Singer Randy Newman released a new album yesterday, called “Harps and Angels.” I am not what you call an avid Randy Newman fan and this is not a plug urging you to go out and buy the album (image from Mike Bouchard). My musical tastes somewhat vary from the man perhaps most well known for his satirical song “Short People” (1977), and more recently known for his film scores on Disney films such as A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story. While many people interpreted Newman’s “Short People” song as a send-up of society’s superficial prejudices, the songwriter seems to have lost his way with this new release. Instead of skewering intolerance, he’s piling it on. Take for example a blurb at PopMatters about one of the tracks on the album entitled “Korean Parents.” The reviewer, Ron Hart, writes:
“Korean Parents”, however, might just be the biggest firecracker on this album, and perhaps the hottest potato of a song he’s tossed in our little hands since “Rednecks”. Using a “stereotypically Asian” melody, as he put it in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, he offers up a commentary on the competitive relationship between Asian and American students in the public school system. He suggests the Koreans sell their disciplinarian parents instead of their babies to possibly help get the American kids who “don’t have a clue” back on track before taking a crack at the WWII era by declaring that he’s “so sick of hearing ‘bout ‘The Greatest Generation’”, offering that such a generation could actually be the youth of today.
This review immediately set off some alarm bells for me. The melody used at the beginning of the song is actually a sample of the beginning of the 1970s hit “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974). This melodic little blip that is often accompanied with some racial teasing, taunting, or epithet to harass Asian Americans kids. Yet, Hart does not bother to differentiate between Asian and Asian American students, which reinforces this “forever foreigner” notion about Asian Americans who may even be fourth a fifth generation Americans.
I found the article in the Los Angeles Times that Hart references in his review, and it was seeking out answers for why Asian American students had higher scores than their Latino counterparts. Many of these Asian American students talked about the “model minority” expectations placed on them. However, the LA Times piece does not fully address the complexities and differences between these two racialized groups.
Lastly, as Newman attempts to explain the racial disparities among minority groups, he excludes whites from his commentary. Here are some of the lyrics:
Some Jewish kids still trying
Some white kids trying too
But millions of real American kids don’t have a clue
Right here on the lot
We got the answer
A product guaranteed to satisfy…
Korean parents for sale
You say you need a little discipline
Someone to whip you into shape
They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair
Look at the numbers
That’s all I ask
Who’s at the head of every class?
You really think they’re smarter than you are
They just work their asses off
Their parents make them do it…
Newman insists that Jewish and white kids are putting forth the same academic effort and not-so-subtly insinuates that these other American kids (who are not white, Asian, or Jewish) “don’t have a clue.” He is also insultingly typecasting Korean Americans. Evoking the stereotype of some cold, disciplinary household where the “culture” of academic excellence just occurs “naturally.” Rather than use his music to challenge and subvert these pervasive stereotypes of Asian Americans, Newman’s lyrics parrot the blatant, sweeping generalizations of Asian Americans as “model minorities.” This not only diminishes the subjectivity and diversity within and among Asian Americans, it also pits them against other people of color.
Interestingly, the way this has been framed Asian American kids are only at the head of the class because their parents “make them” and Newman suggests further militant control over these other children of color. However, white and Jewish students are working on their own accord, independently “trying.”
The song is troubling, but all too exemplary of the white racist framing in our society. Asian Americans did not coin the phrase “model minority,” whites did. Academic achievement is a survival strategy in the face of racial oppression.
The Asian students mentioned in the LA times article are in fact Americans too, as are the “Korean Parents” of Newman’s lyrics. Blacks, Latinos, and Native American kids do have a clue. I suggest it’s Randy Newman who needs to get a clue. And to help him, I intend to send him a copy of the book Joe and I wrote Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism.