but if you need someone to lean on, best to think twice before laying your weary head here.

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