Monday, August 11, 2014

But These Days, Isn't It Kind Of Square To Be Hip?

Let's go back, you and I, to a simpler time. I remember the days (was it really all so long ago?) when "Hip To Be Square" used to be a cheesy '80s pop song, and that was it. No more, no less. My brother and I would sing along to it in the car while giggling. It was such a weird concept for a song. Obviously, people who were square were not hip. That much seemed clear to me, even at the tender age of seven:
I used to be a renegade, I used to fool around
But I couldn't take the punishment, and had to settle down
Now I'm playing it real straight, and yes I cut my hair
You might think I'm crazy
But I don't even care
Cause I can tell what's going on
It's hip to be square

I like my bands in business suits, I watch them on TV
I'm working out most everyday and watching what I eat
They tell me that it's good for me, but I don't even care
I know that it's crazy
I know that it's nowhere
But there is no denying that
It's hip to be square

It's not too hard to figure out, you see it everyday
And those that were the farthest out have gone the other way
You see them on the freeway, it don't look like a lot of fun
But don't you try to fight it, an idea who's time has come

Shrugging celebration of '80s materialism, or satirical analysis of '60s idealism gone sour? I mean, if it's "hip" to be "square," then what does "hip" even mean? What if I always tell the truth, but I also tell you I'm a liar? If an '80s song falls in the woods, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make any sense? Perhaps not even Huey himself knew the answer to that, but here's one thing he did know: the man had a hit on his hands. This lazy musical regurgitation of the Capitols' "Cool Jerk" (featuring 49ers Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott on backing vocals!) peaked at #3 in 1987, and quickly faded in the cultural memory. Then a funny thing happened.

It all started with a book. In the words of Patrick Bateman:
...side one (or, on the CD, song number five) ends with the masterpiece "Hip to Be Square" (which, ironically, is accompanied by the band's only bad video), the key song on Fore!, which is a rollicking ode to conformity that's so catchy most people probably don't even listen to the lines, but with Chris Hayes blasting guitar and the terrific keyboard playing - who cares? And it's not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends - it's also a personal statement about the band itself, though of what I'm not quite sure.
Despite his deficiencies as a rock critic, I will agree with Bateman on one point: this is a relatively crappy video. It looks like it was filmed on an early prototype of the iPhone, and makes me feel like the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," where all my senses are far too acute and the act of simply watching people play music is like some horrible microscopic nightmare. At any rate, maybe in certain Greenwich Village literary circles, Bateman's analysis led to an ironic reassessment of this Yuppie Rock cornerstone, but come on, who reads books anymore? If it doesn't have a hobbit on the cover, forget it. Nobody in America pays attention to books ... unless they're turned into movies.

I saw American Psycho when it first came out in the theater. Sure, I thought it was clever and entertaining, but it didn't exactly speak to the inner torment in my soul. It sort of felt like a "stunt" movie rather than an actual movie. I didn't feel like I learned anything about the world and my place in it beyond "I guess yuppies keep a lot of secrets." It was funny in the way that Fight Club was funny: macho and sarcastic but kind of impersonal. Yes, I did laugh at seeing the apolitically vacuous hits of my childhood appear in such an unexpected context, but on the other hand, I can get that kind of laugh out of two minutes of Family Guy. Also, Christian Bale gets on my nerves. Still, like any good young American, ever since that day, I've never been able to hear "Hip To Be Square" without smiling slightly to myself in twisted glee.

Could it be that a mere cinematic reference has managed to turn a square song into something ... hip? Just look at the comments under the song's YouTube video; at least nine out of ten are jokes about American Psycho. Arguably, the funniest part of the scene isn't Patrick's critical commentary, but the minute or so afterwards, where he just sits there in his spotless Manhattan apartment, drenched in blood, casually lighting a cigar, the song simply playing in the background, peppy and chipper as ever.

Still, every now and then I've asked myself a question I'm sure every viewer of American Psycho has asked himself at one point or another: what did Huey Lewis think about all of this? In a recent Rolling Stone interview, the master of Yuppie Rock finally separated the myth from reality:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always heard that you weren't happy with American Psycho at first. Is that true?

