One of the less celebrated satirists of religion, a study of some of Randy Newman's key songs reveals a subtle subversive at work.
On the ever-expanding battlefield where humorists wage war with religion, singer-songwriter Randy Newman is a peculiar combatant in myriad ways. Whereas institutions of faith are ordinarily the targets of choice for satirists, Newman brings his wit to the grand theological concerns of faith and belief. What Kurt Vonnegut once called the “sophomoric” questions of life, Newman addresses through a small lens, invariably adopting a persona role through which to delve and dissect.
These personas, or caricatures, are not necessarily mouth-pieces for the author’s point-of-view, nor are they always reliable as narrators. Often flawed, confused, or self-contradictory, Newman’s disguises enable him to express ambivalence, if not willful ambiguity. In “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” and the songs from his Faust musical (1995), Newman even takes on the role of the man upstairs Himself, as a character we recognize, yet also do not.
These first person studies, it turns out, have less to do with the characters themselves than with the issues and audience they speak to. This strategy also provides the added convenience of hiding from view the creator (and Creator), enabling Newman to revel in his own irresoluteness without sacrificing assertions of a subversive nature.
Will the real Randy Newman please stand up? This is a question often asked by his listeners, and the answer is always, even when at his most autobiographical, an unequivocal “no”. For an artist whose heyday was the early '70s, a time period when personal confession and soul-baring were the recognized hallmarks of leading singer-songwriters like John Lennon, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell, Newman chose the road rarely traveled, ironically suggesting that one could be more revealing and truth-telling by masking the self than by nakedly parading it.
Unlike those solipsistic soul searchers of '70s folk rock, Newman, via his cast of characters (which include a slave trader, a stalker, and God), introduces curiosity and uncertainty into his warped worlds, forcing his listeners to contemplate beyond the obvious, the clichéd, and the black or white options. In the process, while his audiences are not excluded from the satirical purview of the songs, they are accorded the respect of being engaged, rather than imposed upon, provoked rather than patronized. Greil Marcus suggests that “His best songs implicate the listener” (Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. New York: Plume, 2015. p.108), while Kevin Courrier argues that Newman “presumes an intelligence and literacy in his audience” (Randy Newman’s American Dreams. Toronto: ECW Press, 2005. p.xvi).
Newman’s engagements with God might have their roots in his own childhood experiences of anti-Semitism. Born into a family of Ukranian Jews, the young Randy was not subjected to the harsh reality of prejudice until his family moved from his birthplace of Los Angeles down to New Orleans. There, despite being raised in a non-observant environment by atheist parents, he was still identified as a Jew and thus subjected to the racial norms of the Deep South during the '40s and '50s.
Newman often recounts an incident from when he was nine-years-old in which a girl asked him to accompany her to a cotillion ball at the local country club. Her father, though, on discovering the invite, called the Newmans, explaining to Randy’s father that, while sorry, his daughter should never have invited Randy because no Jews were allowed in the club. “Hey Dad, what is a Jew?” was Randy’s innocent inquiry after his father had told him the news. The songwriter recalls how this incident inspired him to investigate his identity religion further and to read up on scripture (Courrier, p.40).
The fruits of that labor, as well as the painful feelings of alienation and ostracism that incident may have instilled, are witnessed in the artist’s many “outsider” songs, particularly those pertaining to matters of theology. That such songs are shot through with maltheistic cynicism and comedically-veiled anger might also be explained by certain childhood encounters, particularly those involving his father, who appears to have been blessed with the same wicked wit his son was to inherit. In another oft-told anecdote, Newman recalls his avowedly atheist father accompanying him through a hospital ward and pointing at all the bed-ridden children, saying, “That’s God’s will over there and that’s God’s will over there and that’s God’s will over there....”
Newman’s earliest songs about God were not so much battles as obtuse, veiled encounters, thus perhaps reflecting cultural sensitivity to matters of faith prior to the '70s. “I Think He’s Hiding” was the first published song, showing what Kevin Courrier calls Newman’s “complicated agnostic views” (p.84). A cut from his 1968 debut album, here the narrator appears to be a parent talking to his young child about God, whom he refers to as “big boy”. A wry humor is evident as the parent alludes to Santa in his conversation, asking of the child, “Have you been good? / Have you been bad?”
