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A Few Words in Defense of Randy Newman

In the era of the last presidential administration, Randy Newman, the distinguished elder of pop-song irony, wrote a tune called “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” in which he gave George W. Bush credit for doing no more harm than the Caesars, Hitler, or Stalin. “Now, the leaders we have,” he sang, “while they’re the worst that we’ve had, are hardly the worst that this poor world has seen.” In the same spirit, I’d like to offer a defense of “We Belong Together,” the Newman song from Toy Story 3 that just won the Academy Award for Best Song. While it is hardly the best song Randy Newman has ever written, and while it is scarcely better than the other songs nominated for an Oscar this year (the others being “Coming Home” from Country Strong, “I See the Light” from Tangled, and “If I Rise” from 127 Hours), “We Belong Together” is not the absolute worst song written in the history of music. It is not even the worst song ever written by a great and important composer (or songwriting team) who should never have subjected the public to such pandering trash. That distinction still goes either to “All Dark People Are Light on Their Feet,” by Rodgers and Hart, or “Be Cool and Groovy for Me,” by Duke Ellington, with lyrics by Tony Bennett. I can’t make up my mind.

Pop culture is built on a foundation of trash, of course, and movie songs are intended to serve an ancillary, quasi-promotional function that could be thought of as pandering or as public outreach. What’s troubling in the case of Randy Newman—unlike Rodgers and Hart, who might have been blinded by the racism of their day when they wrote “Dark People,” or Ellington and Bennett, who were grossly out of touch with the hippie culture when they did “Cool and Groovy” —is the fact that Newman knows better. He began his career as a writer of old-style love songs for singers such as Gene Pitney, Cilia Black, and Frank Sinatra, Jr., and he abandoned commercial pop, deliberately, to pioneer a more expansive and mordant approach to pop songwriting.

“I grew bored with writing that kind of a song,” he once explained in an interview now on YouTube. “And I couldn’t take it, because I’d read books, and I didn’t know why we shouldn’t have the same latitude a short-story writer has.”

Starting in the late ’60s with “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” Newman has drawn from the traditions of Tin Pan Alley and nineteenth-century American music, as well the pop of his own generation, to build a body of mature, multi-layered, often drolly comic and sometimes harrowing songs. Along the way, he has taken innumerable commissions for movie songs and has written enough good ones to earn a record twenty—count ‘em, 20—nominations for Oscars and two wins. (In 2002, Newman won for “If I Didn’t Have You,” written for the animated Monsters, Inc.)

The only way to conceive of “We Belong Together” as anything less than demeaning is to take it as irony, and I’ve been trying without luck. The music is a generic pastiche of clichés from the pop charts of Newman’s apprenticeship in the early ’60s, and the words seem lifted from one of those recent-vintage Hallmark cards that dispense with faux poetry for flat banalities: “Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart/I just can’t take it/When we’re apart ... The day I met you/Was the luckiest day of my life/And I bet you feel the same...”

I have admired Newman deeply for years, and I think of that dancing bear of Simon Smith’s as a metaphor for Newman’s music: grand, smarter than it needs to be, entertaining, and secretly ferocious. I hope it’s only hibernating and escapes soon from the cave of Hollywood to do amazing things again.