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Satire without the potential for danger is pointless. This is something Randy Newman knows all too well. It’s understandable that listeners of his early work (or fans of his later incarnation as a writer of sweet Pixar songs) would take it at face value; they all have the seductive, nostalgic quality of a stripped-to-the-bone pop song. The compositions are so pleasant to the ear that it’s easy to miss the sharpened daggers hiding just underneath the surface. Newman’s genius, though, is that he doesn’t want to wound his audience. He just wants to poke at them a little and see them squirm. A song like, say, “Rednecks,” perhaps his most controversial for its liberal use of the n-word, works because of its intense specificity and matchless evocation of a character’s voice, in that case a Southerner fed up with the smug superiority of the North, which is racist in less overt but no less harmful ways.
“Political Science” was first released on Newman’s 1972 album Sail Away during the height of the Cold War and disastrous final years of Vietnam, but its portrait of a cheerfully ignorant world leader is timeless, as this unfortunate election season has recently proved. As the Republican candidates run a race to the know-nothing bottom, hastened by a front-runner openly advocating war crimes and tarnishing America’s image abroad, the playful irony of Newman’s little ditty has become frighteningly plausible. “No one likes us. I don’t know why,” the narrator gently intones at the song’s opening before deciding a mere two lines later that nuclear destruction is the only option: “All around even our old friends put us down. Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.” It’s a train of thought so simply and nonchalantly followed that it almost sounds like a good idea.
The song then moves into a flippant litany of reasons the rest of the world has it coming. They’re ungrateful, spiteful, Asia’s crowded, South America stole our name so “let’s drop the big one, there’ll be no one left to blame us.” A world made up of just people who think like us would be paradise, right? “How peaceful it’ll be,” the narrator blithely cries, “We’ll set everybody free!” But such bland agreeability has its own drawbacks. After all, once you begin destroying everyone who disagrees with you, how long will it be until that extends to those across the aisle in your own country? In most ways, we’re already there and we haven’t had to drop a big one in 70 years.
When Newman performed “Political Science” on The Colbert Report back in 2006, halfway through Bush’s unearned second term, it seemed like a knowing wink to the show’s left-leaning viewers. I wonder if he’d get the same reaction now. In the damning final couplet the narrator throws up his hands, which has come to seem like the only appropriate reaction to the modern political process: “They all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now.” We need the song more than ever, because the joke of it isn’t funny anymore.
There’s unfortunately no clips available of the Colbert performance but this one seems close enough: