November 29, 2005

Subversive Songwriting

Randy Newman seems to me like a completely unlikely person. Whereas so many singer-songwriters work in the heart-on-the-sleeve, confessional mode, his songs are mostly cynical and distant. His voice is nothing to write home about, plus his appearance doesn't scream "big star." Somehow, these factors add to his music. His songs about sexual deviants and con artists wouldn't be as powerful if they came out of a more conventional personality.

His ability to create rhetorical distance between author and narrator is right up there with Stravinsky. A song like "Rider in the Rain" is so absorbed in being "cowboy music," but this involvement is matched by a feeling that it's all an elaborate conceit. Newman uses this rupture to test your trust in the narrator. Because the writing is so disquietingly conventional, you examine it all the more closely for the cracks in the facade. He forces you to think about how genres are used, what images are conjured up by particular instrumental forces, and the weight you give to the words of singers. His voice is that of an outsider, always shrewd and subversive.

Andriessen and Schönberger wrote in The Apollonian Clockwork about how when Stravinsky wrote a Mass or a Requiem, it became an ür-Mass or ür-Requiem, a summation and a stepping beyond of the genre. When Randy Newman writes a song, he (and the song in a way) are so aware of the genre's conventions that a similar kind of commentary is embedded in it. Tom Waits has often been described as a "meta-songwriter," but I think that Newman is far more deserving of the title.

1 comment:

Hucbald said...

Arg. I was going to bring Waits up, but you had to write that last sentence, didn't you?