I was glancing through a not-very-interesting book on pop music, a while back, and thought that it did have a reasonably good summary description of Randy Newman.

It called him the “master of the unreliable narrator” and pointed out that essentially every Randy Newman song is in the voice of someone other than him.

Some of his songs are sympathetic (“Rednecks”, surprisingly), others are satirical (“Political Science”), but they almost always create a fictional character for the purpose of the song.

It then talked about how, when people get Randy Newman wrong it is usually by taking his songs to literally, e.g., “Short People.” Finally it gave, as another example, Old Man saying that it was a satire of prejudice, like “Short People,” about “ageism.”

That seems obviously crazy. “Old Man” is one of my favorite Randy Newman songs because it is so emotionally direct, a remarkably tender song about comforting a dying relative.

I am curious, however, if you think the voice of the song is Randy Newman’s? I have always assumed that it is, but if so it is a remarkably intimate song by a singer who is almost never revealing.

Won’t be no God to comfort you
You taught me not to believe that lie
You don’t need anybody
Nobody needs you
Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry
Everybody dies

  1. ben’s avatar

    seems like a misuse of the phrase unreliable narrator:

    I always thought the song was personal, although not autobiographical. At least half the songs on sail away are clearly not in newman’s voice, the title track for example.

    The album kicks ass and I think it is a disservice to just label it satire. Also, this was the album that really made me respect newman as a performer. The performances, in any event, are extremely intimate sounding, so it does always feel like we are listening to randy newman speak, even when the narrator is clearly someone else.

    great, great album


  2. ben’s avatar

    Narration is the default structure of the novel, but most pop songs don’t have a narrator. A bunch have sort of a nod towards narration. If you look at the track list for “Sail Away”, the most narrative song is “last night I had a dream”, and I guess “god’s song”. other songs have a nod toward narration.

    In a way, song seems more like theater where story and plot occur most frequently through performers acting, rather then through a narrator.

    Thinking of songs you’ve posted, “up the junction” is the most narrative one that pops to mind. And, “up the junction” feels like an unusual structure for a pop song.


  3. NickS’s avatar

    Narration is the default structure of the novel, but most pop songs don’t have a narrator.

    Thanks for elaborating on this, I was going to respond to the first comment by saying that, while “unreliable narrator” was used inaccurately the meaning was clear in context, but this makes me think that it might be worth unpacking the idea of the narrative voice in a song.

    I certainly use the concept freely. To take a couple of examples we have, a couple Ani songs, Dublin Blues, The Ballad of Elizabeth Dark, Babies, and We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes.

    All of those present slightly different challenges. I need to think a little bit about how I would describe the differences in the narrative stances of those songs, but I will follow up on this.

    It also reminds me that I really need to update the music page.


  4. NickS’s avatar

    Narration is the default structure of the novel, but most pop songs don’t have a narrator. A bunch have sort of a nod towards narration.

    I’m still thinking this over, but I’m not convinced. Upon reflection I think that Randy Newman songs, as a group, have less emphasis on narrative than most pop songs.

    I think most pop songs do start with an “I” and tell some story. I’m not sure where I would draw the dividing line between “narrative” and “nod to narrative” but I do think that it’s almost always important to place the “I” of a song and that the nature of that “I” is one of the most important things communicated by the performance.

    Go back to my first song post and compare the two versions of “Please Call Me Baby.” What impressed me about the cover is how completely the “I” of the song shifted just by changing the performance, without changing any of the words.


  5. ben’s avatar

    it’s at least interesting to think about. David Jennings walked in and I asked him if he thought it was true that most pop songs aren’t narrative, and he said, “the songwriter almost always experiences the song as coming from a story, but the audience almost never does”.


  6. ben’s avatar

    At the very least, there can be story without a narrator. Almost every novel has a narrator, most plays don’t. Just because there is an I singing a song, does that mean there is a narrator? It can’t just be as simple as “she broke my heart” (narrator), “you broke my heart” (actor).

    take “respect” by Otis Redding. Is there even a story there, (as in a sequence of actions)? Pretty much the song just describes a situation, although we can imagine what led up to it and what might happen later (thus building a story around the situation). So many pop songs are just a situation: I love you, you broke my heart, I’m going to ask her out. you treat me bad, etc.


  7. NickS’s avatar

    So many pop songs are just a situation: I love you, you broke my heart, I’m going to ask her out. you treat me bad, etc.

