Posted Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, at 8:59 AM
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Today, Randy Newman weighs in on the racial subtext of our presidential politics, and, as you might expect from the writer of “Short People,” “Political Science” and “Rednecks,” he doesn’t hold back. His new song, “I’m Dreaming,” which you can hear below—and which is available as a free download—is sung in the voice of a narrator who’s not just unreliable but … well, here’s the refrain: “I’m dreaming of a white President / Just like the ones we’ve always had.” (In case we miss the reference to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas, Newman throws in a der Bingle-esque “buh buh buh” toward the end of the number.)
Newman’s groundbreaking albums have, at this point, been heard by far fewer people than his movie scores, which include Ragtime, Seabiscuit, and all three Toy Story films. He took time out from scoring the prequel to Monsters, Inc. to talk about his new song, his relationship to the people who inhabit his work, the handsomeness of George Romney, and the pitfalls of irony.
Slate: You once famously described “Political Science”—with its refrain, “Let’s drop the big one and see what happens”—as “a pinhead’s view of China,” and I guess my first reaction to the new song is that it’s good to have you back in pinhead territory again. Is it satisfying for you, too?
Randy Newman: Yeah, it feels good. But, you know, they’re not all complete pinheads. The guy in “Rednecks,” for instance, the case he makes is a just case. His language was execrable, and the ugliness of the words he chooses tends to disqualify him, but not completely. When he said that the North didn’t have any moral superiority to the South on racial issues, he was right. Of course, this guy, in “I’m Dreaming,” he has no case at all, just some vague pseudo-scientific theories that no doubt sound good to him but are nonsense.
Slate: Right. At one point the scene shifts to Africa and the singer says that the continent could never have produced any geniuses because of all the lions and tigers—an Albert Einstein or a Ronald Reagan would have been “gobbled up before their time.”
Newman: It’s the guy’s attempt to ground his theory in some gauze of intellectual wrapping.
Slate: You’ve said that one thing that inspired you to write this song is the thought that, “there are a lot of people who don’t want a black person in the White House and they want him out.” To put it bluntly, how do you know?
Newman: Well, I don’t know, partly because no one, and I mean no one, would admit feeling that way. Still, it’s clear that there are lots of people out there who are uncomfortable. The Civil War was a long time ago but there are aspects of it that remain unsettled, I think. Early on in Obama’s term, there was heat generated by issues that you wouldn’t think would cause such passion. Even the term “Obamacare,” the way it’s spit out, like he was some kind of witch doctor. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to the issue, but I don’t think so. There’s an edge to things that normally wouldn’t have an edge. I thought it was a little extra.
Slate: Did you have Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby in mind when you were writing the song?
Newman: Not them specifically, but maybe the America they represent. Oddly enough, I did a version of Faust years ago, and the vision of God I had in my mind was George Romney. He looks like what God would look like to me. That wide-open, beautiful face. That’s what I see when I picture him. The idea was that the devil always worked real hard and the Lord always beat him, and he just couldn’t understand it. And Romney is the guy I had in mind for that. He just looks so great.
Slate: This was George, not Mitt? He’s a kind of good-looking guy, as well.
Newman: Yeah, kind of. Not like his dad.
Slate: With Ry Cooder’s angry new record, Bob Dylan’s blunt comments about race in his recent Rolling Stone interview, some of Springsteen’s no-holds-barred songs, and now “I’m Dreaming,” it seems that you and a few of your colleagues are getting pretty fed up. Is this a trend?
Newman: I’m not sure about a trend, but for me it’s a reaction to the Republican Party, which seems to have drifted farther to the right than a major party has drifted in my lifetime in any direction. It seems to have become almost a radical party. The hate and… I don’t think it’ll last. That kind of thing doesn’t seem to last.
Slate: You’re releasing “I’m Dreaming” free of charge, but you’re encouraging listeners to donate to the United Negro College Fund. Why that particular cause?
Newman: I have some concern that kids will hear this and think, “What is he talking about?” If you have a kid and you try irony out on them, they don’t get it at 7, 8 years old. “What do you mean, you’re dreaming of a white president?” It’s a problem. You can’t really hide the Internet from kids. It worries me some particularly because I’ve done Disney and Pixar stuff. In Toy Story, there’s my voice saying, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” And then here’s my voice singing that I want “A real live white man / Who knows the score.” I’d like it to be clearer which side I’m on. Of course, it comes a little late.