No, no, no, no. Thanks for asking that. I'm so glad to correct that. I read the book and it had three pages on Huey Lewis and the News. It was spot-on. The guy [Bret Easton Ellis] was clearly a fan. He knew what he was talking about. I said, "Wow, that's uncanny." It was like the best review ever. The guy really knew his stuff. He also wrote a great piece on Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.
Uh, Huey, you do realize that there was a strong element of satire in American Psycho, right? I mean sure, Ellis may have possessed a genuine affection for your discography, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was a proper "fan."
When the movie came around they wanted to use "Hip to Be Square." Willie Dafoe was in the big picture, and I'm a huge fan of his. I said, "Sure, go." We knew it was violent and all that, but who cares? It's art. We're artists. No problem. They paid us for the song, and boom. Now a week before the movie premieres my manager calls me and says, "They want to do a soundtrack album." I said, "Really? What would that look like?" He goes, "'Hip to Be Square,' a Phil Collins tune and a bunch of source music." I said, "Well, that's not right, is it? Our fans have to buy this record for one song? Can we politely decline?"

We politely declined, and they generated a press release the day before the movie came out and sent it everywhere. It was in the USA Today and everywhere else. It said, "Huey Lewis saw the movie and it was so violent that he pulled his tune from the soundtrack." It was completely made up. So I boycotted the movie from there on. I refused to watch it. That's it. I didn't poo-poo it or anything. But when we did the Funny or Die video I saw the scene. I thought it was great.
So wait, you mean to tell me you boycotted the movie because of some misleading press release? What did any of the cast and crew have to do with some obnoxious studio executive? Sounds to me like Huey was just looking for an excuse to get his panties in a bunch.
You still haven't seen the movie?

Nope. But I will, one day.

It's funny, because when you say your name, many people immediately think of that movie.

I'm fine with that, and I have no problem with the movie.
You mean to tell me Huey Lewis has gone all this time and never seen American Psycho? I mean, wouldn't you at least become a little bit curious? This reminds me of an interview I once saw with Peter O'Toole where he said he hadn't watched Lawrence of Arabia all the way through until about 20 years after its release (but upon doing so, admitted, "I really liked it!").
This term "yuppie rock" has been applied to you over the years. How do you feel about that?

"Hip to Be Square" was a joke that not everybody got. People thought it was an anthem for square people. That hurt us a bit. If I have any regrets, it's not writing that song in the third person. That's how I originally had it. But whatever.
Yes, America - whatever.
When Funny or Die called you about reshooting that scene with Weird Al, you were totally down for it?

Yeah. I said, "It's gotta be bloodier, though. I need more blood." I wanted to use, like, a Gatorade bucket of blood. I wanted it completely over the top. It was a very funny thing shooting with those guys. There were probably 15 people there, all of them in their twenties. It wasn't funny at all. It was serious. I was like, "Jesus, I'm trying to crack a joke here, guys." They were like, "Uh, Huey, can you . . . " I was like, "All right, all right." But they were great, and it was a great experience.
Wait, Funny or Die? Hold on a second. Yes, that's right. After having spent decades letting the bitterness and resentment over Weird Al's "I Want A New Duck" fester inside of him, Huey Lewis has finally gotten his sweet, sweet revenge:

Just, for a brief moment, try to wrap your head around this clip: it is a parody, featuring Huey Lewis, of a film that satirized Huey Lewis, which was based on a book that satirized Huey Lewis, and the clip also features Weird Al, a man who once recorded a parody of a Huey Lewis song. I think this proves, once and for all, that even though his music may have never been particularly hip, or if at all, only in the current "ironic hipster" sense, the man himself is definitely no square.


Cleophus said...

Huey Lewis (my first concert!), Joe Montana & Ronnie Lott, Lawrence of Arabia, ALL IN ONE POST?

Best blog ever.

Little Earl said...

It's a good blog, sure, but I don't know if I would quite go THAT far.