We’ve had a small debate here at the Snob desk about the precise intentions of Randy Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” the signature song from the master ironist’s new album, “Harps and Angels.”
In a short interview feature I had assigned to preview last week’s Newman solo show at the Strathmore Music Center, Andrew Leahey, our Riffs columnist (and assistant pop editor/blogger for the indispensable AllMusic.com) had written, ” ‘A Few Words in Defense of Our Country’ trains a wary eye on the Bush administration…” I proposed changing this to ” ‘A Few Words in Defense of Our Country’ skewers the Bush administration while at the same time reminding us that in the long perspective of history our leaders ‘are hardly the worst this poor world has seen.’ “
My change reflected what I took to be the historically relativizing ambivalence established in the first verse of the song’s lyrics:
I’d like to say a few words In defense of our country
Whose people aren’t bad nor are they mean
Now the leaders we have/While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen.
The song’s narrator goes on to allude to or explicitly cite a depressing catalogue of historical leaders who were worse than our current president, including Caligula, King Leopold of Belgium and Hitler and Stalin.
I assumed my change was a simple, uncontroversial change. I should’ve known better. Randy Newman’s irony is seldom simple.
Randy isn’t tweaking the Bush-haters who’ve lost all historical perspective on Bush’s failures, Andrew cautioned — he’s setting a cunning trap for those who might be tempted to bring a sense of proportion to Bush-hatred! “Contrasting Bush’s rule with that of several dictators doesn’t do much in the way of clearing the president’s name,” he emailed. “If anything, I think Newman is pointing a cautionary finger at those who claim ‘Well, things aren’t THAT bad’ by saying, ‘Sure, they’re not that bad if you compare our situation to travesties like the Spanish Inquisition.’ “
I wasn’t persuaded. Randy Newman has long delighted in deflating the moral pretensions of his own — can we call them preponderantly liberal? — listeners. Think of how he turned the tables on them in the bridge of “Rednecks,” when his cracker-narrator acidly congratulates northern liberals on the “freedom” of northern blacks:
He’s free to be pit in a cage in Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South Side of Chicago and the West Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland…
In introducing the song at Strathmore (see Joseph Silverman’s concert photo below), Newman left little doubt that the motive force behind the still-shocking “Rednecks” was the impulse to tweak liberal hypocrisy on race — not heap yet more gratuitous ridicule on white southern bigotry, which, Newman also made abundantly clear, is immediately and inevitably self-discrediting.
I sought a tie-breaking opinion on “A Few Words” from songwriter-critic (and old friend) Philip Shelley. “Sorry, but — I think Andrew’s right,” he wrote. Yes, Philip acknowledged, “the irony is kind of muffled by genuine bewilderment and sadness at the passing” of the American epoch, but, still, “it’s a joke (Randy irony) that you need to stoop as low as Caligula and Leopold to excuse our current situation.”
I was disappointed by the Leahey/Shelley reading of Newman’s irony: The fact that Bush isn’t as bad as as history’s worst scoundrels doesn’t say much for Bush. Disappointed not — I hope — from any sense of protectiveness toward the Bush legacy; disappointed, rather, because I expected more from Randy Newman than to settle for low-hanging satirical fruit like the already saturation-satirized Bush White House. I’d wanted to believe Newman’s irony was more ambitious in its reverberations: The fact that history has plenty of leaders far worse even than Bush — even from the perspective of a Bush-hater — doesn’t say much for history.
But, inconveniently for me, Newman is, as Philip brought to my attention, on the record saying, “This song is about a specific administration — we’ll never see its like again.” A clincher, I must admit: Those aren’t exactly the words of someone using the Bush administration as a mere medium through which to make a larger point about human folly through the ages.
So — it appears the Leahey-Shelley reading was right, and mine was wrong. But — tell me if you disagree — I think part of Randy shares my disappointment that he settled for the easy satirical kill in “A Few Words.”
“I wrote it against my will in a way,” he reveals in that explanatory video. “I don’t like writing songs just about the moment, because this song won’t be relevant in a couple of months…”