Randy Newman's 'Short People'
In 1977, the singer's hit, ''Short People,'' outraged minorities
Back in the era of jiggle TV and polyester — long before Howard Stern, Public Enemy, and Cybill Shepherd would be condemned by feminists, Jewish groups, and animal-rights advocates respectively — no one had heard the term Politically Correct. Especially Randy Newman. But when his freak hit, ”Short People” (”They got grubby little fingers and dirty little minds”), entered the Billboard Top 40 chart on Dec. 10, 1977, Newman learned the hard way that there is no fury like a minority scorned — especially, as he noted wryly at the time, a tiny minority.
You could say it was the birth of PC. Undersized listeners who misunderstood Newman’s intended satire flew into a tizzy. Radio stations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere banned the song. Midgets picketed Newman’s concerts. The lobbying group Little People of America decried the song’s crassness, and the founder of Shorties Are Smarter called it ”vicious.” During the 13 weeks it stayed in the Top 40, peaking at No. 2, Newman even received a death threat.
Of course, he meant the catchy ditty, written in just a few hours, to lampoon bigotry. ”It was obvious to me that no one could seriously harbor sentiments like that about shor — I’m afraid to say short people — people of less than average height,” he says now, still incredulous after all these years. ”The narrator (proclaiming that short people have ”nasty little feet”) is clearly nuts. But the song reached people who weren’t used to irony.”
Newman had written more biting numbers, like 1974’s ”Rednecks,” but nothing brought such an uproar as ”Short People.” Or such popularity. The song sold 1.5 million copies as a single and helped push 750,000 copies of its album, Little Criminals.
Looking back, how does it feel to have been the first target of PC-mindedness? ”Jesus,” Newman gasps, ”do you think that’s the case?” Then, after a pause — a very short pause: ”I’m honored.”
Time Capsule: December 10, 1977
Spacey hits prevailed — Close Encounters of the Third Kind at theaters, Laverne & Shirley on TV, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion at bookstores. Debby Boone’s ”You Light Up My Life” lit up radio dials.