In 1977, Randy Newman had the biggest hit song of his career, “Short People”, which somewhat incredibly made it to number two on the Billboard Hot 100. It attracted a fair amount of controversy by people who didn’t realize that the narrator’s vicious but absurd insults to little people — “They got grubby little fingers / And dirty little minds / They’re gonna get you every time” — were satirical. It was also, I think, widely misunderstood by a certain sort of smug liberal who took the song’s anti-bigotry bridge—sung, hilariously, by the Eagles—at face value: “Short people are just the same as you and I / All men are brothers until the day they die.”
Newman’s song even turns on the self-satisfied listener who imagines she understands it. The narrator quickly agrees with the Eagles that he’s a fool and that the world is a band of brothers—then immediately returns to his bigotry. The real joke is not on the bigot, loathsome and ridiculous as he may be. It’s on people who think bigotry can be eliminated through platitudes.
Regardless, “Short People” made Newman a star, of sorts. But it also ushered in a decline in the quality of his work, at least according to the crowd-sourced music aficionados over at RateYourMusic.com. Newman’s highest-rated albums are the two directly before 1977’s Little Criminals, from which “Short People” comes. As of October 2020, both 1972’s Sail Away and 1974’s Good Old Boys have a 3.81 (out of 5), scores high enough to give the albums boldface type in his discography. Little Criminals, by contrast, has a still-respectable 3.70, but it’s the highest score he’d receive for more than two decades, with his 1999 comeback record Bad Love.
Born Again, the 1979 follow-up to Little Criminals, is particularly disliked at 3.32, his lowest-rated pop album. (I’m not counting his 1995 rock opera Faust, on which he sings only three songs.) The staff at AllMusic.com agree, giving Born Again two and a half stars, lower than everything but Faust, including his scores to Jay Roach‘s 2004 film, Meet the Fockers, and Richard Donner‘s 1994 film, Maverick.
I won’t try to defend the quality of
Born Again; it’s certainly not up to the heights, if you will, of Good Old Boys or Sail Away or even Little Criminals. But it’s a much more interesting album than its critical and popular reputation might lead one to believe. Like Good Old Boys, it can be read as a loose concept album, though few if any critics seem to have noticed it: eight of its 11 songs are critiques of late ’70s masculinity. And as such, Born Again might have something important to say to our own moment, when the MeToo movement has changed our attitude toward powerful men, however incompletely.
Donald Trump had only just entered public consciousness when
Bad Love was released. The year before, he’d bought the dilapidated Commodore Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, skirting the laws in ways we’ve all become far too familiar with, to receive an enormous tax break. At the time, however, Trump was still too much of a regional figure for Newman to have had him in mind.
Even so, for the last 30 years or more, it’s been hard not to see Trump’s orange face in “It’s Money That I Love“, Bad Love‘s opening portrait of a stupid and vulgar billionaire businessman. (During the 2016 campaign, I often remarked that Trump is a horrifying and pathetic combination of all of Newman’s narrators, as if Newman had accidentally conjured him into existence.) The narrator of “Money” is more or less aware of his total lack of virtue, but he’s scarcely aware that it makes him a contemptible person. So he brags about it:
I don’t love the mountains
I don’t love the sea
And 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
There’s a pause here before the chorus, as if the narrator were too stupid and/or lazy to come up with a rhyme for dad. But he’s proud of his stupidity and laziness, because he knows that he lives in a society willing to overlook them in view of his wealth and power. Predictably, he makes good on his braggadocio by taking advantage of helpless women. You can’t buy love with money, he sneers, “But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine / And a sixteen-year-old girl.” Interestingly, when he remade this song a few decades later for The Randy Newman Songbook, he changed the “girl’s” age to 19, reflecting changing social mores—but in the age of Jeffrey Epstein et al, the original rings true, and we see the genuine monster within the wealthy vulgarian.
It’s to Newman’s credit that the album’s other satires of masculinity aren’t mere variations on “It’s Money That I Love”, because there are all sorts of ways that men can go astray. The narrator of ” Mr. Sheep” for example, would certainly despise the Trump stand-in, and yet he’s no less despicable and pathetic. Here the listener plays the role of a middle-aged square, a businessman walking to work when he’s accosted by an aggressive member of the counterculture.
