In the category of unlikely #1 singles, “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby & The Range definitely maintains a special position. It was released in 1986, a time when the lyrics of the highest-charting hits tended toward the disposable and the music of those same songs skewed to the artificial. Yet here was a lament for social ills seemingly more suitable for an op-ed piece than the dance floor.
And yet “The Way It Is” rocketed to #1 upon its release in 1986. “I’m fairly cynical about all this, and I think of ‘The Way It Is’ as a ‘novelty’ hit, but in the best sense,” Hornsby tells American Songwriter. “I think it connected because it had a fresh sound that was pleasing and sort of went down easily. Novelty because it usually only works once. Then maybe people connected with the lyrical content.”
It helped that Hornsby assembled a band in The Range that could make just about anything sound dynamic. ”The Range was not at all trying to be a hit act,” Hornsby contends. “We were trying to be more of a modern version of The Band. Accordions, mandolins, fiddles and hammer dulcimers abounded in that first record (The Way It Is). But the sound that seemed to resonate, move people the most, was the piano-playing I was doing, and that became the sound for which we were known.”
Hornsby does play a nimble solo on “The Way It Is,” complimenting a set of lyrics about people who are being persecuted for circumstances beyond their control. Those waiting in a welfare line are berated by a rich man walking by; others are denied access to something simply because of the way they look. The final verse implies that the Civil Rights Act (“Well they passed a law in ‘64/ To give those who ain’t got a little more”), well-intended as it might have been, lacked the teeth to effect true change (“But it only goes so far.”)
“I wrote the song based on having grown up in a small Southern town where certain narrow-minded attitudes were fairly common and impactful on local events,” says the Virginia native. What Hornsby couldn’t have anticipated at the time was that the combination of social consciousness and piano hook would make the song catnip for samplers for years to come, with Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg just two of the artists that would reimagine it.
The song’s turning point comes in the chorus, when Hornsby fights against the shoulder shrug of the refrain (“That’s just the way it is/ Some things will never change”) with the telling line “Don’t you believe them.” It was his way of speaking out against complacency and indifference, and it’s a big part of the reason that the song has stayed so relevant through the years.
Not that Hornsby would complain if “The Way It Is” suddenly seemed dated or unnecessary. As he explains, “Just when one thinks we are making progress in race relations and tolerance, appalling incidents will occur that shock and sadden anyone who is interested in equality in American life. So sadly, the song still retains a bittersweet topical quality.”