John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

All Hail Vladimir Putin!

Randy Newman’s new song “Putin” is clever, scathing and oh-so-timely.

By - Oct 27th, 2016 01:46 pm
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In my last blast I mentioned that we are in desperate need of a new Randy Newman song. He was lacerating on the topic of George W. Bush and his twisted Iraq fixation. Four years ago he went after Mitt Romney in the hilarious “I’m Dreaming Of A White President.” Apparantly Mr. Newman has ESP. It took a couple of days, but it was worth it. Behold… “Putin.” Since I obviously have a direct line to the man himself, let me send this: Hey Ran, how about a whole album of these things?

Two weeks ago the Nobel Prize for Literature went to a deserving Bob Dylan. Knowing full well they’ll never give it to another American songwriter, let’s consider an alternative, the MacArthur Genius Grant. Even our town has two winners of this prestigious award, Will Allen and Anne Basting. Both were deserving for their amazing work and bring much needed positive attention to this city. But a couple years ago they gave one to Chris Thiele, the facile mandolin virtuoso who has taken over Prairie Home Companion. No doubt he’s talented, but his satire is pretty thin soup. There is absolutely no hope he will ever write a song as disturbing and brilliant as “Sail Away” or “Roll With The Punches.” So, since I seem to have the universe’s ear, let me put this bug in it: McArthur Foundation, give your genius award to a genius!

Putin, relevant to the Presidential race because he seems to be the evil wizard behind the curtain this election year, is as much a cartoon as Donald Trump. I thought Randy would go after that homegrown wannabe dictator, but maybe looking at Russia is a good way of spying the alternate future we would experience if Trump got in. Newman, a thoroughly schooled composer, has no trouble giving his mini-symphony a Cossack flavor, but it’s the lyrics and the interplay with the “Putin Girls” that win my heart.

“Putin”

Putin puttin’ his pants on
One leg at a time
You mean he’s just like a regular fella, huh?
He ain’t nothing like a regular fella

Putin puttin’ his hat on
Hat size number nine
“You sayin’ Putin’s gettin’ big headed?”
Putin’s head’s just fine

He can drive his giant tractor
Across the Trans-Siberian plain
He can power a nuclear reactor
With the left side of his brain
And when he takes his shirt off
He drives the ladies crazy
When he takes his shirt off
Makes me wanna be a lady
It’s the Putin Girls!

[Putin Girls:]
Putin if you put it when you
Put it where you put it
Putin if you put it
Will you put it next to me?
Putin if you put it when you
Put it where you put it
Putin if you put it
Will you put it next to me?

Now Putin hates the Putin girls
‘Cause he hates vulgarity
And he loves his mother country
And he loves his family

He and his ex-wife Lyudmila
Are riding along the shore
Of the beautiful new Russian Black Sea
Let’s listen in
A great man is speaking

We fought a war for this?
I’m almost ashamed
The Mediterranean
Now there’s a resort worth fighting for
If only the Greeks or the Turks
Would start to sniff around
I’d bring the hammer down
So quick their woolly heads would spin
Woolly head, woolly head, woolly head

Or, wait a minute
Even better
What if the Kurds got in the way?
Hey! Kurds and way, curds and whey!

Sometimes a people is greater than their leader
Germany, Kentucky, France
Sometimes a leader towers over his country
One shot at glory, they don’t get a second chance
I dragged these peasants kicking and screaming
Into the 21st century
I thought they’d make it
I must have been dreaming
These chicken farmers and file clerks gonna be the death of me

I can’t do it
[PG:] Sure, you can
I can’t do it
[PG:] Yeah, you can
What makes you say that girls?
[PG:] Tell you why. ‘Cause you’re the Putin man
Who whipped Napoleon?
[PG:] We did!
Who won World War II?
[PG:] The Americans!
That’s a good one ladies
It’s our turn to sit in the comfy chair
[PG:] And you’re the man gonna get us there!

I don’t know, Lenin couldn’t do it
I don’t know, Stalin couldn’t do it
They couldn’t do it
Why you think I can?
[PG:] You’re gonna lead our people to the Promised Land
You’re right, ’cause, Goddamn, I’m the Putin Man

This writing is both loose and tight. There’s a fresh and stupid freedom all over it, starting with the bad pun “Putin puttin’ his pant’s on one leg at a time.” It continues with another horrible one, Kurds and way / curds and whey. But it’s not all bad puns. He also revisits one of his niftier old tricks — arguing with his background singers. I love the way he plays with that idea of background and foreground in pop music. I can’t think of anyone else who has done this.

He also is fearless in his absurd self deprecation “He drives the ladies crazy when he takes his shirt off — makes me wanna be a lady” Or the non-sequitir of 2016?  “Sometimes a people is greater than their leader — Germany, Kentucky, France.”

Truth to power is funny and brave. The reverse is true of bullies. This song links two of the worst strutting around the world stage these days, Putin and Trump. Because Newman uses the unreliable narrator better than anyone alive, he’s able to live inside the twisted minds of an assortment of villains. I’d like to say it humanizes them, but this year I’m inclined to believe there really is something you might call pure evil. If you could be “Malkoviched” into either one these despots, you might see Randy Newman walking around like a tourist, in a loud Hawaiian shirt. snapping pictures and taking notes.

There’s a short and wry documentary called “I Am, Unfortunately, Randy Newman.” In it the interviewer claims he is the world’s greatest songwriter and sets out to prove it. That’s the kind of bold statement that I try to avoid, if only because it sounds like something The Donald would say. I prefer to say no one’s better and leave room for other accomplished artists. But what Randy does is impossibly smart, it has a deep and sometimes hard to find morality — he never makes it easy. He is utterly unique.

With so few things to cheer this election, thanks for this one, Randy. The First Amendment, which Trump has little use for, has rarely been exercised in such an smart and entertaining way.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: All Hail Vladimir Putin!”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Putin really is Stalin reincarnated, though – no respect for life, and nothing is too low or deceptive for him to do.

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