As in “Short People”, the object of the song’s satire is not immediately obvious. For those who disdain middle-class conformity, they’re tempted to agree with the narrator that “Mr.” Sheep has wasted his life working for The Man. In truth, it’s hard to take this shiftless thug seriously. His monologue is presented in a goofy singsong, a sort of deranged Sesame Street vibe that demonstrates how adolescent he really is. No moral person could possibly side with the burned-out hippie yelling “Baa!” and pushing the businessman into a rain puddle. (My favorite moment on the song is Newman’s masterful line reading of “You forgot your um-buh-rel-la”, giving the last word four syllables.)
Newman’s satire becomes all the clearer when we take the song’s placement on the album into consideration. It comes directly after the largely humorless ” Pretty Boy“, in which someone else is accosted on the street by much more sinister and much less absurd people. The song is vague about who the title character is, but it’s certainly an armed gang that surrounds him, closing in on him with every ominous line. It’s possible he’s just a hapless tourist (“All the way from Jersey City”) who’s found himself on the wrong street in a Manhattan deep in its Taxi Driver phase. But I think he’s more likely someone who once imagined that he could join a gang, perhaps even this gang, although the narrators don’t appear to know him personally:
Have we got a tough guy here?
Have we got a tough guy from the street?
And he looks just like that dancing wop
In those movies that we’ve seen
With his cute little chickenshit boots on
And his cute little chickenshit hat
And his cute little chickenshit girlfriend’s
Riding along in back
Though we don’t hear Pretty Boy’s point of view, except as it’s refracted through his interlocutors, it’s clear that he’s attempting to match masculine bravado with masculine bravado. The gang members, predictably, are not impressed, mockingly begging him not to hurt them. Thus it is two masculinities that have turned toxic: the gang members are unstoppable forces of nihilistic aggression, to be sure, but Pretty Boy’s attempts to play their game only make matters worse.
The true horror of the song lies with the voiceless woman who accompanies him. Certainly the gang is going to leave Pretty Boy lying bleeding in the street—but what are they going to do to her? And would she have been better off if her boyfriend had just handed over his wallet instead of trying to impress them?
“Half a Man“ treads similar shaky ground. The narrator, a trucker, sees a transvestite or a transexual individual—it’s not clear which, because our point of view is the narrator’s, and he clearly doesn’t sweat the details—and gets out of his cab prepared to murder him or her. But his would-be victim begs for mercy by adopting the backwards gender roles of his assailant. “I am but half a man,” the prostitute tells his assailant. “I’m an object for your pity / Not your rage.” We never find out, however, whether this approach would have been successful, because the would-be victim’s words begin to work a mysterious power on the truck driver:
Oh, the strangest feeling
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
Happens all the time”
Considering the possibility of a version of manhood that does not require aggressive heterosexuality, even for a moment, has changed the trucker’s gender. “Holy Jesus,” he says. “What a drag.” The satire of the song is clear: Newman provides a comical explanation for the narrator’s homophobia, while at the same time protecting the potential victim from the destructive masculinity that motivates that homophobia. Newman leaves it to us to decide whether the monster of a narrator has actually undergone a transformation, or whether his would-be victim has merely outsmarted him. Either way, the terror of this encounter has been neatly neutralized, in a way that it’s not in “Pretty Boy” and perhaps in “Mr. Sheep”.
Most of the record’s narrators are ridiculous rather than frightening. Newman excells at presenting a sort of ineffectual Walter Mitty-type who is scarcely aware that he’s not a strapping he-man: think “Little Criminals” or “Shame“. In that vein, Born Again gives us “The Girls in My Life (Part I)“. Over 6/8 New Orleans R&B, the narrator describes—mumbles, really, since he barely has the energy to make himself heard—his many relationships with women. He clearly means to impress us with his sexual prowess. The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to have actually had sex with any of them, other than his “very lovely wife”.
When he was young, he was in love with a woman with “a pleasant disposition,” but he mostly notices her feet, presumably because he’s too nervous to look her in the eye. He brags about meeting a young French woman in Las Vegas. Then comes the punchline: “when I was there with my parents”. Under their watchful gaze, he has a “real nice conversation” with her. He meets a woman at a bakery who immediately asks to borrow his car. Needless to say, he loans it to her, and she promptly drives to Mexico and kills a man with it. In college, he hangs out at a sorority house and has “seven women on my mind”, but there’s no indication his relationship with any of them ever moves beyond the realm of fantasy.
His one successful relationship, in fact, is with his wife, with whom he has “three cute little boys”. But he continues to think of himself as a lothario, and the song ends with a promise: “That’s just half the story / Of the girls in my life.” Part II, of course, was never released.
“The Girls in My Life” presents us with a narrator whose self-conception is warped by cultural expectations of masculinity. To all appearances, he has a good life and a good family, but having internalized the idea that real men seduce and abandon woman after woman, he can hardly appreciate what he has, retreating to a fantasy of himself as a womanizer. He hasn’t cheated on his wife yet, but he clearly believes that doing so is part of being a real man.
Our gauzy fantasies—and this is almost certainly just his fantasy—have a way of disappearing in the harsh, fluorescent light of reality. It’s not hard to imagine the self-hatred and depression this narrator will feel when his fantasy of himself as a lothario dissolves. Surely he will resent his family and perhaps even abandon them to chase more women who will reject him or take advantage of him.
This sort of internalized and exaggerated masculinity is also satirized in ” The Story of a Rock and Roll Band“. The band in question is Electric Light Orchestra, no one’s idea of a rock ‘n’ roll band. The song is a great pastiche of their overproduced, glammy sound, but the joke is that, while the narrator claims to love them, he doesn’t seem to know anything about them. As such, he tries to shape them into the contours of a stereotypical rock ‘n’ roll story. He imagines that the band’s names are Johnny and Bobby Joe; he says that they originally had the hilariously inapt name the Renegades (“Johnny said, ‘Well, I don’t know / I prefer ELO'”); and he’s so bound to the idea of rock ‘n’ roll that he doesn’t even know what their instruments are called:
And Johnny played the little violin
And Bobby Joe played the big violin
The one that stands on the floor
They were all in the rock and roll band
Just as the narrator of “The Girls in My Life”, by his commitment to social standards of masculinity is incapable of seeing himself for the milquetoast loser that he is, so is this ELO fan incapable of understanding the band he supposedly loves so much, because he has a very particular and limited idea of what a rock ‘n’ roll band is.
The album ends with its funniest song. ” Pants” is another mockery of rock music, but here the joke isn’t on the fans but on the artist himself. As Newman told Mojo in 1998, “There haven’t been five tough musicians in history, and they’re doing all this posturing and sneering and snarling. And that’s fine, that’s what you do. ‘Street Fighting Man,’ ‘Under My Thumb.’ I mean, how long would it take you to get out from under Mick Jagger’s thumb?”
Newman’s rock star stalks the stage to the synth-heavy hard rock popular among the arena acts popular at the time, threatening his audience with sexual violence. Only the threat is so absurd that only an idiot could be threatened (or turned on) by it: “I’m gonna take off my pants.” He sounds less like a rock ‘n’ roll rebel than like a disobedient five-year-old, and while he runs through a litany of people who won’t be able to stop him from taking off his pants, he doesn’t seem to ask himself why anyone would want to bother. He has a child’s understanding of manhood, as do the (doubtless mostly male) fans cheering for him in the stadium.
The fundamental personality trait of the Randy Newman narrator is that he lacks the capacity (or at least the willingness) for self-reflection. This makes Newman the ideal writer to dismantle what would come to be called toxic masculinity, which frequently discourages men from examining their actions and assumptions and to assume that the privileges accorded them are rights. Such men are likely to end up like the elderly narrator of “Ghosts“—having alienated everyone who might have cared about him, he realizes too late that the skills he spent his life developing are no good to him anymore:
Work all your life
And you end up with nothing
Live in one room like a bum
Once I flew in a plane
And I fought in a war
We lived in a castle
And slept on the floor
And I don’t want to be
All alone anymore
There is, we sense, no one there to hear and accept this apology. This is the tragedy that lies beneath the satire and humor of Newman’s treatments of masculinity on Born Again. Its narrators, in their embrace of social standards of masculinity, cut themselves off from the people to whom they owe their tenderness. Satire necessarily has a moral impulse behind it, and the best satire has in it a kind of spiritual concern for both its object and its audience. Born Again, like the bust of Adonis in Rilke’s poem, tells us, “You must change your life.”