As with the author’s subsequent, more maltheistic songs of faith, however, a sinister undercurrent is also presented when the narrator further asks, “If the big boy comes tomorrow will he take you with him” or to the “fiery furnace”? A traditional atheist would no doubt present God as a non-existent figment of the imagination or as a “dead” entity, but instead “I think he’s hiding” are the only words of comfort offered by the father to his child. As gentle a joke as this may seem, Courrier perceives a darker purpose to the personification, arguing that Newman needs God to exist “in order to defy both him and our desperate need to have faith in a benign deity” (p.84). Such defiance would become more apparent in a number of songs from his next album, Sail Away (1972).
The opening titular track to Sail Away is often regarded as a high water mark in the Newman catalogue, and while its principle subject and setting is the African slave trade, it features songwriting strategies common to the writer’s oeuvre. Incongruous humor operates through the juxtaposition of colliding forces, the surprise of the unexpected contrast eliciting a reaction of mirth in the recipient. This functions as a form of structural irony, a paradox that forces initial emotional and intellectual meanings into other, hopefully more profound ones.
Such incongruity is at play in most of Newman’s songs and accounts both for the power of his wit as well as its challenging ambiguity. In “Sail Away”, the primary incongruity is between the music, which is seductive and alluring through its banks of soaring strings, and the lyrics, which reveal the nature of that invitation through the narrative voice of the slave recruiter.
The second level of incongruity resides within the lyrics themselves, as that narrator offers a slave an Edenic future life where, he says, “You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day / It’s great to be an American”. This bright promise, of course, is undercut by the word choice; we, the audience, are expected to distinguish between Newman’s satire and the narrator’s appeals, the latter thus decoded as deceit, propaganda, and/or honest-to-God patriotism. It's in Newman’s intent, though, where the incongruity lies, and where the lies are shown to be lies, for religion will indeed be a significant coping mechanism and means of escapism for the slaves and future indentured generations (as will alcohol) -- though not necessarily providing them the most pragmatic solutions to their enforced plights.
Sometimes lost amidst the heavyweight numbers that populate Sail Away is the sad and plaintive “Old Man”, which reverses the narrative address of “I Think He’s Hiding” with a son speaking to his father. We learn that the old man is dying but that there is no solace for him. “Won’t be no God to comfort you / You taught me not to believe that lie”, the son bluntly states, echoing Newman’s own upbringing. “Everybody dies”, the song concludes, the brevity punctuating the emptiness that awaits.
Such poignant truth-telling is typical of Newman, who refuses to settle for the stock anti-theist position, which invariably starts and finishes with a blanket mockery of religion. Although an atheist, Newman understands the appeals of faith and the comforts it can bring. Thus, we feel sadness and sympathy for the old man about to depart into nothingness, however ardently atheistic one may be.
Of “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”, the final song on Sail Away, Allmusic critic Mark Deming said, “[It is] one of the most bitter rants against religion that anyone committed to vinyl prior to the punk era.” While Crass, the Dead Kennedys, and Bad Religion certainly produced some choice satirical assaults, they were invariably against the institutions of religion rather than the deity Himself. In its perspective and execution, “God’s Song” may be one of the most unusual and thought-provoking songs ever written about faith.
Against an ominous introductory five-note refrain, the singer recounts an inventory of earthly horrors, starting with Cain’s slaying of Abel, The Bible’s first account of murder. “If the children of Israel were to multiply why must any of the children die?” asks the narrator. The response comes not from a benign, compassionate, or sympathetic God, though, but from a cold, callous one who “love[s] mankind” like a child loves a prized toy. Smug and smiling, He sits back and revels in man’s “foulness” and “squalor”, laughing at and ignoring “the prayers” futilely offered up.
