Reflecting on the passage at the end of Simon Critchley’s On Humour, particularly when he describes the risus purus, the laugh of laughs that laughs at laughs, as “deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation,” I was reminded of Randy Newman’s brilliant song “The World Isn’t Fair,” from his 1999 album Bad Love. More particularly, I was reminded of Greil Marcus’s negative review of the album that singled out “The World Isn’t Fair” as an example of Newman’s confused cynicism. Sadly, I’ve been unable to locate Marcus’s review, but I recall that his problem with the song centered on its closing lyrics, where I believe Newman doesn’t display confusion, but rather invokes the laugh of laughs, signifying why, after all these decades, Newman remains a vital force in American pop music.
The song’s lyrics open with a quick overview of Karl Marx’s life. As a boy, the narrator tells us, Marx saw unfairness in the inequality between the haves and the have-nots, eventually leading him to develop “a plan” that would rid the world of such disparity. But “If Marx were living today,” the narrator admits, “he’d be rolling around in his grave” and would be horrified to hear the narrator’s story—recited in his very own “mansion on the hill”—about the night he attended his children’s school:
I went to the orientation
All the young mommies were there
Karl, you never have seen such a glorious sight
as these beautiful women arrayed for the night
just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens
And they’d come there with men much like me
Froggish men, unpleasant to see
Were you to kiss one, Karl
Nary a prince would there be
The description of the orientation is a musically thrilling moment, picking up a melody that has been repeated throughout the song but gracing it with the splendor of an aria by preceding it with a melody that sits in a lower register, meandering like a recitative. The lyricism with which the orientation is described is further emphasized by extending the repeated melody by one bar before the song temporarily stalls out as the dominant chord—which, in tonal music, listeners often expect to lead to the tonic chord, i.e. the chord based in the root of a song’s key—is sustained while the lyrics describe the froggish men to whom these beautiful women are married.
The gist of the story, it seems, is that were these ignoble creatures not rich, they wouldn’t be able to attract such women. Worse, the music suggests that this is the normal state of affairs, even hinting that there’s something good or right about it, since this is the first time in a song that is three-quarters finished that ends a musical phrase on the tonic chord, resolved with the most straightforward cadence heard up to that point. In fact, since all of the preceding musical phrases end on dominant chords, the whole song seems to have been leading up to this revelation about the froggish men and their wives.
The narrator confirms the rightness of this state of affairs by explicitly stating what the music has already intimated, offering these final words:
Oh Karl the world isn’t fair
It isn’t and never will be
They tried out your plan
It brought misery instead
If you’d seen how they worked it
you’d be glad you were dead
just like I’m glad I’m living in the land of the free
where the rich just get richer
and the poor you don’t ever have to see
It would depress us, Karl
Because we care
that the world still isn’t fair
And it is this verse that troubled Marcus. Just what is Newman getting at, Marcus wondered. He seems to want it both ways: he decries Marxism and celebrates the fruits of capitalism but then turns around and undercuts capitalism as well. I don’t know if I remember this correctly, but I recall Marcus claiming that this wasn’t insight, it was lack of clarity. To me, however, Newman isn’t confused, he’s clear-minded. He conjures the laugh of laughs, refusing both extremes and encouraging us to ask why the only political choices presented to us are either an idealistic but unworkable Marxism or the unfairness of capitalism. As popular U.S. political rhetoric increasingly demonizes socialism and communism as totalitarian, it seems to me we need Newman more than ever to remind us it doesn’t have to be the way we keep telling ourselves it is.