World’s Worst Songs: “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News
I am always happy to accept reader suggestions for this feature, although I think this is the first request I’ve actually fulfilled.
Art is supposed to reflect the times in which it’s made. Popular music has always done this, from the World War I marching song “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” to Neil Young’s album Living With War nearly a century later. But music reflects culture in subtler ways, too. Think of the jaded California sound of the late 70s, which was fueled by truckloads of record-royalty money and boatloads of cocaine.
Think of Huey Lewis and the News. Wait, what?
In the fall of 1986, Huey Lewis and the News released the album Fore!. The lead single “Stuck With You,” an über-catchy ode to married bliss, zoomed to #1 and stayed three weeks. With the first baby boomers just hitting 40 at that moment, it was a harmonic convergence of popular band and perfect moment—literally millions of listeners could identify with it personally. But just in case anybody missed the point of “Stuck With You,” the band followed it with the remarkably unsubtle “Hip to Be Square.”
“Hip to Be Square” sounded great on the radio, but only the first time you heard it. Its frenetic arrangement got tiresome pretty fast, and the chant that closes it, featuring Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers, is the most un-musical thing the band ever put on a record. It went all the way to #3 at the turn of 1987, but when was the last time you heard it anywhere?
The protagonist of “Hip to Be Square” is the same guy from “Stuck With You,” although he’s no longer enjoying a self-deprecating laugh with his spouse over their life together. Now, he wants everybody to know how he’s achieved that life: by cutting his hair, working out, eating better—giving up that old hippie bullshit, in other words—and thereby reaching a new level of cool through middle-class conformity.
And although he never says it, he is clearly a guy who never voted Republican in his life until Ronald Reagan came along.
(The band wasn’t done hammering that particular nail on Fore!: “I Never Walk Alone” is about father and young son as best friends. After you’ve embraced the idea of Fore! as a yuppie manifesto, it even becomes impossible to hear a song as solid as “Doing It All for My Baby” as anything but the self-satisfied sigh of the commodities broker at rest.)
Nobody’s immune from the occasional mistake, and “Hip to Be Square” was that. Don’t blame Huey Lewis, however. Blame history.