Newman characterizes a God that, if not causing catastrophes, refuses to intervene to prevent or stop the plagues, murders, and destruction. Moreover, he gleefully revels in mankind’s begging and blind faith, saying, “I take from you your children and you say ‘How blessed are we’ / You all must be crazy to put your faith in me / That’s why I love mankind”.
Humor rarely gets blacker than that exhibited in “God’s Song”, and as with Newman’s other songs of faith, the incongruous juxtaposition between music and lyrics only further heighten the emotional tension. Courrier speaks of the song as harnessing “the emotional punch of great gospel music” (p.139), a description that could also be applied to “He Give Us All His Love”, track three on the Sail Away album.
Courrier is perceptive in suggesting that this song echo-parodies the popular Laurie London song of praise from that era, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (p.133), but its primary root source is clearly gospel music. With its stripped down piano melody seemingly plucked from Anychurch, USA, “He Give Us All His Love” lures us into the congregation only to disorient us with its unfolding imagery.
Initially the song follows the path of a conventional hymn, with its unadulterated praise of a benevolent savior God: “He’s smiling down on us from up above / And he’s giving us all his love”. Although playing to genre convention, the funereal pace of the melody, coupled with the melancholy tone of the vocal, tips us off that there is something unsettling to this gospel “standard”. That unease is confirmed in verse two, where the believer-narrator states, “He knows how hard we’re trying / He hears the babies crying / He sees the old folks dying”. Conspicuous by its absence, as in “God’s Song”, is an omnipotent savior willing or able to intervene on behalf of the suffering and dying.
The irony here comes not from the singer but from the images themselves, which jar against our expectations of a gospel praise song. “Now if you need someone to talk to / You can always talk to him”, the song continues; but where is His voice, His guidance, His help? At least in “God’s Song” he made his malevolence clear; here he is absent, silent, invisible -- maybe hiding. All we have is the mournful voice of the congregant affirming with unflinching faith that “He’s smiling down on us”. The satire in “He Gives Us All His Love” is so subtle as to be barely visible, which perhaps explains why born again evangelical singer Wanda Jackson had no qualms about covering it, apparently blissfully unaware of its subversive undercurrents.
By 1979 evangelical Christianity was taking center-stage in the American political sphere as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was coalescing around the Reagan presidential candidacy. No doubt aware that religion was manifesting a more political persuasion, Newman released an album titled Born Again, its cover displaying Randy in full Kiss make-up with dollar signs painted over his eyes. These apparently incompatible signs of opportunistic money-making and religion ironically captured the incipient trend of money-grubbing televangelists preaching their “prosperity theology” -- the religious equivalent of the “greed is good” tenet of Reaganism. In one song, “It’s Money That I Love”, the yuppie narrator declares “I don’t love Jesus / He never done nothing for me”, a comment both reflective of the new materialism, as well as the hypocrisy of a society riding a religion-inspired moral tide flowing counter to basic Christian values.
Many followers of Randy Newman have bemoaned his drift in recent decades from being the craftsman of caustic satire in his “rock” career to being a Hollywood hired hand. This transition has seen the maintenance of the Stephen Foster-like sentimental melodies (once used for purposes of ironic incongruity) while the lyrical satire has been all but dispensed with in the service of standardized children’s movies.
Critic Rob Sheffield is particularly unforgiving, suggesting that “Newman obviously gets a perverse kick out of composing exclusively for stomach-turning treacle” (Marcus, p.310). Yet, while Toy Story (1995), James and the Giant Peach (1996), and Monsters, Inc. (2001) contain none of the kinds of subversive songs written for the Sail Away album, there are a couple of notable moments where Newman cannot resist subtly resorting to form. “We may only go ‘round one time / As far as I can tell / ...so live it well” is a clip from one of the songs from A Bug’s Life (1998) called “The Time of Your Life”. In The Princess and the Frog (2009) movie, Prince Naveen sings in “When We’re Human”, “Life is short / When you’re done, you’re done / We’re on this earth to have some fun / And that’s the way things are”.
While hardly radical, these assertions are about as close to atheist advocacy as you are likely to find in a mainstream Hollywood film for kids.