And the Jester Sang for the King and Queen, p.2

I went to a taping of Bravo's "Musicians" series last Saturday and the guest was Randy Newman. I never knew too much about ol' Randy - I know my petite mother detests his song "Short People," and I know the "I Love L.A." sequence in Naked Gun makes me squeal with joy, and I know I like "Mr. President" from the Forrest Gump soundtrack, but I'd never picked up an album. His songs just seemed to crop up over the opening or closing credits of a happy Disney flick and I'd hum along and cheer for him each year at the Oscars and that was the sum of our relationship. But at the Bravo show, he started his explaining his intentions ("fuck with shit," essentially, as in "make 'em think") and his process (this honky knows his harmonics, brother), and I was ready to throw myself at his feet. The man's a genius and most of the world only knows him from his Toy Story dreck (No offense, Randy, but you said yourself that it's easy to write the kiddie stuff, and it's sure-fire bling bling action).

Ah, Randy. The same man who launched a huge hit with the weak "I Love to See You Smile" creates masterpieces about imperialism and the socioeconomic problems of the United States, and he does it with humor. In "Political Science," he satirizes those who advocate "dropping the big one" on the rest of the world because "they all hate us anyhow." Newman's song promotes destroying Europe ("too old") and Africa ("too hot") and South America ("They stole our name") but his narrator wants to save Australia - "Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo. We'll build an all-American amusement park there; they've got surfing, too." Newman's logic is absurd, and yet it's not too far from the jingoistic leanings of all-American nationalists - when the world's been destroyed, he rejoices that there will be "more room for you, and more room for me. And every city the whole world round will just be another American town." Newman creates nasty characters - militaristic hawks, rednecks, wife-leavers, slave-traders - and uses wit and humor to make fun of them. He's not cracking jokes, he's pointing out truths.

So how come no one I know listens to Randy Newman? Maybe because people are stupid. His work often falls into that ambiguous murk of the "serious novelty song." Musically, his songs are so brilliant that the complexities are lost to the casual listener. Lyrically, his songs are so often caustic as to be inaccessible. People seriously protested "Short People," astounded and outraged that a song declaring "short people got no reason to live" could be released. The protesters didn't get it, didn't understand that the song is satirizing bigotry, that its whole point is that hatred of any group - blacks, gays, short people - is absurd, pathetic. Maybe Randy Newman's nasty humor, perhaps because it strikes too close of a chord, is too sharp for his "funny songs" to earn a widespread audience. I'd call his work "music for smart people" because you have to listen to his songs - "Short People" makes me laugh, but when I listen to the lyrics, the song gets even better because it's so cynical. Short people do got a reason to live, but the fact that Randy Newman vehemently denies them this right is hysterically funny, even while you cringe knowing that bigots are just as vehement in denying the same rights to black people, or Jewish people, or female people. Randy sees the absurdity, and so our laugh with him is a knowing, cynical laugh.

The Randy Newman or Weird Al phenomena are precisely what make funny songs so important - these songs undermine assumptions. They make you think. Even Bob Dylan (the alleged "jester," in the coat he borrowed from James Dean), one of the most respected and exalted "serious" lyricists of all time, uses humor to speak the truth. "Maggie's Farm," "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Subterranean Homesick Blues" - these are all some of the most vitriolically anti-authority songs of all time, and also of the funniest. "Look out kid, it's something you did, don't know when, but you're doing it again" and "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" are truthful lyrics that instantly spring to mind. Or: "Don't steal, don't lift - twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift" is funny and it's also painfully true.

When the world is sleeping, the Jester must wake it up. Funny songs are a beacon of truth - pointing out the absurdities of society, mocking popular trends, or basically just saying what must be said. Parodies make the listener realize that the real song, no matter its greatness, can still be mocked; funny songs mock events or people or ideas to prove that nothing is sacred. Parodies and other novelty songs try to get music-listeners to remember that even great art is manipulative, to step back and re-examine society and culture with at least a twinge of cynicism. And cynics and skeptics ( "don't follow leaders," at least not without questioning first. We could probably use a few more of those people today, don't you think?

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