“Short people are just the same as you and I…” Randy Newman
In 1977, Randy Newman’s “Little Criminals” was released with a song that would make Paul Anka — a notorious short person — hopping mad. Newman’s “Short People” was a major hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at №2 for three weeks, something Anka hadn’t done since “Diana” in 1957.
Anka attempted a rebuttal to Newman’s song, and Maryland delegate Isaiah Dixon tried to introduce legislation making it illegal to play “Short People” on the radio. Neither had much success. “Short People” was just too catchy. It was also one of the most misinterpreted songs in pop music history.
“I don’t expect the song to be a big commercial success in Japan,” Newman quipped, wondering what all the fuss was about. He wasn’t slamming Little People or racial prejudice. His real beef was with the music industry and the mindless songs they kept putting out, year after year after year.
Nevertheless, “Short People” was a serious indictment in its own way. Wasn’t Newman, in fact, accusing everyone of being small-minded?
“Short People” still got Newman death threats and a very hot and bothered Paul Anka. Anka decided to record “Havin’ My Baby,” since everyone loves babies, even if you’re being patronizing as hell to the mother who doesn’t need a cheering section as much as an epidermal.
Nevertheless, “Short People” was a serious indictment in its own way. Wasn’t Newman, in fact, accusing everyone of being small-minded? Weren’t we the ones with “tiny little hands and tiny little eyes,” accepting things as they are — not how they could be (unless it was Star Trek or Star Wars)
George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry became incredibly rich stepping out of the usual path. For them, anything could be. Nobody threatened them. People don’t mind you not being ordinary in that case. You keep them amused.
Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington avoided black stereotyping by simply playing better than anybody else. We accept brilliant. We don’t necessarily understand it, but we don’t understand religion, either.
Eventually, though, even capitalism peaks. We get bored, we get depressed, we accuse everyone and everything of being “the same old, same old.”
Fact is, though, we’re not Academy award-winning filmmakers or jazz icons. We’re the public. Capitalism depends on our short-mindedness. Eventually, even capitalism peaks. We get bored, we get depressed, we accuse everyone and everything of being “the same old, same old.”
Recently, someone posted an article talking about how to gain audience. The rules were familiar and mostly rehashed. You had to “grab people with the first line,” “tell a story that interests your audience” and “leave people happy.”
Leave them feeling happy, even if their happiness has sad undercurrents of prejudice, hate and fear.
Since I’ve always earned a living from writing, I had to correct this person. I say “correct” because none of those rules mean much now. We don’t write like George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry. We write like Joseph McCarthy.
Our beliefs are formed the same way his were back in the 50s. If you want to be popular, tell people what they want to hear. Leave them feeling happy, even if their happiness has sad undercurrents of prejudice, hate and fear.
As I told this writer, “I wrote copy for 38 years (still do when I’m not writing novels and children’s books). I rarely believed in the products I sold but, like actors, our craft is making things believable.
I also told him: “There’s nothing to be learned from ordinary people.” That’s the other problem we face today. We buy our enthusiasm from others. We spread it around. Either we’re trying to ingratiate ourselves or do the ingratiating for others.
“After protesting his moves, you did not get up and leave right away. You continued to engage in the sexual encounter.”
Wasn’t Paul Anka ingratiating himself when he threatened to write a rebuttal to Newman’s “Short People”? Didn’t he want the crowd applauding? “He can’t talk down to us,” Anka said on a radio program. At 5' 4" compared to Newman’s 5' 11", Anka should have picked his words more carefully—even on radio.
Think about it, on every social media site, we want consensus, applause, a bunch of “likes.” We want to attack when the crowd is backing us.
Take the case of TV host, Ashleigh Banfield, noted former war correspondent, who had a few choice words for the woman accusing Aziz Ansari of sexual assault. “You had a bad date,” Banfield said on the air. “He got overly amorous. After protesting his moves, you did not get up and leave right away. You continued to engage in the sexual encounter.”
Many feminists accused Banfield of “victim blaming.” One blogger, Katie Way, went even further. “Ashleigh,” she wrote, “as someone who I’m certain no one under the age of 45 has ever heard of, I hope the 500 retweets on a single news write-up made that burgundy lipstick, bad highlights, second wave feminist has-been really relevant for a little while.”
When we go off script, we forget the other side can hit back. In Katie’s case, she thought she spoke for every woman under 45. Only sometimes we tangle with the wrong tanglers. Katie found that out when Ashleigh Banfield bitch slapped her on national television.
Even when people write fantasy and science fiction, it’s only because Roddenberry and Lucas set the stage and J. K. Rowling made the mountain. It doesn’t matter that they refused to accept standard rules.
We say, “Oh, that wasn’t such a good idea, Katie,” and make a note not to mess with former war correspondents. Better to stay on the sidelines with the other cheerleaders. You don’t get noticed, but you don’t get bitch slapped, either.
If anything, it re-enforces our need to be ordinary. Even when people write fantasy or science fiction, it’s only because Roddenberry and Lucas set the stage and J. K. Rowling made the mountain. It doesn’t matter that they refused to accept standard rules. We wait until it’s safe to do the same.
If you think about it, every commercial, every television show is asking us to be ordinary. They pronounce ordinary thoughts. They tell us we can’t afford not to be ordinary.
We’re simply not that brave. Our few moments of abandon — as Katie West discovered — are quickly knocked down. Ashleigh Banfield comes across as brave and outspoken — yet her biggest beef was Katie criticizing her hair. “I was brown-haired for a while,” Banfield said, “when I interviewed Yasser Arafat and in Afghanistan and in Iraq, Gaza and the West Bank.”
She said what we wanted to say, but tomorrow we’ll go back to writing what’s expected. We’re conformists by proxy.
How do you compete with Yasser Arafat? Not that Ashleigh isn’t someone else’s cheerleader. Every word she said had to be approved by the network. The imagery was still there, though. She stepped out and did a cartwheel.
We respect that as writers. She said what we wanted to say, but tomorrow we’ll be back writing what’s expected. We’re conformists by proxy.
We might write a grabby line, or leave people feeling happy temporarily like Paul Anka, but it’s dull because we buy our enthusiasm from ordinary people.
If we don’t want to be “short people” we have to do more than follow others. We might even have to face being bitch slapped.
Worse things have happened in the name of originality. Not that we can go too far. Even Ashleigh Banfield can’t go too far. But we can always go a little further than we are now. We can think. We can stop being someone else’s cheerleader.
For a while, anyway. If we’re lucky.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, children’s book author and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.