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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Huey Lewis Factor

The next time you walk into some corporate retail outlet with canned music, check your watch. Time how long you have to wait for a Huey Lewis song to be played. If you spend more than fifteen minutes doing whatever it was you went there to do, I can assure you that you’ll be treated with The Heart of Rock and Roll or one of his other mega-turd hits. I developed this game in an effort to lessen my annoyance with entirely second-rate corporate canned music. It’s not that I consider Huey Lewis to be the most gruesome example of bad pop singing, but for some reason this rather mediocre artist seems to be particularly ubiquitous in the world of force-fed music. His appeal in this genre probably has a lot to do with the completely inoffensive nature of his music. Corporate America has nothing against art, unless there is even a hint of controversy associated with the work.

For me, his music brings back extremely painful memories of a childhood spent living under the totalitarian regime of lousy FM radio. I won’t go into explanations of just why, in my teen years, radio stations across the Midwest were universally horrible—and they probably still are terrible—but even as a kid I knew that there were sinister forces at work force-feeding listeners dreadful pop songs. If I had a dime for every time my local FM station played a Huey Lewis song when I was growing up, I would spend every penny of that $999,999 bazillion in therapy to undo all of that suffering I lived through.

The play lists in the average FM radio stations were so incredibly paltry that their entire album collection could have fit in one milk crate. It is difficult to imagine a time when kids like me couldn’t afford to own their own music. These days when a single MP3 player can hold 40 gigs of music, when music can be downloaded effortlessly from file sharing sites, and the transfer of music via CD and DVD burning is so prevalent, we take for granted our ability to control our own music choices. Back then the only choice I felt was available to me was to turn off the radio. This left me at the mercy of my parents’ record collection which was top-heavy with Broadway musicals. I’ll take The Man of La Mancha over Huey Lewis any day.

A lot of what is supposed to pass as entertainment in America is not the cream that has risen to the top. The only aspect of popular entertainment that is completely driven by merit is sport. In athletics it doesn’t matter who you, or who your parents were, if you can’t play you don’t get in the game. In music, film, and publishing, factors like nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism can make a career for even the least gifted artist. I don’t mean to pick on Huey Lewis because he wasn’t completely without talent, but he was just the garage band that someone decided to elevate into superstardom.

Most would say that the free market determines what we see and hear in entertainment, but I think this is probably less than half of the story. The other half of the equation is what the big record, movie, and television producers want us to hear and see. Back in the 70s and 80s the big record companies paid huge advances to a small number of bands and then marketed them with a vengeance. This explains why radio stations across the country played only a handful of artists. The same is true today. The New Yorker magazine is owned by a huge media group. The magazine will review completely awful movies unfit for its reading demographic. The magazines' two reviewers are fairly sycophantic with regards to the major movie releases, and they reserve their most savage reviews for small, independent films. It is the movie reviewer’s equivalent to picking on the kid who doesn’t have a big brother to stick up for him.

The same motivations that drive canned music companies to include harmless and insipid pop tunes in their repertoires also is responsible for everything that is wrong with the film industry. If you sit through a series of previews at the movie theater, you would think that there are only about 15 human beings who are qualified to act. By keeping the pool of actors so incredibly small, the industry folks are better able to market and keep their product devoid of any controversy—at least any unexpected controversy. Tom Cruise is really just the Huey Lewis of modern film. As far as I’m concerned, Tom Cruise is about as welcome on the big screen as Huey is on the radio.

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