Considering that Randy Newman has been banned from the airwaves in Boston and at least three other cities, you might think that he had written a tender ballad about a child-murderer. Or a song that makes fun of law-enforcement officers. Or one that lampoons the Catholic Church or puts down the entire city of Baltimore. Or perhaps one that takes a crack simultaneously at three idols like Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and the United States of America.
As a matter of fact, he has done all of that and a bit more in his latest album, "Little Criminals" (Warner Brothers BSK 3079), but that's not what all the controversy is about. The album begins with a song called "Short People" that has run into a wave of protest almost unique in the history of popular music. Newman, who is 5-feet-10 inches tall, will be lucky if he reaches April Fool's Day without rope burns around his neck.
He made two mistakes when he wrote "Short People." The first (and less serious) of the two was a mistake he makes fairly often: He choose a central image -- a symbol -- that was calculated to irritate a large segment of the population, and he wrapped it heavily in a kind of irony that requires close attention to be appreciated. That's all right, usually; most people, most of the time, are unaware of Newman's existence, but a surprising number have found out about him and are willing to give him the careful consideration his work needs and deserves.
His real mistake was to give this particular poem (that's what he really writes) a catchy melody and a bright, upbeat arrangement that won it a lot of exposure on radio stations that specialize in brainlessness and appeal to brainless people. There, amid the endless jangle of disco tunes and countless subtle variations on "Oh, baby, let me do it to you," the song stood out like a giraffe at a convention of frogs. People noticed this anomaly -- a song that had something to say -- and, being the kind of people who usually listen to disco and "Oh, baby," they naturally misinterpreted it.
The result has looked like a plot to prove that there is some truth in the song's first line, which is repeated three times before the words go on to other business: "Short People got no reason."
"Short people got no reason" is not a complete statement, to be sure, but neither is the full first sentence, "Short People got no reason to live." The song elaborates on the unpleasant qualities of "Short People," from their "little hands" to "dirty little minds." It's a powerful diatribe, a rabble-rousing bit of rhetoric climaxed by the repeated statement, "Don't want no Short People "round here."
And that's still not the complete statement.In the middle of the diatribe comes a chorus with a different melody, soft and soothing (Newman's solo interjections are in parentheses): "Short People are just the same/As you and I/(A fool such as I)/ All men are brothers / Until the day they die / (It's A Wonderful World)." That changes the song's climate for a moment, but then Newman goes back to his diatribe, with its catchy melody and the conga drums in the background (the congas may be the real trouble; they got the song on the wrong kind of radio station).
The chorus, just to make it more complicated is sung by The Eagles, and rumor in pop music circles has it that the reason they worked with Newman on this song is because their manager, Irving Azoff, measures a towering 5 feet 5 inches in height.
What does it all mean? The exegetes of pop music have been busy on this song, which is obviously symbolic, and have come up with interpretations of all kinds. It is really about abortion. Or about the people who are engaged in the pop music business in Los Angeles. Or a diatribe against pop singer Paul Williams, who is considerably less than 5-feet-10-inches tall. Or Randy Newman's statement on Adolph Hitler.
One thing it means for sure is that the avant-garde poetry techniques of an earlier generation have now reached the juke boxes: the use of the persona; irony and ambiguity; levels of meaning that both contradict and reinforce one another; symbolism; deliberately incomplete and inflammatory statements. And now the AM radio audience is having the kind of trouble with these techniques that academic critics were having a half-century ago. I guess you could call it progress.
In Newman, the most important of these interrelated techniques is probably that of the persona. This is a critical term meaning "mask" (although the original Latin also means something like "megaphone," referring to the masks worn by players in classical Greek and Roman drama). It is a way of distancing the writer from the words on paper, a technique for allowing him to use the voice and attitudes of another person. What it means in practical terms is that Randy Newman cannot be identified personally with what the people say in his song any more than the opinions of Titus Andronicus should be identified with Shakespeare's. Newman uses personas in practically all of his songs, but it is more obvious elsewhere than it is in "Short People." On "Little Criminals," Newman assumes, among other personas, those of a small-time criminal who has "almost made it to the top," a Texas girl at her father's funeral, Sigmund Freud, a cowboy, and an old man on a farm going through the motions while he waits to die. These songs, like the whole body of his work, support the idea that the real Randy Newman is one of the rare people in popular entertainment who have a true sympathy for the world's "short people," those who have been short-changed by life, who live on the margins of what our entertainment media generally present as the real world.
