2:16 pm Sep. 19, 20121
I remember the first time I heard "Rednecks," Randy Newman's sly and excoriating take on race in America. At the time I was living in England, which I realize seems like a paradise of Olympic bonhomie and impeccable dentistry to all of you, but don't be fooled: it's a place that has racial issues all its own.
But unlike the United States of Oversharing, we like to bury stuff over there—real feelings are locked up deep and tight like a bunch of baddies, waiting for James Bond to bust into their sub-mountainous lair. No matter—I held no racist attitudes, subliminal or exterior, whatsoever. I grew up in the West Midlands, a so-called "multi-cultural" place, and in one class I took in high school, there were three white kids in attendance, and the rest were either from the Indian subcontinent or the Caribbean. See? I was blameless.
In any case, it was the 1980s—I had learned tolerance from Paul McCartney-and-Michael Jackson, and was all set. Bound by a shared love of Queen, the Queen, and humble puddings, me, two Irish lads, and the "others," well, we were all so happy. Then, one day my friend Kevin played me "Rednecks," and I listened aghast as Newman's croaky voice sang lines like "we're keeping the niggers down" and "the northern nigger's a negro." I got that it was ironic, thank you very much. But still; bring it down a notch, you'll wake the neighbors.
Later, when I'd moved here and seen America's "racial" issues more closely, the song changed from character-study-in-racist-attitudes-writ-large to something much more affecting. The listing of places where "the North has set the nigger free"—Harlem in New York City; the South-Side of Chicago, and the West Side; Hough in Cleveland; East St. Louis; Fillmore in San Francisco; Roxbury in Boston. This list chilled me, and ashamed me for being, at best, ashamed. It was something about "and the West Side" that slayed me, slays me every time still. How utterly dreadful, that afterthought, that un-numbered amendment. The narrator remembers the West Side, quickly, fleetingly, hoping to not leave anyone out, not disenfranchise anyone from this freedom that's anything but. Just listen to how Newman sings it. On the one hand, his voice is colossally tender, but more than just a voice, I should be ashamed, and I am.
But one must be careful of irony—we don't want any babies to actually get eaten, do we Mr. Swift? Newman has always suffered the way all ironists suffer. It's not an art that appeals to those whose attention span is limited, nor for whom the ear is made of the atomic number 50.
Take the Associated Press, for example: yesterday they noted the arrival of a new Randy Newman song, "I'm Dreaming," in which Newman's narrator reveals himself to be an unabashed racist who wants any POTUS, as long at he's white. In their brief article, the AP harked back to an earlier Newman song that also ironized intolerance, commenting that Newman often "writes songs from the perspective of a character not like himself" (OK so far), but then, showing impeccable irony of their own, saying that "his song, 'Short People,' attacked short people." (Is that the slap of an open palm on a forehead I hear?)
Even those who don't get irony might notice, however, that "I'm Dreaming" isn't particularly ironic. It certainly doesn't engender the pain of "Rednecks," nor "Sail Away" (his song about the slave trade), nor even "Short People." The song is too "on the money," to this tin ear at least. I felt a bit beaten up by it, tapped on the shoulder-like, rather than moved and ashamed via the ironic trope.
The fact is, I don't ever want to meet a person like the one who narrates "I'm Dreaming," and though I'm sure they're out there, I know I'm not one . . . whereas in "Rednecks," well, there's a reason the chorus proclaims "we're rednecks, we're rednecks" (emphasis added). I'm glad Newman wrote this new song, even though his voice has seen better times, this is still stronger than pretty much any song you'll hear this year, or any year. And I hope it shames someone, though my fear is that if you recognize yourself in "I'm Dreaming," then you're beyond shame.
The rest of us? We're rednecks, we're rednecks, and we (still) can't tell our asses from a hole in the ground.