Even your average six-year-old is pretty confident that they've got a friend in Randy Newman these days. When he first started catching people's ears in the late 1960s, that wasn't quite so obvious. His fellow musicians had a pretty good idea – Harry Nilsson, Three Dog Night, Ray Charles and plenty of others covered his songs from the beginning – but while his mush-mouthed vocals and sing-song cadence were well established from the start, Newman's songs were laced with sarcasm, satire and a determination to challenge any preconceptions.
Just look at a handful of his more popular singles. “Rednecks” comes across like a smug putdown of the American south, until a brilliant turnaround strikes at the hypocrisy of the northern states. “Sail Away” sounds so much like a loving ode to America that many listeners probably never realize it's a recruitment pitch from a slave trader. And of course, there's “Short People,” a sort-of-novelty that doubles as a critique of any form of prejudice that could cross your mind – a point that was apparently missed when Maryland tried to ban the song in 1978.
Newman has mellowed out a bit since then. Today, he's best known for his soundtrack work, and his knack for nailing cinematic sentiments has led to 20 Oscar nominations and two wins (“My percentages aren't great,” he admitted in his second acceptance speech). There's no doubt, the Newman that will take the stage this weekend is a kinder, gentler friend than in his early days. Just don't be surprised if the Pixar-friendly sounds give way to something with a little edge.