Randy Newman — “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”

Released: 1.30.07

Peak:  Did not chart

By 2000 or so, Randy Newman had grown so successful at his day job that most under-thirties, even smart music obsessives, knew him solely as a composer of homely Disney ditties and perennial Oscar winner. (Though that’s maybe preferable to when “Short People” had typecast him as a kooky novelty artist.) But if there were two Randy Newmans, and two Randy Newman audiences, their voices and perspectives were less easily separated. The tone of “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” swings between exasperation and resignation, but its vocal baseline is a commonsensical drawl hardly distinguishable from that of the avuncular tunesmith who soundtracks Toy Storys.

“A Few Words” was an event of sorts for Newman, released with some to-do as a single on iTunes, its lyrics published on the same Times Op/Ed page where middlebrow historians were unironically asking “Are we Rome?” Newman answers such speculations bluntly – “the end of an empire is messy at best” – but offers consolation with a litany of those rulers more inept and cold-blooded than Bush/Cheney. (Newman on the Spanish Inquisition: “I don’t even like the think about it/ Well, sometimes I like to think about it.”) And the musical ironies are equally sharp: the jaunty, wide-open swing that lovingly mocks our fantasies of rugged individualism, the two-note frills that follow “Hitler” and “Stalin,” and the interpolation of “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” when Randy gets personal.

Maybe the Times was right to edit out Newman’s digression on the Supreme Court and his observations on the ethnicities of Scalia, Alito and Thomas. (Note to Randy: I could totally find two Italians as tight-ass as the two justices in question, especially with regards to the “homosexual agenda,” in the Scalitos’ hometown, Trenton.)  Tangential as it is, though, Newman’s complaint about dying before the current reactionary judges also reminds us what the much-disparaged Boomer sense of entitlement remains good for. Sometimes we still need to hear the rage of ’60s-reared liberals, old enough to remember what America once promised domestically, and who understand how a lack of political commitment, rather than market-driven inevitability, has undermined our prosperity. When Newman complained to Pitchfork that his taxes were too low, I just wondered how many smart music obsessives out there are too young to feel as betrayed as they should.

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