This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. This is the third entry in a series called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.
“Marie,” Randy Newman
When you hear the name Randy Newman, you probably think of a toy cowboy with the name ANDY scrawled on his boot in crayon, and the lazy, molasses-sweet baritone of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Or at least those were my associations. It was only recently I found out how prolific a composer he is, penning music for everything from The Natural (1984) to Seabiscuit (2003) to Marriage Story (2019). Newman has been nominated for 15 Academy Awards for his scores, winning two for original songs off the soundtracks of Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Toy Story 3 (2010). His career as a solo singer-songwriter is less commercially successful, though no less artistically interesting. Interesting, that’s the word. Interesting in the same way that you walk past some profane graffiti that seems unintelligible at first, and you pay it no mind. Then you stop half a block away and realize what you just saw. That’s Randy Newman’s solo career.
The chords and arrangements don’t fall too far from the beaten path, mostly sweeping and cinematic, at times bluesy or rocky or dabbling in big band swing. As a lyricist, Newman is an exaggerator, an impressionist, a satirist, a bleeding heart, a clown. In the tradition of country or folk, his narrators range from bigots to historical figures, from barflies to politicians, all of them speaking to the systems that created them. Each song from Good Old Boys (1974)—arguably the best of his albums—serves as a mouthpiece for a range of voices from the Deep South, stepping gingerly between offensive hyperbole and near-broken sincerity, unearthing racism and patriarchy as verbs, as spoken and semantic things, tumbling through families and conversations and stories like hereditary traits. Though his characters speak from the South, Newman also implicates the rest of a country that claims its betterness, the hypocrisy of regionalism and its heartbreaking effects. Each image and plea holds a whole nation’s worth of complexity. Just when you think the songs from Good Old Boys are something you can lose yourself in, some rhythm or voice you recognize, the lines turn and reveal themselves, much like a “good old boy” dog-whistling his true beliefs under honeyed politeness. In “Marie,” the narrator claims to be a lover. But of course, if you listen closely, he might be something else entirely.
“You looked like a princess the night we met,” Newman’s speaker sings. He begins by praising the object of his affection by conjuring royalty, luxury, spectacle, a title all little girls are taught to desire. While there’s power in being a princess, there’s also distance implied. Princesses are often in towers, in dungeons, under spells, deprived of freedom and love until the very end of their stories. Combined with the past tense in “looked,” and the minor key, there’s already a sense of loss. Then, we learn the speaker is not only drunk, but he’s “got to be,” adding another layer between him and the love to whom he speaks. Without intoxication, he tells Marie, he would never tell her what she means to him. “I loved you the first night I saw you,” the chorus declares, its slowed-down waltz cloying, almost excessive next to the half-spoken vocals. “And I always will love you, Marie.” It could tear your heart out.
At first listen, I thought the off-kilter tone—the words of affection next to the tragic, descending chords, or the polished strings next to Newman’s defeat—might mean that this song is actually an entreaty, an apology, some supplication for being a bad partner. “Sometimes I’m crazy but I guess you know,” Newman’s speaker says in a laundry list of self-criticism. “I’m weak and I’m lazy and I hurt you so. And I don’t listen to a word you say, and when you’re in trouble I turn away.” The logical next step would be the apology itself. A request for forgiveness. A pledge to be better. Instead, the song simply opens back up to the chorus. “I loved you the first time I saw you,” the singer repeats. “And I will always love you, Marie.”
He wants nothing, perhaps. No atonement or a new way forward, but merely to express himself, the longevity of his love. But is it love, what Newman’s narrator is giving? I guess it depends on your definition. The origins of this particular description are already dubious. Though “love at first sight” is a common concept, the phenomenon that occurs is probably more accurately labeled as attraction, or fascination, or delight. But love shifts for the people that live it, so, sure, let’s say Newman’s narrator “loved” Marie the first time he saw her.
He then admits, “I don’t listen to a word you say,” and, “I hurt you.” This doesn’t sound like very caring behavior, but then again, lots of couples hurt each other. In fact, loving someone means that you are more often hurt by their actions. And of course, listening is a problem for so many people in love. But it’s a problem that’s fixable. While you can’t always control how or when you hurt someone, you can change your habits, even after all this time. The narrator of this song may not listen now, but surely if Marie asks him to listen to her better, he will.
This is where, for me, the love train hits a wall: “When you’re in trouble, I turn away.” Not only does the narrator not listen to Marie, not only does he hurt her, but he doesn’t help her when she needs help. Is this love? When you take away communication, care, and loyalty, what’s left? Affection, perhaps. Certainly for this narrator. Like lovers of auld, he compares her to the beauty of nature: “You’re a flower,” he sings. “You’re a river, you’re a rainbow.”
Newman’s critique slips in the cracks between rainbows and hurt, between what love promises in songs and what it’s truly capable of. We don’t how Marie receives his admissions, but the pity the song inspires could be one step away from disgust. This is Newman’s brilliance, his distinctly red, white, and blue sleight-of-hand: “Marie” is a song that uses the word “love” more than any other word, but it’s not really a love song.
What good is this kind of love? What good is it to receive words of flattery without a listening ear on the other end? What good is being called a princess without the speaker’s loyalty, his care, his support when she needs him most? Maybe Marie knows, and we don’t. Maybe we don’t know him like her. Maybe he’s a brash, bold speaker. Maybe he tells it like it is, and she likes that. Maybe he tells her that she deserves more than she has, that she’s better than the rest, that he’ll build her a wall to keep out the bad people. Maybe he ignores her pain because it’s not his fault, it’s never his fault. Maybe he tells her everyone else is wrong. Maybe he tells her that if she stopped pointing out problems, there would be less of them. Maybe when he calls other women dogs, she knows he’s not talking about her. Maybe she lets him do it because he’s a celebrity. Maybe when he says he loves her, he’s lying through his teeth. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is love. Maybe it is what it is.