Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adjective Noun: Short People

Randy Newman: Short People


They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They're gonna get you every time
Well, I don't want no Short People
'Round here

Randy Newman is so respected for his body of work today, it's easy to forget that his first hit was dismissed by many as a poppy novelty song at best, and a potentially offensive one at that. In fact, Maryland legislators considered it so inappropriate that in 1978, the year after the song was released, they introduced a bill that would make it illegal to play Short People on the radio; happily, cooler heads prevailed, and the bill did not pass.

In later years, as in this 2003 interview, the highly literate and prolific Newman grew to hate the song, and the fact that -- despite a huge body of cuttingly precise and scathingly perceptive works -- he seemed to be best remembered in the public mind for this broadly-stated, simply orchestrated, admittedly "frothy" work. But the tide is turning. His Academy Awards and Grammys, his recent work with Disney, and the celebration of his life and work granted by blogs like ours and others, have begun to erode this association, making a case for a Randy Newman of depth and dignity.

That he was able to transcend this inauspicious start, and demonstrate over time just how powerfully he could speak to the baseness of stereotyping and elitism through unreliable narrators such as the "height-ist" voice utilized here, speaks to both his wry, intelligent wit and his perseverance. It helps, though, if we accept as given that Newman is smarter than the average listener, and that the lowest common denominator is not the best measure of the "success" of a song. And it helps, too, if we remember that Little Criminals was Newman's seventh album, and that without the success of Short People, so many of us might never have heard of him in the first place.

Which is to say: it's a shame that irony doesn't translate better, and a shame, too, that Randy has tried to distance himself from this song by dismissing it as too light and dumbed down, but in the end, who needs the support of people so short on perception? Let it go, Randy, let it go. It's a good catchy song about small-minded people. The best songs are simple songs, after all.

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