    That was what I assumed you meant by “nod to narrative.” But I don’t think there’s a clear dividing line between the two. Take “Dublin Blues.” One on hand it’s just about a situation, “I’m sitting here drinking my sorrows away” but, on the other hand, there’s enough detail about the situation that it feels specific rather than generic. I think of that song as reflecting more of a narrative than “Respect” even though neither of them described a specific sequence of events.


  8. NickS’s avatar

    Perhaps “Cruel To Be Kind” is a good example of a song with almost no narrative elements at all.


  9. ben’s avatar

    Richard Meltzer begins The Aesthetics of Rock with a full transcript of the lyrics to Surfin’ Bird. Part of what is entertaining about this is that the lyrics are way more absurd printed out then they are heard. Actually, hearing it we accept it. Among other things this shows the extent to which story is optional in pop music, in a way it can never be in the novel.


  10. ben’s avatar

    Although, I’m starting to agree with you that most pop songs have at least some minimal sense of story. Although, usually the story is very simple. And, in many cases it’s like David says, where the story is mostly understood by the writer more then the audience. I’ve got CDs by Spoon and Wire on my CD player, and a lot of their lyrics are pretty abstract.

    I’m still thinking about if and where the narrator is located.


  11. NickS’s avatar

    Although, usually the story is very simple.

    Well, as I’ve said before, songs are short compared to a book. So if you’re just looking at the words, there isn’t much room for narrative complexity.

    On the other hand, it’s still possible to pack a lot of narrative power in a short and simple space. Proverbially the “saddest story ever told” is:

    For sale: baby shoes, never used.

    That isn’t to disagree, just to say that if a song can bring life and emotional conviction to a simple story that can be plenty.


  12. NickS’s avatar

    I’m still thinking about if and where the narrator is located.

    I’m still thinking about that as well, and would love to get someone else in on this conversation.


  13. Wrongshore’s avatar

    One of my favorite layered Randy Newman narrators is from My Life is Good on Trouble In Paradise. The lyrics of the song are ostensibly sung to Newman’s child’s kindergarten teacher, but the song itself is supposedly written by “this young girl” he and his wife picked up on a trip to Mexico. Also, in the middle of it, Bruce Springsteen says he’s tired of being The Boss and would Randy please take over for a while.


  14. RS’s avatar

    Pop songs?

    Country music seems to have a narrative attached to many of the songs.

    Rock and Roll from the 50’s maybe had less. The Beachboys?

    How about the stuff of jazz standards? The things that come from musicals always have a narrative thread attached. Others, not so much. Paper Moon? Blue Skies?

    I think the folk revival brought narrative elements more into pop songs. Certainly, Bob Dylan had a big push in that direction even if the songs were dreams.


  15. NickS’s avatar

    “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is an interesting example, because it really has no narrative voice.

    I mentioned “Cruel To Be Kind” as a song which feels completely generic but, even in that case, there is an “I” and a “you” in the situation. The song doesn’t provide much detail, nor does it invite you to speculate about the nature of the “I” and the “you”, but you could if you wanted.

    But “It’s Only a Paper Moon” almost doesn’t have an “I” at all. It isn’t about a situation, it’s just a thought, or a mood.


  16. ben’s avatar

    I got sucked into a different topic from where I started. I never meant to say that songs don’t have narrative. If you look at my original post I said”most pop songs don’t have a narrator” When I said “nod to narration” I was talking about narration. I agree that most songs have narrative, but the original distinction to me was that, like theater (and opposed to the novel), the narrative isn’t usually told by a narrator.

    So, to re-set. Most pop songs have narrative. Most pop songs don’t have narrators.

    My original response was to applying the term “unreliable narrator” to song. I questioned that use, and also I think the phrase means something different in a medium like the novel which is almost always narrated, as opposed to pop music which is rarely narrated. I think “unreliable narrator” as a device plays off the assumption that there is a narrator.


  17. NickS’s avatar

    So, to re-set. Most pop songs have narrative. Most pop songs don’t have narrators.

    I would agree with you that the original post (and the book I referenced) used the term “unreliable narrator” in a way that didn’t make sense.

    But, at the same time, I’m leaning towards the opposite conclusion and saying that pop songs have a narrator, but minimal narrative.

    Perhaps it would be most correct to say that (most) pop songs have a narrative voice.

    Consider, from the list of example’s above, Untouchable Face by Ani DiFranco. Is there a narrative in the song? The song essentially presents a situation, “you left me, and I’m not ready to get over it.” We don’t learn that much about the story of what happened, but we do learn things about the person telling the story.


  18. ben’s avatar

    Taking a quick glance online, narrative/narration/narrator have multiple meanings in English. Also, the theory of narration is open to debate, especially in non-written forms of story such as song. Much of the theory around narrative is specific to writing, and do not transfer directly to song.

