If you didn’t know much about Randy Newman and went to his Spotify page to check out his five most popular songs, here’s what you’d find: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Short People,” the theme to Monsters, Inc., “We Belong Together” and “I Love L.A.” Or, three cute songs from Pixar animated movies and two novelty hits. This is certainly one version of Newman — the lovable uncle, singing sappy tunes with his droopy, Eeyore-like voice that accompany the exploits of Toy Story’s Woody and Buzz. This is the version that resembles Will Sasso’s impression from Mad TV: an overweight, buffoonish, doddering fool.
But it’s certainly not the better version.
In fact, all of this is a bitter joke for the fans who came of age before Newman’s ascension as Disney’s Soundtrack King. There was very little so obviously lovable about this other, earlier Newman, and there sure wasn’t anything cute about the caustic, sometimes controversial music that he wrote. That old Newman is somewhat on display on a new album, Dark Matter, but the truth is, his remarkable string of records from the 1970s up through 1999’s Bad Love remain rich and spiky. And unfortunately, in the Trump era, they’re as relevant as ever.
Newman grew up in a musical family, with several of his uncles working as film composers. (Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman won Oscars for their scores.) Randy was interested in songwriting, penning tracks for singers like Dusty Springfield before he started recording his own albums. From the beginning, on 1968’s Randy Newman and 1970’s 12 Songs, he displayed an ability to mix a range of musical styles — orchestral pop, slow blues, country, piano ballads, bar-band rock — on short, catchy songs that got you humming before the second verse.
If you never paid attention to the lyrics, you’d assume Newman was just a one-man jukebox of good-time tunes. But then you’d focus in on, say, “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield,” a vague snapshot of a demented couple causing random destruction for inexplicable reasons. At the end, Newman sings menacingly, “Let’s burn down the cornfield / And I’ll make love to you while it’s burning.”
Such lyrics were a shock at a time when a wave of confessional singer-songwriters — Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor — were coming into vogue. The only confessing Newman did was articulating the darkest aspects of the fictional characters who populated his songs. And he always found a way to make these musical monologues some combination of sad, scary and funny. In “Suzanne,” a lonely, possibly homicidal young man awaits the arrival of a prostitute. In “Old Man,” a bitter son matter-of-factly informs his solitary, atheist father on his deathbed that there’s no god waiting for him on the other side. And on tracks like “Marie” and “Guilty,” Newman plays drunks pouring their heart out to wives or girlfriends who’d be better off without these wretches.
It’s never easy to know how to take Newman’s characters: Are their pathetic, desperate natures frightening or hilarious? Even the man who created them isn’t always sure. In concert, during performances of “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” about a guy giving his lover incredibly specific orders about how he wants her to undress and behave for him, Newman will often pause during the song’s slowly building, kinky tension to address the crowd. “You know, when I wrote this, when I was a kid, I thought of it as a joke,” he’ll admit. “But as I get older, I take it more seriously.”
For decades, that central tension — between revulsion and fascination, between bright music and dark protagonists — powered so much of Newman’s best material. It’s there even in “Short People,” the only outright hit of his career. (It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.) Over a deceptively cheerful piano figure, he blithely declares, “Short people got no reason to live.” The point of the song was to lampoon bigotry and insensitivity — “They got lil’ baby legs / They stand so low / You got to pick ’em up / Just to say hello” — but the song became a smash, presumably with most listeners not catching its deeper meaning.
Likewise, “I Love L.A.” was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Newman crafting a big, crass celebration of Southern California shallowness with brazen keyboards and hearty background vocals. And once again, if you just know it as the song the Dodgers play over their stadium’s speakers after they win a home game, you’d think it was really celebratory. But then you’d be missing lines like:
Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like ’em nowhere
In Newman’s music, humanity’s worst tendencies are on display. Greed, lust, selfishness, racism, addiction: Those are the punchlines, but they’re also commentaries on all the unpleasantness stirring inside of us that rarely comes out in pop songs. (If anything, pop music is supposed to help us forget those horrible aspects of life.) And while Newman works hard to separate himself from the people he voices in his songs, he knows he (and his audience) have to recognize them in some way.
“The people in my songs are generally exaggerations; what they say and think is colored by who they are,” Newman once said. “They are sometimes liars and braggarts and puffed up people, but I wouldn’t sing about them unless I cared about them. And when a song works, the audience understands the character’s point of view. And they don’t mistake it for mine.”
