Music

Stevie Wonder’s Wrong Song

Stevie Wonder in 2017. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
A ‘love’ song is not loving if it’s only for people who are already in accord.

You’re not likely to find more obtuse lyrics than on Stevie Wonder’s latest single, “Where Is Our Love Song.” Wonder’s politically motivated meditation is more than saccharine:

A song of love for all humanity . . . We need those words of hope . . . the kind of hope that lifts up all humankind.

Although released just before the presidential election — like a tree falling silently in a forest filled with noisy distractions — Wonder’s most recent plea for “living-together-in-perfect-harmony” was out of step with the campaign emphasis on ad hominem attacks over social policy.

No one blasted “Where Is Our Love Song” from car radios on the day Joe Biden zealots celebrated the Associated Press’s victory declaration; those enthusiasts preferred the smirking sarcasm of Steam’s 1969 “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

But Wonder isn’t one to gloat discourteously either before or after cheating; he’s always used pop music to elicit sweet feelings from his fans. Now it’s become clear that “Where Is Our Love Song” flopped because sweetness has lost its appeal. That desolate fact is the point that Wonder’s composition raises.

The song’s title addresses a problem. It’s not a question but a rhetorical statement. Wonder, a past master of love songs, makes a demand that tests the output of every contemporary pop singer and every jaded fan. He shames the factionalism of Beyoncé’s commercialized Afrocentricity, the low self-esteem in Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s salacious “WAP,” and the freakishness of Billie Eilish’s Grammy-winning cynicism.

Despite the many glorious tunes throughout Wonder’s career (from “Fingertips” to “Higher Ground” to the cornucopia of his 1976 magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life), “Where Is Our Love Song” is less than glorious and guaranteed to give you the blues. Though it sounds like giving “hope” — half the slogan exploited during Obama’s 2008 campaign — Wonder’s song actually articulates a real spiritual loss, the disenchantment and letdown of Obama’s aftermath. (Wonder’s terrific “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” from 1974, would make the perfect rejoinder to Obama.)

No R&B, jazz, or hip-hop pop star has been willing to admit the unfinished, unfulfilled emptiness that black America felt in the latter years of Obama’s rule — when Black Lives Matter manipulated various flashpoints of social decay (from Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray). These symptoms of “systemic racism” aggravated a sense of hopelessness, insisting that change had never occurred for black America — that Wonder’s previous Motown recordings, all inspired by civil-rights-era optimism, never really mattered.

Wonder’s new song avoids any explicit complaint about this cultural development by focusing on the genuine vacancy of today’s pop music instead.

For this venerable 70-year-old pop artist to acknowledge the spiritual lack in the artistic field he had naturally conceded to younger artists would call for a major cultural realization. We’re unlikely to get such prompting from John Legend, Beyoncé, or Ava DuVernay, who are vested in pushing progressive conceits as part of their brands. And upstarts such as Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar — and recently Ice Cube and Lil Wayne — also refrain from expressing nuanced social criticism. Most of their current musical output suggests that they are still in the minstrelsy business, still stuck on the Democratic Party Plantation.

So it’s no mere coincidence that the breach Wonder calls attention to has been filled by Joe Biden’s “This is the time to heal” assumption-of-power speech — vapid enough for his phrase to be splashed on Time magazine’s cover. Good-guy Stevie’s ambiguous love lyric is superficially in sync with Biden’s tentative nostrum.

Both Wonder’s song and that speech rely on disingenuous rhetoric, but only Wonder’s sentiment actually seems new. Wonder’s intended meaning — his unease — brings to mind the rebellious political criticism expressed by black sports columnist Jason Whitlock when he recently rebuked the negativity of activist-athletes, saying, “A reliance on hate and an absence of love inevitably spark corruption.”

Fact is, Wonder sounds as hollow as Biden, especially when the “Where Is Our Love Song” music video uses protest graphics that further exploit racial division. These images, praising Black Lives Matter, indicate Wonder’s Plantation-based blindness to what has happened to the pop audience, specifically the black pop-music audience, which is sold sex songs rather than love songs, gripe songs rather than principled or faith-based protest songs. The video animates a solarized picture of teeming crowds at a demonstration; it’s a romantic reference to old-time protest that no longer exists.

Wonder can’t put his finger on the moral shift that occurred with the corruption of hip-hop — or even the usurpation of his own effectiveness by the calculations of the Obama regime. (Wonder received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, same year that Meryl Streep and Alvin Ailey did — Obama’s way of shoring up his easily fooled constituency. It was an audacious, greedy, culture grab.)

Wonder’s B-side song, “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate,” prolongs his political confusion. It features a young-rapper colloquy (Busta Rhymes’s one-of-a-kind sonority wasted on “brother Colin Kaepernick” nonsense about taking a knee) that ultimately conveys social-group impotence. It’s some kind of metaphor for all the wasted energy and lack of thought poured into so many recent protests.

“Where Is Our Love Song” is singsongy political treacle. It implies “love” only for those who are in political agreement. Wonder depends on his well-earned affection from listeners to figure out how most pop music has recently failed them. Wonder’s lament is the wrong song when the politics of hatred rule.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.