An Idea Who’s Time Has Come – “Hip to be Square” Really Is an Undisputed Masterpiece

Posted: October 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

I recently got “Hip To Be Square” by Huey Lewis & the News stuck in my head. For some reason, I started to think a little about the lyrics, and got inspired to write about it. So, here goes:

First, a little paragraph for the background of the song: it was the second single off of the band’s multi-platinum album Fore!, released in 1986, and was written by drummer Bill Gibson, keyboardist Sean Hopper and Lewis himself, so it wasn’t like some guy in a board room wrote it for them. It reached #1 on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks, and 3 on their Top 100 list. Now, I won’t even pretend to really know what all that means, but in 1986, it’s safe to say that it was pretty popular.

Still, that was almost three decades ago, so it’s also safe to say that almost anyone who knows the song at all these days and is under the age of 35 only knows it from the famous scene in American Psycho. For those of you who are not familiar with the scene, it’s the one where Christian Bale recites a sermon about “Hip to be Square” being Huey’s “undisputed masterpiece” just before brutally murdering Jared Leto with an ax, screaming “Try getting a table at Dorsia now you $%#&-ing, stupid bastard!” It’s actually quite hilarious. I remember seeing the movie in the theater during it’s initial run, and being slightly disturbed, but appreciating the message. In the years since, I feel the movie (and I guess, by proxy, the song) has garnered a bit of a cult following. The ambiguity of the ending is debated on message boards and forums, so much so that when I Googled “Hip to be Square” to find the actual lyrics, I found websites with people debating whether or not Bale’s Patrick Bateman is a sociopath, a narcissist or completely blank. But one poster mentioned that he had never met anyone that knew of the song at all before the movie. Well, sir, you’ve never met me.

I have been a fan of the song since forever, so when I saw the scene, I appreciated its craziness (if you want to call it that) on a whole different level. But only this week did I appreciate the song on yet another level. In the movie, and I think also the book it’s based on, but I’ve never read it, Bateman says that the song “is not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends, but it’s also a personal statement about the band itself.” It’s taken me a long time to figure out what that statement is, and it’s not just about the band. It’s a statement for a broader audience.

According to Wikipedia (which is always right!), the song was written about “an individual who was once a free-spirited member of the 1960s’ hippie movement, but who has now embraced the “square” yuppie lifestyle of the 1980s.”  That may have been what they were thinking when they wrote it, but songs can change their meaning over time, and I myself was never a hippie or a yuppie, but I still feel a personal attachment to this song. Like the narrator of the song, I used to “fool around, but I couldn’t take the punishment, and had to settle down.” I don’t think he’s saying that he fooled around on loved ones, or “settled down” meaning he got married, although, maybe that’s what they intended when they wrote it, but that’s not how my interpretation sees it. It’s that “couldn’t take the punishment” line that gets me. When I was younger and trying to impress women and trying to be cool (and drinking a lot), I used to get into some weird situations, and when I would tell people about them, they would laugh and ask me when I was going to write a book. I was certainly happy to entertain my friends, but as Rush drummer Neil Peart wrote, “Adventures suck when you’re having them.” I finally got to a point (or maybe an age) when I just couldn’t do that crap anymore, because basically “I couldn’t take the punishment.”

The narrator (Or Huey, or me, if you prefer) goes on to describe some of the things he does now that are better than before (working out, eating healthier), and then posits that, while all that stuff is good for you, he doesn’t care because it doesn’t matter what people say or think. There’s simply “no denying that” this new way is better. I think that line speaks for itself, really. Yeah, it’s fun to be part of something, and to be that guy who entertains people with his bad dating stories, but in the end, having a job and a girlfriend and friends to have a drink with is way better.

In fact, the final verse drives this home even more when he sings, “Don’t you try to fight it; ‘An idea who’s time has come.'” This actually a Victor Hugo quote, so Huey was flexing his literary muscles, but what it really means to me is that you get to a point when you have to grow up, and you actually want to conform (the “pleasures of conformity” that Patrick Bateman ranted about) and resistance is futile. But I don’t think that it’s a bad thing, and it’s not like I had to go through something awful to lead me to this great epiphany, because it’s just an “idea who’s time has come.” And being a grown-up is actually cool. Hip, even. I find myself a lot less stressed now than I was when I was younger and I worried about every little thing I did and whether or not it was right or wrong or cool or if chicks would dig it. Sure, I have to worry about finances and stuff like that, but isn’t that a lot easier than worrying about what everybody thinks of you? And the best part is, “You might think I’m crazy, but I don’t even care.” And that indifference is what makes life so much easier.

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