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.


  1. I think a more pertinent question than asking why he wrote it would be why would anyone want to listen to it? It's not his finest three minutes and he didn't do it on Songbook Vol 1, so he probably doesn't think it is either. Compared to something like Political Science, it just doesn't stand up and I bet he wishes people would stop going on about it.

    I'm not particularly PC, and I don't have any problem with Short People but there are some songs with very sexist or just plain nasty lyrics written from a more earnest point of view that I find hard to listen to. I Got A Women, Under My Thumb and I'm On Fire spring to mind. Oddly enough, I've never heard anyone ask Bruce why he wrote such an offensive song and more's the point, why he still plays it live.

  2. Anonymous6:52 am

    "we're all complicated, ambivalent, insecure, sneaky, self-justifying, lazy, half-baked,"

    See, thats what I'm aiming for. To be an artist.

  3. I'm reminded of this review of PJ Harvey's 'Uh Huh Her' by Greil Marcus:

    "That's the problem with artists: They know things other people don't. They feel compelled to say what those things are, and to conceal the strangeness and alienation of the act. If there is an "I" in their work, it ceases to refer back to the person writing, painting, singing; the person whose name is on the work has momentarily replaced herself with a made-up person who can say or do anything. This is what makes such a person an artist, and it's why critics who try to reduce an artist's work to her life are cretins. Thus we have Nick Catucci in the Village Voice, assuring his readers that Uh Huh Her is "a break-up album"--"as all save her last have been," he adds, in case you think there might be something out there that doesn't fit into a thimble. Forget that situations everyone goes through might go through Harvey differently than they do through you or me; don't worry that there might be anything here that isn't immediately obvious; after all, Catucci says, she's "an easy read" and "she's got a one-track mind." "We know she's been fucking and fighting, probably in equal measures, and maybe in the same moments." You can almost smell him, can't you?"

  4. I've got nothing against Kirsty Young but I want to know why she asked him to account for his reputation as a Grumpy Old Man. He doesn't have any such reputation. Therefore I can only assume she was referring to some of the voices in his songs.

  5. Haven't you noticed that "Grumpy Old Man" is now applied to pretty much every intelligent male of a certain age? Even the most laidback, grump-free charmers get it, like Clint Eastwood ("he objected to being dissed by Spike Jones, so he's a GOM") and Paul Newman ("he wouldn't give my rag an interview, so he was a GOM"). Hacks seem to confuse speaking frankly with grumpiness, the mindless bloody cretins mutter mumble....

  6. As I am sure you are aware, Kirsty has dutifully read the notes prepared by the researchers. Said researcher have done a quick trawl on the net, and found one of the ten things people who know nothing about Randy Newman 'know'. A few gobbets of half-digested, half-remembered factoids which circulate the internet posing as knowledge about Randy Newman.
    However, now you have brought the subject up, surely a fact-correcting and major insightful interview in Word is now due? At last a real cover star worthy of The Word. Funniest and wittiest guy I ever saw in concert.

  7. I doubt a radio 4 programmes have tonnes of researchers, probably just a producer and assistant and Kirtsy. Also it is one fo his most famous songs.
    Isn't the problem here that people round here know more than programme producers which isn't surprising.
    I rarely see shows about bands I like that tell me anything new. I long for a mention of New Order that doesn't mention Ian Curtis' death or that the Fall have had a lot of members etc It'll never happen.

  8. As Randy Newman said in the interview: when he dies the first line of his obituary will mention his Oscar. The second will mention "Short People". There seems to be nothing anyone can do to stop it.

  9. it beats "emu man dies" for parky or "bat biter ozzy bites the dust"

  10. Elvis Costello has always said that if he was run over by that mythical bus tomorrow, Radio Two would play Oliver's Army & Watching The Detectives - and that would be it. A life summed up by a couple of three minute songs.

    'London bus claims life of popster Elvis'...

  11. I seem to remember the headline in the Sun announcing the death of the great Denholm Elliott was something like "VW ad man in gay death".

    On grumpiness, Ray Davies was recently branded a grumpy old man by DJ nonentity George Lamb just because he couldn't descend to the chimpanzee's tea party level of humour asked of him.

  12. Anonymous8:55 am

    The original GOM is of course Lou Reed, who started out being grumpy at a very tender age. He also can be really funny when he is in the mood and not being asked questions by an IQ challenged interviewer.

  13. Randy Newman is America's greatest satirist. America doesn't understand satire. For a full explanation refer to "My Country".

  14. Why doesn't America understand satire? They have more satirical shows on their TV than we do on ours.