In the 1980s, Newman started focusing more on film scoring, and his album output dropped precipitously. (Dark Matter is only his fifth studio record in the last 34 years.) This second version of Newman is one that his original fans have come to begrudgingly love, or at least accept. Sometimes it’s easy — his score to The Natural is iconic, and the Sarah McLachlan-sung “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2 is an all-time great tearjerker — but too often Newman’s pleasantly sentimental orchestral movie music borders on the generic and the saccharine. That’s the Newman a whole generation has grown up on, and the one that Family Guy mocked as a piano-playing numbskull.
Dark Matter won’t entirely convince neophytes that Newman is a great satirist — it’s often saggy — but it does find the aging songwriter flexing some of his old muscles. “The Great Debate” is an eight-minute song that concocts a fictional scenario in which divisive topics like evolution and global warming are put on trial — and even Newman is forced to defend himself, charged with creating straw men for comedic purposes. “Brothers” constructs an imaginary conversation between John and Robert Kennedy in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion. And “Putin” is sung partly from the Russian president’s perspective as he dreams of global domination while bitching about his ungrateful, impoverished constituents: “These chicken farmers and file clerks gonna be the death of me.”
In a recent interview, Newman told Vulture that he’d debated writing a song about Donald Trump, “But the language was too vulgar. It felt too easy.” (He even shared some of the lyrics from the aborted track: “My dick’s bigger than your dick / It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true / My dick’s bigger than your dick / I can prove it too.”)
But Newman’s entire songbook is unintentionally filled with the kind of people who evoke either Trump’s worldview or the mindset of those who voted for him. Way back on 1972’s Sail Away, for example, Newman was pinpointing America’s xenophobic, nationalist tendencies on “Political Science,” a breezy piano tune that argued, “They all hate us anyhow / So let’s drop the big one now.” The song was filled with the sort of simmering resentment of foreign powers that Trump fans would appreciate, unironically: “We give them money / But are they grateful? / No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful.”
Meanwhile, 1974’s Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” a provocative imagining of a Southerner’s angry reaction to noted segregationist Lester Maddox being made fun of on national television. Newman’s character sings lyrics that could’ve been spoken at any Trump rally as the media mocked the presidential nominee’s lack of credentials: “Well, he may be a fool but he’s our fool / If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong.” The cultural and class conflict seething throughout “Rednecks” — “We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town,” the character says, sarcastically — addresses those same tensions in modern America between red and blue states.
Perhaps even more remarkably, Newman had his Southerner use the N-word to speak directly to the character’s implied racism. In that same Vulture interview, Newman defended the use of the epithet — “I was trying to get the character of the song right and use the words that he might use” — but it’s also an acknowledgement of the white privilege that the songwriter has often skewered in other songs. Music critic Robert Christgau, a longtime Newman fan, has referred to it as the artist’s “explorations of America’s dirty white underbelly.”
Often, it’s expressed through materialism, which is the subject of deceptively rah-rah tracks like “It’s Money That I Love” and “It’s Money That Matters.” But starting in the Wall Street-obsessed 1980s, Newman began introducing rich, entitled characters who talked down to their poorer peers. “There’s all these boring people / You see ’em on the TV,” the narrator informs us on “Roll With the Punches.” “And they’re making up all these boring stories / About how bad things have come to be.” Unmoved, the narrator responds that the poor need to get a job and stop complaining. “It don’t matter whether you’re white, black or brown,” he declares. “You won’t get nowhere putting down the old Red, White and Blue.” “Roll With the Punches” came out in 1988, but in our current era — at a time when the Justice Department is actively targeting affirmative-action admissions policies — the white resentment Newman channels through his fictional narrators is growing less satirical and more prophetic by the moment.
Because Newman has often dissected this notion of so-called American exceptionalism, it’s fitting that the man’s best song this century is “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” — which is about nothing less than the decline and fall of the United States. Released in 2007, the tune was a mock rebuke to those who claimed that George W. Bush was the worst world leader ever. “Now the leaders we have / While they’re the worst that we’ve had / [They’re] hardly the worst / This poor world has seen,” Newman sang, sardonically comparing them to everyone from Hitler to the Roman emperors.
When “A Few Words” came out, it felt like a liberating bit of snark during those terrible Bush years. But then came Trump. Appropriately, Newman re-released the song on vinyl on Trump’s inauguration day. Once again, he was ahead of the curve in his songwriting. And the final lyrics remain deeply bittersweet:
The end of an Empire is messy at best
And this Empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave and the home of the free
For years, Newman has written exaggerated portraits of Americans at their worst. But suddenly, it seems like real life is starting to outdo him. So while lots of people have grown up with the Disney Randy Newman, the original Newman still haunts us, too.