Saturday, December 22, 2007

Randy Newman, The Unreliable Narrator

Randy Newman is one of the smartest American songwriters, often making his point with literary devices like irony, satire, and the unreliable narrator.

There are a couple examples on his 1972 album Sail Away, which I think is his best.

In the song Sail Away, Newman takes on the voice of the racist slave trader making a pitch to the Africans to come "sail away" to Charleston Bay to live in America "where every man is free."

In America you'll get food to eat.
Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet.
You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day.
Its great to be an American.

The slave trader is playing the role of the unreliable narrator to his audience in Africa. But since slave traders never had to recruit, I've always kind of figured that the song was partly about the conflicted slave trader's own internal dialogue, in which he deludes himself into thinking he's performing some kind of service. (He's his own unreliable narrator.) When the song was performed in 20th century America, it satirized more recent delusions about race. The song also works as a sinister object lesson why it's good to be skeptical about what's being sold to you.

In another song, Political Science, Newman takes on the role of the frustrated yet powerful American happily dreaming about nuking the rest of the world into submission until "every city the whole world round will just be another American town"--except for Australia because we "don't want to hurt no kangaroo" and "they got surfing too." This one's just straight up irony.

Sail Away
Political Science

(buy album.)

For some amusing political satire in blog form, check out Jon Swift's blog.