Songs don’t simply exist in a vacuum. Music is not necessarily to be enjoyed merely for what it is, but rather, where it can take you. For many stereotypical hipsters, mention of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Sports” takes them to the ironically unpleasant scenes of violence featuring Christian Bale as Patrick Batemen in “American Psycho,” whose assessment of the music I mostly agree with:
Do you like Huey Lewis & The News? Their early work was a little too ‘new-wave’ for my taste, but when Sports came out in ’83, I think they really came into their own – both commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost.
Yet, the year 2000 and American Psycho isn’t where it takes me. When I hear songs like “Heart Of Rock & Roll” I’m transported to the summers of 1984 and ’85, riding in my mom’s 1981 Ford Fairmont on the way to Ben Franklin drug store to buy Garbage Pail Kids or coming back from an extended trip to Brookfield Square Mall, where I would wait patiently for hours as my mother shopped for 80’s fashion, knowing that at some point she would probably buy me some Insecticon Transformers from Kaybee Toys. As he called out the various cities in the song, we would eagerly anticipate the moment when Huey yells out “Milwaukee!” Of course we didn’t realize then that they had released different versions targeted to the individual radio markets. For many years I wondered if I had imagined hearing “Milwaukee” in the song, since I never heard it in there again in all the thousands of times it has been on the radio. Thanks to the internet, I know I’m not crazy (at least in that way.) Yep, I totally fell for that marketing tactic, like a wide eyed girl who responds enthusiastically after receiving a seemingly personalized yet copy and pasted message that was sent to 50 other hot babes on the same dating website.
Or sometimes the song sends me to the same mid 80’s summers, only I’m in my dad’s jeep on our way to the zoo to see “Chandar” the white tiger, excited at the prospect of getting those plastic animals from “Mold-A-Rama” vending machines to add to my collection.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate “If This Is It” more, with its simplistic yet relatable lyrics, which resonate with me and are probably applicable to most people’s romantic experiences. I don’t care much for most of the other songs on the album. The line in “I Want A New Drug” about face breakouts conjurs up awful memories of high school anxiety and depression making me unable to enjoy the jam. Though I am getting over this. Not to mention I’ve never been into drugs really. I much prefer the Ray Parker Jr. “Ghostbusters” theme song, which they accused of having plagiarized the melody from this song.
Despite the fact that Huey Lewis and The News are frequently described as the embodiment of 80’s mainstream “corporate yuppie rock,” the yuppie white liberals that inherited today’s world want nothing to do with them. Blender Magazine listed “Heart of Rock & Roll” as #6 on their “50 Worst Songs Ever” list in 2009, a list that probably tells you more about the people who created it than those who appear on it (to paraphrase an unknown forum commenter from the internet hinterlands.) To call Huey Lewis and The News’ “Sports” mainstream corporate rock would not be a lie. Yet such an incomplete proclamation ignores the reality that the popular rock musicians of that era were made up of people who struggled for many years paying their dues. Notice how many rockstars of the time were in their mid 30’s. Huey Lewis turned 34 in 1984 and had been playing in bands since Clover in 1971. The members of Dire Straits were roughly 35-36 when “Money For Nothing” hit it big. These songs were triumphalist songs of professional culmination through years of hard work and experience. Unlike the auto-tuned trust fund pop rock of today of teenagers plucked out of crowds for their looks and dancing ability, these were veteran musicians who paid their dues and mastered their craft. These mid 80’s “victory” songs were a part of the renewed spirit of the Reagan and Thatcher years… a rebound from the malaise of the 70’s and the demise of disco (though I happen to love the the late 1970’s and disco personally.) I feel incredibly fortunate to have been a child in this optimistic and carefree era, the last of it’s kind.
One doesn’t have to embrace Reagan or Thatcherite conservatism (Bruce Springsteen certainly didn’t) to appreciate these apolitical jams though. So next time you’re listening to what used to be called the “oldies” station (yet now seems more likely to play Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” than a song by the actual Buddy Holly, and “Heart Of Rock & Roll” comes on, don’t let the indie hipster inside you make you feel ashamed to enjoy it, or worse yet, fall into the trap of liking itironically like some impromptu meal at Red Lobster. Just crank it up and sing along (the “stutter” part at the beginning of the chorus is my favorite.) Revel in their hard earned success with them as they take you to a better time and place in your mind.
Brandon Adamson is the author of “Beatnik Fascism“