Despite having loads of commercial success, Huey Lewis hasn’t exactly been popular among critics. They might begrudgingly admit that “The Power Of Love” or “The Heart Of Rock ‘N Roll” are highly catchy, but you rarely see him praised as a particularly strong songwriter. But Lewis should get more credit than he deserves.
Throughout his ’80s heyday, Lewis presented himself as a quintessential everyman. Much like Bruce Springsteen, he wrote songs about working-class life, demonstrated on hits like “Workin’ For A Livin'” and “If This Is it.” Unlike Springsteen, however, there was never a political angle to these songs. Huey Lewis was never trying to write about the destruction of the American Dream; he was just writing about ordinary life that people might relate to. When considering why he never got much critical respect, he might have been too much of a regular guy. To the untrained eye, it might seem like Lewis’ songs are mere fluff, but in many cases, there’s a lot more to them than one might notice at first glance.
Consider the 1986 single “Stuck With You,” his second song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts (the first being “The Power Of Love,” from the Back To The Future soundtrack). The song tells the tale of a presumably married couple who have “thought about breaking up,” but have essentially resigned themselves to life with each other. In the chorus, the narrator claims that he’s “happy to be stuck with” his current partner, but one might wonder how true that is. On the surface, it just seems like a song about a couple that overcame the odds and stayed together, but lingering underneath that are two people who have become stuck in a rut and, rather than trying to free themselves, have simply decided that staying together is the safest option. After all, as the first bridge points out, they have “all the same friends/and the same address.” Why screw that up? What might seem like a typical Adult Contemporary love song is actually a surprisingly thoughtful commentary on both the safety and the boredom that monogamous relationships provide.
Of course, the same album that featured “Stuck With You,” (1986’s Fore) also included “Hip To Be Square,” which might be the band’s most infamous song, if only because of this scene from American Psycho:
Yes, just before chopping Paul to bits, Patrick Bateman proclaims “Hip To Be Square” to be the band’s masterpiece because it’s a song about “the pleasures of conformity,” as well was a “personal statement about the band itself.” Now, the viewer probably isn’t supposed to agree with Bateman. He’s a sociopathic serial killer who tries to fit in by singing the praises of the most readily accepted, non-threatening contemporary music around. But if we’re being honest, he kind of has a point. Whether you see it as an ode to conformity or not, “Hip To Be Square” is undeniably a statement of about the place of Huey Lewis and the News in the pop music world.
Think of it this way: as long as there’s been contemporary music, there’s been the The Really Popular Band No One Will Admit To Liking. Nickelback held the title for awhile, before that it was Creed. In the ’70s, Grand Funk Railroad fit that bill. These days, it’s probably a toss-up between Imagine Dragons and Mumford & Sons. Now, even if Huey Lewis was never quite as reviled as Chad Kroeger, he was decidedly uncool during his run as a mainstream rock star. He had plenty of fans, but the cool kids were listening to R.E.M. and The Smiths. Knowing that, we can see “Hip To Be Square” as a song in which Huey Lewis acknowledges exactly where the band is. They might not be cool, but damned if they weren’t popular.
This is a much ballsier statement than we give Lewis credit for. In contrast, when Nickelback were getting even more hate than usual after a halftime performance at a Detroit Lions Thanksgiving game, they released this cute little Funny Or Die video where they poke a little fun at themselves. In a similar vein, when Mumford & Sons had become the new critical whipping boy two years ago, they released the video for the song “Hopeless Wanderer,” in which Jason Bateman, Will Forte, Ed Helms and Jason Sudeikis pretend to be the band and proceed to rock out. Again, it was funny, but as this Noisey piece pointed out, it seemed like a way of saying “hey look, guys, we’re in on the joke!” It just seemed tepid; like they were trying too hard to get people who will never like them to say “eh, they’re alright I guess.” On “Hip To Be Square,” Huey Lewis wasn’t bothering with any of that. It was his way of saying “I know not everyone likes us, but a lot of people do, and I’m cool with that.” In Marcus Mumford’s defense, I’m not sure how well that song would translate to the banjo.
If you don’t like Huey Lewis, that’s fine. But if you write him off as just another ’80s fluff artist, you’re making a big mistake. Yes, his songs have that too-crisp-for-their-own-good ’80s production, but their lyrics contain more depth than he’s ever gotten credit for. He may not be Springsteen, but he’s a surprisingly sly commentator in his own right. And hey, if you’re not a fan, it’s not a big deal. As we all learned on “Hip To Be Square,” Huey could care less if the cool kids ever like him.