What price Hollywood?

I’ve never been terribly impressed by David Hajdu’s writing. His book Positively Fourth Street, about Dylan, Baez, Richard Farina, and Greenwich Village in the early sixties wasn’t bad, and had some great anecdotes, but his last book, The Ten-Cent Plague, about the comic book scare of the early ’50s, managed to take a fascinating story full of brilliant eccentrics and make it as dull as a high school social studies text. Now Hajdu has a regular column in The New Republic on music, a subject about which he seems to possess a great deal of information but next to zero knowledge.

His latest column, on Randy Newman’s Oscar win for “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3, may be his worst yet. To suggest that a man who has been scoring motion pictures for over thirty years, who in doing so continues a family tradition (three of Newman’s uncles worked as composers in Hollywood), is somehow trapped and forced into a business that belittles his artistry is so insulting as to be beyond belief. Newman himself would no doubt shrug a comment like this off; he’s heard it all before, and worse. Of course he’s written bad scores, and scored bad movies (one of which, Leatherheads, I saw just the other night—Newman even makes an appearance as a speakeasy piano player), and he would be the first to admit that his Hollywood songwriting isn’t his best. But Newman, who is notorious for his long spells of writer’s block, has often pointed out that he loves the work, and that if it wasn’t for Hollywood he might not be writing music at all.

Hajdu is one those cultural leftovers who still believes that all pop art is based on trash (as opposed to merely containing trash, which can be said of work at any levels) and that any actual value it may possess is an accident, like a child babbling nonsense who suddenly says something beyond its years. Trying to prove his point, he fudges the lyrics to “We Belong Together”. Trying to prove how pedestrian they are, he quotes “Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart/I just can’t take it/When we’re apart … The day I met you/Was the luckiest day of my life/And I bet you feel the same…”

Banal enough, to be sure, but Hajdu makes it seem even worse by leaving off the final throwaway line, uttered by Newman with a perfect tone of ironic self-doubt: “At least, I hope you do”. It’s a trick Newman has pulled many times before, but it works, and no one but Newman would dare to put a line like that in a feel-good buddy song (and just about no company but Pixar would allow him to do it). At times it seems as if Newman is the last in a tradition of sophisticated, witty Hollywood songwriters (if only Newman was as prolific). A group who often, as Hajdu points out, wrote trash themselves. Hajdu seems to think he’s doing Newman a favor, but all he does is condescend.