The hunched 73-year-old recently turned up in a segment on TMZ’s TV show, of all places, reporting on “Putin,” a track from his latest LP, Dark Matter. The song is a biting faux-anthem for the Russian president, with lines like, “When he takes his shirt off/Makes mewanna be a lady!” It’s a goof, but TMZ was stumped. “Is he puckering up—or poking fun?” asked the clip’s cartoonish narrator, after Newman affably tried to explain the song to a paparazzi cameraman in an airport. Then the gossip site’s newsroom launched into an argument about the song’s true meaning—as evidence, one diminutive TMZ staffer even attested to the bigotry of Newman’s 1977 hit “Short People,” a song that was written to expose the ills of baseless bigotry.
When I bring up this TMZ appearance to Newman, he sounds genuinely amused. “Yeah, there I was!” he drawls. “Actually, I’m probably the only person who likes that cameraman—it’s just that he’s got his camera with him.” That Newman is able to find some humanity in a guy who hounds celebrities and is generally considered a pariah is no surprise. He’s had a lot of practice.
Though he’s likely best known as the composer behind the music in the Toy Story movies, Newman’s most rewarding work lies in the 11 solo albums he’s released since 1968. In the past, he’s written songs from the perspective of slave traders, Alabama racists, California douchebags, and creepy stalkers—not exactly Pixar material—and on Dark Matter opener “The Great Debate,” he plays a slick-talking faith healer type bent on disproving scientists of all stripes. But the record also features less sinister Newman tropes: sentimental ballads that steer clear of easy emotions, sly historical gambits, paranoid dixieland vamps. In an effort to minimize the misunderstandings this time around, the songwriter delved into the backstories and inspirations behind each song from the new album.
1. “The Great Debate”
Pitchfork: This song is an eight-minute mini-musical that pits science against religion to determine, once and for all, who is right when it comes to humanity and existence. Though you are an atheist, in the song, the religious side comes out on top, largely thanks to the power of gospel music.
Randy Newman: Faith wins because it’s got Dorothy Love Coates, the Golden Gate Quartet, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, everybody. I don’t know whether I am a music lover, strictly—it’s hard to say how I feel about it—but I love good gospel music. No doubt. My side, the agnostic, atheist side, has got nothing like that. There’s no great song that’s like, “Let’s all not believe and play our agnostic hymnals!” They got everything: the high ceilings, the confessions—man what a hit idea.
What interested me about the song is that they’re brothers, irrespective of who they are. I like the dynamic of an older brother poking fun at the enthusiasms of the younger brother. I didn’t know I was interested in the period itself, but when I think of it now, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a time when you were looking up every time a plane went by—for a few days there, it was scary like it hasn’t been since. So there is something there. And I liked how the trivial the reasons were to support the Bay of Pigs, and that the guy wants to save Celia Cruz. Because the U.S. has done some invading of small countries for not much more than that.
When did you start writing this quasi-theme song for Vladimir Putin?It could have been as much as three years ago. It was when all those pictures were appearing of him with his shirt off, and I couldn’t understand why. What did he want? I think it was just personal vanity of some kind, like he wanted to be Tom Cruise. It wasn’t enough to be the richest and most powerful. He wanted to be the most handsome and a superhero, throwing young people around and wrestling. It’s a strange thing.I read that you wrote a song about Trump but decided not to put it out. In a way, though, if you changed a couple of lyrics to this song, it could be about him too.Yup. Though this one is way less critical of Putin than I thought I would have been. As I’m doing it, I’m saying to myself, I’m not criticizing him enough. He’s a bad guy. But I was conscious of it being too easy. It’s like writing an anti-war song that goes, “War is bad.” Well yeah, of course it is!