Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sail Away by Randy Newman

Randy Newman is the master of subversive, social comment, often hidden behind delightful and misleading melodies. It would be easy to discuss the brilliant, but obvious, tunes like Short People, Rednecks, or the prescient Political Science. However, Sail Away remains a perfect example of all that is Newmanesque.

Newman is deftly able to cast a spotlight on the hypocrisy that allows systematic inequality to take a foothold and thrive in modern society. Don't be fooled by the humour and the light and breezy tone, or the romantic southern composition that could have easily sat with one of his father's film scores. This is a dark piece.

Like Zappa before him, and Eminem after him, Newman turns the table on both overt bigotry and condescending enlightenment. He highlights the absurdity of the argument by framing the story from the oppressor's perspective. It is a bold, and sometimes contentious approach, and Newman is by far the best at it. So much so that he has received a considerable amount of uneducated criticism from the very people who
should be shouting his praises.

The furore surrounding Short People was ridiculous. The very same people who were outraged by the 'treatment' of short people were noticeable by their absence during civil rights protests, or any number of famous racial discrimination cases. Those calling for the boycott of Newman's music were, and remain, strangely quiet when 'short people' is replaced with 'black' or 'yellow' or 'red' and so on. In Rednecks, no-one is spared, from the easy targets of racist southern stereotypes to complacent, condescending liberals of the north.

Sail Away is Newman at his best. Sung from the perspective of the slave trader it plays almost like an advertising jingle to entice voluntary migration from The Jungle to The New World - "A Brave New World awaits those eager to embrace the values of the USA!" It's great to be an American! Sail away. Freedom. Everyone is free to take care of his home and his family...

Sail away is not just about the shame and disgrace that was organised slavery in America. It strikes a chord still resonant today as it was at the time of recording in 1973. Consider these facts: African Americans account for around 12% of the population yet take up around 40% of prison populations. An African American male is about five times more likely to be incarcerated than a white American. The ratio between black and white inmates on death row is 3:1 in favour of whites. Split by race, African Americans represent the lowest average household income in the United States, along with the lowest rate of home ownership.

"You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It's great to be an American..."

It is the stark contrast between history as we know it and the chilling perspective of the slave trader that provokes and prods the listener. It keeps the message of the song so vivid and strong decades after it was written.


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