    In written work, narration has to do with story. I’ll note that “Description” is considered a mode of discourse separate from narrative. So, it may be correct to say that something can describe a person, feeling, situation or even event without being narrative. Although, Narrative broadly defined can mean all written fiction.

    The narrator is the entity that tells the story to the audience. As opposed to the Author and the Audience, who exist in the real world, the narrator is defined as existing in the story, at least in written stories. Another important characteristic of the narrator is that they speak directly to the audience.

    Like I said, it seems like theory of narration is usually specific to writing, and much of it breaks down when applied to other forms. In storytelling, the teller is the narrator. Although I feel (both intuitively and following from lit. theory) that the narrator is not the physical person telling the story, but is the character or persona. This preserves the idea that the narrator exists in the story.

    The other distinction is that the narrator speaks directly to the audience. If we hold to this, this explains (maybe) why we don’t consider actors (or the characters they portray) in a play to be narrator. First, they are Acting, not telling a story and Second, they are interacting with each other, not speaking directly to the audience.

    Where does this leave us with songs? First, we are out of the realm of clearly defined literary theory. Second, apparently songs can be descriptive without necessarily being narrative. If so, this might narrow the number of songs that we are obligated to consider as narratives.

    The kicker for me, though, is the part about speaking directly to the audience. To me, as I’ve said from the beginning, musical performance in pop seems more like theater, and less like storytelling or story writing. Some singers are very much like storytellers, but I think this is a minority. It feels correct to me to say that the the singer (the whole band) is performing/acting/displaying in front of an audience, (and, like an actor, for the benefit of an audience), but not directly to an audience.

    At this point, it comes down to how you feel as an audience. But, with pop music I guess I most often feel like I’m being “performed in front of” as opposed to told to. What do the rest of you think?

    I’ll end by referencing RS’s comment about musical numbers, and say that in their original context they are clearly (as clear as any of this gets) not narration. Because, typically in theater even when a character steps forward and addresses the audience directly in the form of a monologue or song, they are using the device of revealing the thoughts of the character directly to the audience. But, the character is not the story, so it is not the story that is being told directly to the audience, hence not narration.


  19. ben’s avatar

    To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that music is indirect, distant or in any way not infinitely engrossing. My comment about “not directly performed to”, might mistakenly give that impression.

    I guess what I’m saying is that something is not directly given, while other things are, and that frequently I feel like the story falls into the “not directly” part with music. Especially compared to a novel or storytelling where I feel like the story is being given directly.


  20. Sean Walbeck’s avatar

    hey, ben thanx for the invite. First off, Randy Newman writes songs in his voice/persona (the Letter to Karl Marx about how the world isn’t fair – Randy clearly identifies himself as one of the froggish men, as he has in various songs); the “unreliable narrators” voices (I’d just call those character songs); and sometimes even, as a narrator (on the Born Again album, a story of a young couple getting married is Randy telling a story.) And to add another level, “reliable” narrators telling stories about themselves (“Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancng Bear” a particular fav’rite.) Indeed, in concert, I heard Randy say, “Sean, I’m tired, why don’t you sing this one.” Uh, no wait, that was a dream. He did intro a song as “So one afternoon I wrote a love song to my ex-wife just to see what trouble that would cause and this is it.” Randy’s a singer/songwriter of ironic layers AND autobiographical impulses, so “unreliable narrators” is a stretch for a song like “Marie”, clearly a character expressing himself to his loved one at the height of vulnerability for both of them, or a song like “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, a satire of the faux rebellion in Heavy Metal/Rock Lyrics sung in the voice of sex-seeking lead singer. Narrators offer an outside perspective; unreliable narrators (like Huck Finn or Dr. Watson) don’t have an outside perspective. Songs (pop or otherwise) generally have an emotional arc which can be story, but certainly aren’t limited to that. I think the initial comments about unreliable narrators is key – it doesn’t really fit Randy Newman’s character songs. Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” and “Sequel”, now . . .


  21. Sean Walbeck’s avatar

    So, about “Old Man”. COmforting? “You don’t need anybody, nobody needs you.” Which makes the old man cry. I always took this as a younger man who was there to witness the old man’s death, not to ease it.

    And I said “You can leave your hat on” above when I meant “Pants.”


    1. Laticia’s avatar

      At last! Someone who unrasdtends! Thanks for posting!


