In August 1979, Bob Dylan had just confounded his fans with Slow Train Coming, a full-blown announcement of his coming out as a born-again Christian. That same month, another Jewish performer would also be born again – only not as a Christian. Born Again was the title of a Randy Newman album which might have gone just as far as Dylan's had in alienating his most loyal fans except that it vanished before a whisper of debate could be stirred. Where Dylan has always been an omnipresent figure, an ever-changing undefinable force in the world, Newman is largely invisible to mass culture (except as the guy who writes music for Pixar movies). Dylan is also a performer who is the sum of the masks he wears, where a hidden history lurks behind each face, and behind every recorded album. Newman wears a collection of masks, too, but they are a different set of disguises than Dylan's. Newman's masks (like Woody Allen's) suggest more the harmless invisibility of the nebbish, but they act instead as a veil for the clever satirist. Newman has always been an outsider who with his trojan horse quietly slipped inside.
With a collection of tunes that might be defined as misanthropic 'comedy songs,' Newman took the popular song on Born Again to the edges of cruelty, as if to test the audience's ability to listen to them. Once again using the voice of the untrustworthy narrator, as he had in previous records like Sail Away (1972) and Good Old Boys (1974), Randy Newman (like Dylan) worked against the grain of mass audience approval. But (unlike Dylan), Newman really had no mass audience to reject him – except that a year earlier, he briefly found one with a notorious hit single called "Short People." Kicking off his otherwise lacklustre Little Criminals (1977) record, "Short People" is a harmless ditty, but it ended up epitomizing Newman's brand of satire and working against it. An obvious broadside attack on the absurdity of prejudice, few, in the end, read this catchy little number that way. Besides his small legion of fans, a whole new audience came to Newman because of "Short People" – and they made him briefly a household name for all the wrong reasons. (As with Frank Zappa's "Valley Girl," the audience responded as if it were a naughty novelty song.) But if his new listeners were enthralled with the narrow-minded protagonist of "Short People," a bigot who begins his ridiculous manifesto over a galloping piano ("Short People got no reason to live"), others were severely pissed off with what they heard. Who else but Newman could write a song about a guy expressing paranoia about tiny folks? The film Freaks did so unintentionally back in 1932, but that movie was hardly a satire; there was a weird sentimentality in the way the movie played on our sympathies for circus dwarfs and pinheads. "Short People" was at the other end of the spectrum. The character Newman created here was pathetic, much like the stalker in his "Suzanne," or the voyeur in "You Can Leave Your Hat On."