Saturday, December 12, 2009
"Hip to be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News (1986)
Huey Lewis is a special kind of awful. Cheery music for Sunday barbecues is all well and good - music doesn't always have to be about misery or angst or whatever. Music doesn't always have to be personal. Music doesn't always have to be progressive. Empty good-timey 'party' stuff has its place, I suppose. But it's amazing just how devoid of meaning and emotion Huey Lewis truly is. He feels at times like a song-composing computer: the result seems convincing on first glance, but if you look a little deeper it fails the Turing test conclusively.
This is stuff that only the 1980s could have produced. My problem with the 1980s was the sheer veneer of commercialism that was draped over it by people who had nothing to do with me or my life. There were a lot of great things in the 1980s, the decade of my childhood, but there was also a lot of very 'professional', slick product too. Insincerity became a legitimate option on the 1980s. Well, I guess it always was one, but it seemed that you could really run with it then. I don't know what this song has to do with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but it seems to fit with the naked greed and ambition of the era.
Lyrically, this is a very depressing tale of a person who 'used to be a renegade' who now has cut his hair and likes bands in business suits, bizarrely (ska still okay, then). It attempts to call untrendiness trendy, using words from the 1960s that were quaint relics even when this song was released. It takes its yay-for-selling-out tale over a typically Huey Lewis organ-based 'groove' that ultimately descends into a never-ending chant ("Here, there and everywhere"). Then, the whole mess is featured in a video comprised entirely of Huey Lewis and the band members gawking into a kind of fish-eye lens that makes it impossible to look at the screen for more than a minute. It's probably the video, as much as the main sell-out conceit, that gives this song the edge for me over similarly risible Huey Lewis songs "I Want a New Drug" and "The Heart of Rock & Roll".
Seeing that Hall & Oates have, on some level, enjoyed a renaissance recently makes me worry that this dead-and-buried group might enjoy some kind of twisted rebirth as 'kitsch'. But this is not 'kitsch'; this is empty bar-band nonsense written by people with no ambition for greatness for people with no ambition for greatness. It celebrates its emptiness, its vapidity. This makes me very sad.
Though I highly doubt that Huey Lewis was ever a 'renegade' in any way, shape or form, it's shocking to recall that this is the band that provided the musical backing for Elvis Costello's sublime debut album, My Aim is True. How sad to think that such a spiritually empty band once created music with vitality.