Randy Newman leads a course on “Political Science,” sarcasm
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In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week’s theme: What’s a song that makes you laugh?
An entire generation has grown up knowing Randy Newman as “The Pixar Guy,” the man with the goopy voice who won an armful of trophies translating the emotions of toy spacemen, furry monsters, and anthropomorphized automobiles into music. This second chapter of Newman’s career sits particularly awkwardly with people like my mom, who’s never forgiven the singer-songwriter for the perceived slights of his biggest chart hit, “Short People.” Because music fans have a tendency to hear a song and expect its singer to be voicing his or her direct opinion, Newman’s career has been damned by perception: Take him at his word, and he’s alternately a racist (“Rednecks”), an apologist for the ugliest sides of his hometown (“I Love L.A.”), or a strangely enthusiastic fan of Electric Light Orchestra (“The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band”).
Of course, Newman is actually one of pop’s preeminent smart-asses—so if you think the satirical bigotry of “Short People” or “Rednecks” is bad, just wait until you hear him (sarcastically) call for the eradication of entire continents full of people in “Political Science.” Released in 1972 as side two, track one of Sail Away, “Political Science” had plenty of contemporaries for protesting bullheaded U.S. foreign policy—but only Newman’s song, which is more jest than protest, took the perspective of an American patriot looking at a map of the world and seeing nothing but bullseyes. It’d be a chilling psychological profile if it weren’t so damn goofy: South America deserves to be punished because it “stole our name”; Australia should be spared because the narrator “wouldn’t want to hurt no kangaroos.” All the while, the song’s jaunty arrangement underlines its sense of humor, giving nuclear holocaust the same soundtrack Newman might write for a musical’s big finale. Or a child’s playthings: One of the greatest ironies of hearing “Political Science” in 2012 is its similarities to Newman’s Toy Story scores. The only way it could be any funnier is if it were set to the image of a chorus line of plastic army men, their high kicks limited by the platforms fused to their feet.