Korean Parents for Sale
Randy Newman's on-target race humor.
Post-racial may be the new black, but race humor is as perilous as it ever was. This summer, satirists—from second-time offender Don Imus to The New Yorker's Barry Blitt—have found being funny on race hard to do. The latest entertainer to step into this spotlight is Randy Newman, whose new album, Harps and Angels, includes an uproarious song titled "Korean Parents."
The song will probably not prompt boycotts the way Ice Cube's "Black Korea" did months before the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Nor will it lead to confrontations with activists like those that Sarah Silverman faced in 2000 after telling Conan O'Brien that her friend advised her to avoid jury duty by writing, "I hate Chinks" on her form. She told O'Brien that she wrote, "I love Chinks! And who doesn't?" If the race dialogue in this country—such as it is—has moved from culture-war rancor to lame meta-satire, perhaps that's progress. But Newman, with "Korean Parents," offers a more enjoyable way forward.
He has always shown a particular fondness for picking at the scabs left by America's ongoing racial unease. Against the backdrop of Nixonland backlash, he devised a carny for 1972's "Sail Away" who pitched slaves on a free ride across the Middle Passage. "In America you'll get food to eat, won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet," the carny sang. "It's great to be an American."
His 1974 "Rednecks" was sung in the voice of a racist Southerner outraged at hypocritical Northern revulsion at Southern racism. "We're too dumb to make it in no northern town," the redneck sneers, "and we're keeping the niggers down." "Korean Parents" seems the odd adopted child of the two.
On Harps and Angels, "Korean Parents" follows the evening reverie of "Easy Street," a song that evokes Jazz Age innocence while indulging the luxuries of the 21st-century high-end service-economy. "Life is sweet," Newman sings like a piano player in an exclusive speakeasy—perhaps the Don Draper kind with seductive Asian-American waitresses.
"Korean Parents" is the ugly morning after, set in an anonymous exurban edge city. "Kids today got problems like their parents never had," Newman sings. The boys are in the den playing "Dream On" on Guitar Hero. The girls are upstairs watching Gossip Girl and texting friends. Their meritocracy-addled, U.S. News & World Report-ranking-obsessed parents, perhaps the kind that watched Zhang Yimou's Olympics opening ceremony in wonder and horror, seethe.
If the rednecks were obsessed with "keeping the niggers down," these cosmopolitans are watching the gooks pass them by. Re-enter Newman's carny, to an über-kitsch arrangement of gongs, flutes, and strings. "Look at the numbers, that's all I ask. Who's at the head of every class?" he sings. "They just work their asses off, their parents make them do it." From peddling a slave-ship seat to Korean parents as bourgeois elixir—now that's what you can call satire.
The narrator is a classic Newman archetype—a white American salesman who skillfully whipsaws between condescension and flattery, packages shortcuts as lifesavers, fears as hopes. (Maybe Newman has a song in him about Mark Penn.) Here, the product is a Korean parent who will get your kids to turn their homework in on time and maybe even toss them in the minivan with theirs for the Kumon, violin, and golf lessons. "You say you need a little discipline?" the carny asks. "They'll be strict, but they'll be fair."
Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop. His new book is Who We Be: The Colorization of America.
Photograph of Randy Newman by Chris Graythen/Getty Images.