Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is there a more political songwriter than Randy Newman? Part 1

‘I’m concerned about the fact the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. We’ve been complaining since the 60s about corporate America and how we’re in the hands of a plutocracy, but it’s really truer now than it ever has been. Banks and those people with tremendous economic weight are in control; they were able to do all this illegal kind of stuff, even for example selling stocks they knew were bad to clients. And they’re fine, better off than they were. It doesn’t seem right … I’ve written about it before, but I’m still angry.
Randy Newman

I’d like it to be clearer which side I’m on
Randy Newman

The American singer-songwrite Randy Newman is not associated with anti-imperialist critique and class analysis.  But Newman is a profoundly political singer-songwriter, having written some of the sharpest political critiques of US and European imperialism, capitalism and America’s treatment of its own people. 

Newman has written songs about US foreign policy and imperialism (Political Science, A Few Words in Defence of our Country), militarism (Song for the Dead),  the Gulf war (Lines in the Sand) the US slave trade (Sail Away), western imperialism (The Great Nations of Europe), the hypocrisy of organized religion (God’s Song), southern prejudice (Birmingham, Rednecks) political neglect (Louisana 1927), racism, race bigotry and prejudice (Rednecks), capitalist greed and class privilege (Its Money that I want, Its Lonely at the Top, My Life is Good), inequality (A Piece of the Pie), Marxism (The World isn’t Fair), industrial pollution (Burn On), child abuse and child murders (Germany before the war), prejudice (Short People) and misogyny (Marie).
Newman’s songs express genuine anger about inequalities and injustice, but in a way that is funny and neither didactic nor ideological. Newman has mastered, like no other songwriter, the use of irony and social and political satire as a mode of expression and a socio-political tool to illuminate complex social and political issues. 

Many of his songs echo Antonio Gramsci’s idea of ‘passionate sarcasm’, a form of irony that expresses dissent and challenges the hypocrisy and corruption of the powerful.

Political songs are rarely so funny. You can’t help chuckling at Newman’s lyrics as you sing along with lines from Political Science:

We give them money- but are they grateful?/No they’re spiteful and they’re hateful/They don’t respect us- so let’s surprise them/We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them.
And then there is the slave trader doing a sales pitch to convince his slaves of the benefits of being a slave in America in Sail Away, a song from the 1972 album of the same name:
In America you’ll get food to eat/Won’t have to run through the jungle/And scuff up your feet/You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day/It’s great to be an American/Ain’t no lions or tigers- aint no mamba snake/Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake/Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be/Climb aboard little wog-sail away with me.

Newman's songs shed light on concealed or submerged features of American political and social culture. They speak of events, experiences and truths that reverberate through American and western history and are animated by the experiences of ordinary people.
During the 2012 US Presidential election Newman released the song I’m Dreaming (of a White President) a song of racial politics written from the perspective of voter who casts his ballot based on skin color who hopes for the election of a white President:
I’m dreaming of a white President/just like the ones we’ve always had/a real live white man/who knows the score/how to handle money or start a war/....... /I’m dreaming of a white President/buh buh buh buh/‘cause things have never been this bad/so he won’t run the hundred in ten seconds flat/ so he won’t have a pretty jump shot/or be an Olympic acrobat/so he won’t know much about global warming/is that really where you’re at?/he won’t be the brightest, perhaps/but he’ll be the whitest/and I’ll vote for that

In Louisanna 1927, Newman tells of the deceitful manner in which governments managed the destructive floods that destroyed communities and farms in Louisiana in 1927. Written in 1974, the song has contemporary resonance, serving as an anthem to the abandonment of New Orleans by the Bush Administration in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

What has happened down here is that the winds have changed/clouds roll in from the north and it starts to rain/rained real hard and it rained for a real long time/ six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline/the river rose all day/the river rose all night/some people got lost in the flood/some people got away alright/the river has busted through clear down to Plaquemines/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 has done/to this poor crackers land.
Political Science was written amidst the ruins of the second Vietnam War and appeared on Newman’s 1972 album Sail Away. 
Forty-three years later the song stands as a profound critique of American hubris and exceptionalism in foreign affairs and military policy and its willingness to pursue imperial ambitions through the use of force and violence against those who challenge US power.
No one likes us- I don’t know why/We may not be perfect but heaven knows we try/But all around, even our old friends put us down/Lets drop the big one and see what happens/We give them money- but are they grateful?/No they’re spiteful and they’re hateful/They don’t respect us- so let’s surprise them/We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them/Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old/Africa is far too hot/And Canada’s to cold/And South America stole our name/Let’s drop the big one/There’ll be no one left to blame us/We’ll save Australia/Don’t want no hurt no kangaroo/We’ll build an all American theme park there/They got surfing too/ Boom goes London and boom Paris/More room for you and more room for me/And every city the whole world around/Will just be another American town/We’ll set everyone free/You’ll wear a Japanse kimono/ And there’ll be Italian shoes for me/They all hate us anyhow/So lets drop the big one now/ Lets drop the big one now

Song for the Dead (from the 1983 album Trouble in Paradise) is a post Vietnam elegy for those who died in the war:
Pardon me, boys/if I slip off my pack/ and sit for a while with you/ I’d like to explain/why you fine young men had to be blown apart/to defend this mud hole/now our country boys/though its quite far away/found itself jeopardized/endangered boys/by these very gooks who lie beside you

Part 2 of this piece can be found here. Part 3 explores Newman's ballads and love songs.

Randy Newman's website is here. Some informative articles about Newman are herehere, here, and here.

No comments: