Friday, January 15, 2010

Randy Newman “Rednecks”

Yesterday I was writing about this Randy Newman song in relation to a Bruce Hornsby tune, and I thought I’d continue on some of the thoughts started in that last post.

You may not have ever heard this song before if you don’t own a Randy Newman album, because it’s certainly never going to get played on the radio.

If I tell you that the song is a scathing indictment of hypocritical Northerners’ racism, from the perspective of a Southerner, you might think, “Hey, that’s something I’d be interested in hearing.”

But if I tell you that the song features, prominently and frequently, the word “Nigger,” are you less likely to want to cozy up to it?

Volumes have been written about the word and its uses and abuses, but in the musical world I live it, I don’t have to deal with it too much. It just doesn’t appear too often in the songs of artists we love at mvyradio.

But occasionally, I have to confront it. And, honestly, I find it hard to be consistent.

A few years ago, I received a withering rebuke from a listener who had heard me play Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” Someone had requested the tune that day, and I was happy to play it, but unsure of how to handle the Dylan lyric “he was just a crazy nigger.” When the line clicked by, I flipped the volume off and on, as a hand-made “bleeping” out of the offensive word.

The listener was extremely offended that I would a) edit Dylan and b) think that the use of "Nigger” in the context of Dylan’s narrative, was offensive.

I have to admit, I have made the “Context” argument before.

A friend of mine told me he was protesting a movie because he’d heard that it contained multiple uses of a slur he (and I, and probably you) found offensive. I asked him if context mattered, or if the word was never appropriate to use. He said Never. I asked if, in the movie, it was Hitler who said, “I hate those damn (slur)s!” Would it then be okay to use an offensive word, because it showed the character to be an offensive person? My friend thought about it, but held his position. Even in that context, he felt it was a word that no one should use. I disagreed, but do concede that there are lots of folks out there who hold his position.

I wrote the “Hurricane” complainant an email that explained that while the use of “Nigger” in the context of the Dylan’s story was entirely appropriate, he had to realize that most people are not immersed in a song and its story, when they’re listening to the radio. It was a hot summer day, and as I was spinning the track, I was imagining how that line, out of context, would sound coming through the speakers of say, The Black Dog Bakery, where they, like many, many other businesses, pipe mvyradio through the store speakers.

Context does matter. Not only within the lyrics of the song, but the context in which the song is heard, or only partially heard. There’s a great exchange in an interview with comedian Artie Lange, where he talks about someone who was offended by his act, but only because the person only heard part of the comedy bit.

My argument absolutely did not win over my critic, and he let me know it, one more time, with a disgusted follow up email.

I had another harsh critic that day. Myself.

If I feel the need to edit “Hurricane,” how have I allowed Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” to air all these years, unedited? Why is the line “One more widow, one less white nigger” any less offensive? Inconsistency undercuts any moral authority I might try to project.

So back to Randy Newman. Viewing it as a Program Director, there’s just no way mvyradio could play this. In any context, if I play it on the air it’s going to read as offensive.

It’s offensive in the simple use of the word “Nigger.” It’s offensive to Northerners, for calling them all racists. It’s offensive to Southerners, for portraying them as racists. It’s offensive in context and out of context. It’s hard to find an angle where it’s NOT offensive.

However, viewing it as a lover of art, that’s the beauty of this song. Randy Newman has crafted something that is viewed as offensive from all angles, an incredible feat unto itself. But most importantly, it’s offensive from the most important angle of all---his ultimate point rings incredibly true.

Hear clips from all three songs mentioned in this post:

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