Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
But don't you believe them.”—Bruce Hornsby, “The Way It Is,” performed by Bruce Hornsby and the Range from their album, The Way It Is (1986)
Several summers ago, I was lucky enough to attend one of the most deeply satisfying concerts of my life at the Chautauqua Institution, given by Bruce Hornsby. The singer-songwriter especially delighted by taking unexpected paths into seemingly familiar songs like one he co-wrote with Don Henley, "The End of the Innocence."
Hornsby took an even more unexpected path 30 years ago this week, when “The Way It Is” reached #1 on Billboard’s “Adult Contemporary” and “Hot 100” charts. It wasn’t just his shimmering jazz piano solos that set it aside from the rest of the pop field, but its lyrics, referring to welfare, racial segregation, and the persistence of class and racial divides two decades after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation.
The socially conscious tune was a far cry from what bookended it on those Billboard charts at the end of that year. The titles say it all: "Love Will Conquer All" by Lionel Richie, "The Next Time I Fall" by Peter Cetera and Amy Grant, “"Love Is Forever" by Billy Ocean, and "Walk Like an Egyptian" by The Bangles.
“The Way It Is” was all the more remarkable for appearing amid a decided conservative swing in the electorate, at the exact midpoint of 12-year Republican occupancy of the White House under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In contrast, it offered a restrained but pointed rejoinder to defeatism and resignation to “the way it is.” It did not have to be that way, Hornsby argued.
This year, America turned its back on progressive politics, in a manner perhaps even more frightening than the reactionary politics that ensued after the Civil Rights laws mentioned in “The Way It Is” (or, for that matter, the earlier Jim Crow era that represented the twilight of Reconstruction). The length of this period of retrenchment is unknown. For that reason, Hornsby’s urging toward continuing resolution in the face of quiescence is worth listening to again.