    2. Sean Walbeck’s avatar

      So, and honest, I’ll shut up and listen, let’s add the act of fiction/drama to music.
      “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnny” – a narrated song. Singer tells you the story.
      “My Heart Will Go On” – Celine Dion’s heart? No, the character in the song’s heart (obstensively Rose from the movie). So Celine is acting the character of the song directly (or presentationally) to the audience. A narrative? Not really, there’s not a story; there’s generalized emotion.
      “She Loves You” – the Beatles bucking up a mate about a girl. Narrative? It’s half a conversation, but there’s little story (some middle, no beginning or end). Character – not so much as all four become one voice.
      “Isn’t it Ironic” – Alanis Morrisette. Now it’s not Alanis singing herself, but a character who doesn’t grasp irony. But not a narrative – again, conversational observations, general emotional state. Not, as might be misconstrued, an unreliable narrator.
      “One More for the Road” – Sinatra. It’s a quarter to three, now that’s a narrative, and a character song, and a setting. Just not unreliable.
      “paradise by the dashboard lights” meatloaf. Now, you’ve got narrative, and an unreliable narrator because the character’s too involved in the events of the song to be objective.
      In each of the above songs (but Frankie & Johnny), the singer/s projecting a character voice/journey that is not their own, which is a theatrical fictive element. (Even though the singers are totally identified with those songs.)
      “Life is a Highway” is one of a bazillion examples of a song any singer can sing in their own voice
      without adopting a false persona or character.
      The tricky part is something like “Garden Party” with Rick Nelson – autobiographical, narrated, some narrative . . . unreliable? “You’re So Vain” Carly Simon – autobiographical, no narrative, evasive . . . unreliable?
      I purposefully avoid songs from musicals – often expressions of emotion brought forth by story – rarely story themselves.
      Although, when Randy Newman writes songs for God, the Devil and Angels in “Faust”, is he writing narrative, characters, or unreliable narrators delivering narrative story points while participating in the action of the story.
      OK, I’ll shut up.


    3. RS’s avatar


      I really appreciate your list of songs. I was also thinking that bringing more specific songs to the conversation would help us understand what “narrative” and “narrator” might mean in the context of song.

      Song is so different from a book, so I resist feeling constrained by the definitions that come from fiction — or in thinking that those words are off limits because they are defined in detail by people who describe fiction.

      So far, this discussion has looked at song almost exlusively from the perspective of the audience member. Ben mentions David’s observation that the singer usually has a different relationship to the song, but doesn’t open up the possibility that we can often have both relationships to the song: some times the listener and sometime the singer — as well as the obvious fact that people often sings songs to themselves.

      Also, the singer usually modifies the melody, tempo and words to fit their own sense of mood and shape.

      I know that Ben has sung songs like “Foggy Dew”, “Tattoo” and “To Live Is to Fly”. I would say that each of those has story elements from the perspective of a first person narrator. Ben, did you feel like you were portraying a character when you sang them?

      When I first heard Michael Smith sing “I Brought My Father With Me”, I thought I would never be able to sing it since it was so clearly a personal song out of his own experience. Years later, I learned it and love to sing it — more to myself though, at times, to audiences — and I never feel like I am representing Michael Smith when I sing it.


    4. ben’s avatar

      “Ben, did you feel like you were portraying a character when you sang them?”

      In “to live is to fly” when I sing, “won’t say I love you babe”, I feel like I’m saying that to a woman in the story. When I sing the chorus, I often feel like I’m telling myself, ‘to live it to fly’. Tattoo, the chorus I’m singing to the tattoo, ‘welcome to my life tattoo’, and also to the experience of getting the tattoo. A lot of time when I’m singing, I imagine myself in each situation as I sing it.

      Also, an answer kept coming into my head that when I sing “Tattoo”, I’m singing it to Pete Townsend. This seemed true but strange, and I didn’t understand it at all for a while. This morning I realized as a non-performer I sing a lot and 99%+ of the singing I do is singing along to a recording, or singing a song after I’ve just listened to it. I suspect that is where the feeling comes that I’m singing the song to Pete, because I’m joining along with the band. And for a song that I learned from a person, like “Arthur McBride” from RS, I feel a lot like I’m singing to RS when I sing it.

      When I say singing to, I mean where I’m directing the meaning of the words and the text. Just like in a play, the performance can still be directed to, or for the benefit of the audience, while the meaning of the words is directed toward another character, or toward the actor’s own character (people hear their own words).

      So, to a character, a situation, myself, the author, an important person in my life, all these are more often the direct target of the meaning of the words before the audience, in my experience.

      Does addressing the meaning directly to the audience sometimes feel didactic? Some songs really call for that.


    5. Kert’s avatar

      Hot damn, loknoig pretty useful buddy.



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