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Saturday, October 18, 2008

For God's sake, stop asking Randy Newman about "Short People"

Randy Newman is on Desert Island Discs this weekend. Radio Four have been hammering the trailer the last few days. I keep hearing Kirsty Young asking him about "Short People".

I've loved Randy Newman's songs for forty years now. I've interviewed him a few times. He's the funniest person In Rock. I've never once felt the need to ask him about "Short People". If ever there was a record that didn't beg a question it's "Short People". The only people who would find that song in any way worrying would be the people who had never heard "Simon Smith & His Amazing Dancing Bear" or "Davey The Fat Boy" or "Rednecks".

The "Short People" question is always directed at getting him to distance himself as an individual from the person singing "they got little hands, little eyes, they walk around telling great big lies". Then Randy has to perform some act of atonement. He might even have to say that he's just satirising prejudice, a sentiment so trite it exhausts me to type it.

Anyone who thinks Randy Newman songs can be panned for nuggets of folksy wisdom or moral teaching has missed what makes them unique in popular music. When I asked Neil Young what songs were he said they were "just thoughts", still the best definition I've heard apart from Bob Dylan's "a song is anything that can walk by itself". I've talked to hundreds of songwriters and they all say the same thing. A song is something which just occurs to them. It alights on a writer's shoulder. It comes to them as they're waking. It is not something they quarry towards. I hate nothing more than hacks trying to use some less than pleasant sentiment in one of a writer's songs as a stick to beat them with and subsequently cast them out of the presumed shining city where the good people live. If there were such a place Randy Newman wouldn't want to live there. I wouldn't either.

I always picture Randy Newman lying on his sofa, flicking through the TV channels, waiting for incoming ideas, hyper-sensitive to the exact sentence and the precise nuance that betrays our real, often unworthy selves. If you need to have "Short People" explained to you or, worse, somehow apologised for, you've missed the overarching truth that all his songs have been inching towards - that we're all complicated, ambivalent, insecure, sneaky, self-justifying, lazy, half-baked, very rarely noble and, in the final analysis, alone.