Saturday, June 20, 2015

Track of the Week: Randy Newman "Short People"

Randy Newman seems to have a particular genius for writing two types of songs: warm catchy ballads for Pixar films and wickedly satirical songs sung from the point of view of horrible people.  The awful opinions expressed in order to be mocked are still bathed in the same exquisite melodies as in the Pixar tunes, making it hard for the casual listener to get the joke sometimes.  And occasionally the melody is so catchy, as with "Short People," that Newman could score a big hit with it.

The narrator of the song is obviously deranged in his hate of short people, mumbling about their "dirty little hands and dirty little minds."  This is similar to Newman's earlier "Political Science," where the narrator fantasizes about nuking the world and turning it into "one big American town" in a biting parody of American nationalism.  The earlier song was just as catchy as "Short People," but the lyrics were perhaps easier to decipher, which kept it from getting played on the radio.

I wonder if anyone got Newman's point when he released "Short People" in 1977.  While Newman likes to skewer bigots in this fashion, he also presents them as everyday people, wandering around the same world as you and I.  I've been thinking a lot about that in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, whose perpetrator has been revealed to be the kind of deranged bigot that Newman often sang about.  According to news reports, others knew about Roof's violent hatred and even his plans to act on it, and did nothing.  That tells me that they were either sympathetic to his general viewpoint, or that such feelings were so common as to not cause alarm.

As far as the latter goes, I have heard, when in "white spaces" some horrifically, violently hateful things over the years, and I am not talking about your garden variety prejudice.  I am talking about eliminationist sentiments, like the kid in high school who wanted to nuke Mexico, the bartender who wanted to "send them all back to Africa," and so many others.  The events in Charleston are proof that these hateful souls are not a joke, they have the potential to do truly terrible things.  While it can be satisfying to disarm bigots by laughing at them, we should never stop taking them seriously.

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