One of the best things about Randy Newman is that his intent is always clear. When I was 17, I got his album Sail Away. I played it endlessly. It had many of the songs I still think are among his best like “Last Night I Had a Dream,” “Political Science,” “Burn On,” and most especially, “Lonely at the Top.”
That last one was written for Frank Sinatra, and I think he missed a great opportunity to make light of himself by recording it. He would have killed it! Sadly, Sinatra had as much of a sense of humor about himself as Donald Trump.
But arguably the greatest song on the album is the title track. Its conceit is that a typical salesman is making an argument for Africans to come to America for the great life — unstated to be as a slave.
As is typical for Newman, he sprinkles in racist references like “sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake.” And this is combined with weird ignorances like mentioning tigers, which don’t live in Africa.
The song is about more than literal slavery. It’s about the absurdity of the idea of being American. The idyllic life he describes is not just unavailable to the slaves who were kidnapped but also to the entire working class. All of these people labor so the rich can “sing about Jesus and drink wine all day.”
“It’s great to be an American.” And if we just define “American” narrowly enough, that’s true.