It’s a real nice way to spend the day

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sometimes my habit of holding on to old school papers comes in handy. For example, when I want to resurrect an paper I wrote from American Popular Music my first year of college about the man who made my birthday on Tuesday absolutely perfect, Randy Newman (along with a few friends, of course).

Like any good father, Dr. Reveal instilled in us only the best taste in music. The sound system of his electric blue Amigo was reserved only for the greats. I vividly remember sitting in the backseat with Danny singing every word to Paul Simon’s “I Know What I Know.” Randy Newman was one of those greats.

Later, when my Newman knowledge had expanded past “Short People,” I sang my all time favourite, “Dayton, Ohio 1903” during a radio show for Dayton’s celebration of 100 years of flight. When I first told my parents about Randy Newman playing in London on my birthday, Daddy’s first response was, “When you meet him, ask him why he wrote that song about Dayton.” Much to my dismay, Randy didn’t play “Dayton, Ohio 1903” and I didn’t get to ask him why he wrote it (although not for lack of trying to meet him after the show).

I was so in awe from the first notes on his piano to his final encore, that I didn’t have time to stop and think about what I wished he were playing. I always find the most powerful part of seeing one of my favourite artists is witnessing that voice you’ve heard over and over on your iPod or in the car coming out of a real human being. Hence my tears.

In true Randy Newman style, he began his first set with, “It’s Money That I Love.” We can now proceed with Randy Newman tip #1: Most of Randy’s songs aren’t autobiographical. In Sarah Dunne’s 1992 article for Popular Music and Society, Randy is quoted as saying,

“I don’t write about heros…I guess people aren’t used to hearing a singer sing about something he doesn’t personally mean.”

This leads to Randy Newman Tip #2: Randy writes in a style using what he calls the “untrustworthy narrator”. When he writes songs he usually takes on the persona of someone else, and often not such a nice character either–like a serial killer in the beautifully haunting “Germany Before the War” (Little Criminals) or a slave trader in the equally beautiful “Sail Away” (Sail Away). I think for many, it’s difficult to reconcile to this man singing about such rough, usually insulting topics.

Of course, these are the very reasons I think he’s great. He offers sharp social critique disguised in accessible, ragtime-type piano accompaniment. As Kevin Courrier writes,

“…He carries the weight of one version of America on his shoulders–not that anyone asked him to…but his real task is to make his burden ours.”

So, finally we come to Randy Newman Tip #3: He’s much more popular for his “normal” compositions. Although most of his albums have been received with lots of critical acclaim, his first platinum record was the soundtrack for Disney/Pixar’s Cars. About the “normal” songs he writes for movies including, Toy Story, Monster’s Inc., Awakenings and The Princess and the Frog, he says,

“…you’ve got to be normal when somebody’s spending millions of dollars.”

No one in Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday night minded that this witty man wasn’t so “normal,” and he provided an incredible start to my 23rd year on earth. Notwithstanding Randy, my birthday couldn’t have been complete without my lovely friends who put up with my insistence of an entire birthday week (as usual) and my family who organised the best video chat birthday party. Now for some pictures!

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