Greil Marcus put it well in his book about rock, "Mystery Train," when he said that Newman's "songs contain an astonishing affection for every American from the middle-class couple wasting away in Florida to the rapist preying on their daughter." In the same paragraph, he summed up the destination our society prepares for art as complex and ambivalent as Newman's: "buried on an occasional FM radio or in the back of someone's record collection." The catchy beat and conga drums on "Short People" have pulled him briefly out of that natural habitat and that's what caused his trouble.
The persona and irony have been basic ingredients of Newman's art from the beginning, but he used to let the mask slip more openly than he does now. In an early album, "Randy Newman Live" (Reprise RS 6459), he prefaced his "Yellow Man" by telling the audience at The Bitter End that "this is kind of a pinhead's view of China . . . you'll learn a great deal." In its collage of unthinking and ironic cliches, this song closely parallels the pinheaded height chauvinism in "Short People": "Eatin" rice all day,/ While the children play,/ You see, he believes in the family,/ Just like you and me." The song passed practically unnoticed, presumably because Chairman Mao was busy with other concerns and because there were no congas in the arrangement, just moody pentatonics on the piano.
Newman's most elaborate use of the pinhead persona so far was his 1974 album, "Good Old Boys" (Warner Brothers 2193). The whole album is a very complex statement about the composer's native South (Newman grew up in California, but he was born in New Orleans). Pinhead turns up as the speaker in "Rednecks," the thematic opening song, and the whole of side 1 presents his own statements on his philosophy, his job, his economic status and why he drinks (side 2 is related but not so tightly focused; it's mostly a distorted mirror-image of parts of side 1). The whole albuh relates one way or another to the opening statement: "We talk real funny down here/ We drink too much and we laugh too loud/ We're too dumb to make it in no northern town/ And we're keepin' the niggers down." Newman assigns himself the job of makthis pinhead ("a most unsightly man," as he says elsewhere), and he does it, first with a catalog of northern places where blacks are being "kept down" and then by a look at how the cards are stacked against rednecks -- most of all by themselves, their traditions and attitudes, but also by the economy, folkways, their political leaders and even the weather. The only black character on the record, after the generic references in the opening song, turns out to be a millionaire. If you pay attention on this record, it's not hard to figure out what Newman's up to.
It shouldn't be hard in "Short People," either but for the benefit of those who are too busy to look up the words and listen carefully, here is a partial catalog of various statements made or implied in this short song. The fact that the statements sometimes conflict or downright contradict one another is a significant source of the song's power.
1. The song says that Newman finds short people distasteful.
2. Well, not exactly; what actually happens is that a pinhead in a song that happens to be written by Newman says that he doesn't like short people.
3. The chorus (which is also written by Newman, though sung by others) insists that short people are "the same as you and I." Pinhead listens, seems to be almost convinced, but then goes back to his original attitude of height chauvinism. It's not a song about short people at all, it's a song about bigotry.
4. Since the chorus has told us that short people are "the same as you and I," we should look at the song and see how Pinhead resembles his symbolic hate-objects. And we find, among other attributes, that he has a "dirty little mind," that he "walks around tellin" great big lies," and that he "got no reason" -- if you want the rest of the sentence, that he "got no reason to live." In short, like many other Newman songs, it is a song about selfhatred.
There's a lot more, but the point is that the song is not really about the people who have been getting upset by it.
Newman isn't talking much to anyone these days, for reasons that are not hard to understand. His manager, Elliot Abbott, is a little easier to reach and was willing to talk about the song, the reaction to it, and Newman's reaction to the reaction.
"Randy was very surprised by the reaction," Abbott said."The song was written as a satire and is more about narrow-mindedness and bigotry than about short people. Short people in the song are a symbol of narrowminded people. The people who are responding that way either have not listened very carefully or they know it is a spoof and are trying to get a little free publicity. The middle part of the song is self-explanatory. If people disregard that, they are disregarding a very integral part of it; you know, it's like seeing what you want to see and not seeing everything."
Strictly, I think the "short people" are not a symbol of narrow-minded people but of the self-image of narrow-minded people -- a small but significant difference And, of course, the whole song is about the reaction to it that Abbott describes: "just seeing what you want to see and not seeing everything." The next time, Newman should write a song about "dumb people," and those who object will stand self-accused.
In some ways, all the fuss about the song is helping Newman; wherever it isn't banned, it's getting a lot of air play -- one disc jockey in Buffalo played it 18 times in a row, in response to popular demand, and a friend who recently drove from Washington to Vermont reports that it was practically all you could hear on most AM stations along the road. Apparently, it's still true that being banned in Boston helps you to get attention almost everywhere else.
That's because the short people everywhere else think that Boston is full of short people. As a Bostonian, I don't know what to do about that, but we should be able to organize some kind of protest.