An interesting thing about Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” (1986) is that, when you think about it, the emotional ‘message’ of the song is the exact opposite of the literal message of the song. What you hear, what you remember, and what you are mostly likely to sing along with is the beginning of the chorus, “That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change.” Which is, in the larger context of the song, just a Straw Man attitude that Hornsby is fighting against. People know, or at least sense, that the song is progressive. But what they are most likely to embrace, and to project, is its anti-progressive trope.
The second thing that’s interesting about the song is how good the piano actually is. I tend to shut down as soon as I hear that quintessentially ’80s electronic drum-machine. But if you can put that aside, and focus on just Honsby’s keyboard playing, it’s really kinda funky and good.
But the most interesting thing to me, listening to the song almost 40 years on, is that you could never get away with that today. Not that Hornsby was necessarily “getting away” with something. But it’s difficult to imagine a major content producer, like RCA, releasing a song in which a White man is taking up the cause of African Americans. Although this was somewhat commonplace in the ’80s, (e.g., Nanci Griffith’s “It’s a Hard Life”, Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds”, and perhaps even something like Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” or U2’s “In the Name of Love” or “MLK”), there is generally a backlash to this type of ‘cultural appropriation’ and/or ‘paternalism’ today.
Which is all the more interesting when you contrast it with “That’s The Way” from Led Zeppelin III. Presumably, that song had some direct or at least subconscious influence on Hornsby, as the Led Zeppelin recording, from 16 years earlier, has both a very similar title and a very similar theme. But, somehow, That’s The Way does not feel as dated. Perhaps because it’s told from a first-person, as opposed to a third-person, authorial, ‘God-like’ point-of-view. The “victim” in That’s The Way is the little White boy who can’t play with his would-be Black friend, or date his would-be Black girlfriend. Which some may find as, or even more, ‘offensive’, in some social/moral/political sense. But it doesn’t feel paternalistic.