Friday, July 15, 2011


I have at times lamented that while far too many songs vainly repeat the theological conditioning of their originating cultures, precious few recount any sort of freethought -- and of those, fewer still which could be deemed downright funky. True, John Lennon enabled us to "Imagine" no religion, and Rush invited us to exercise Free Will. But it was not until I entered the lyrics catalog of Stevie Wonder that I discovered the perfect freethinkers song sitting there all along under my nose -- and it is a funkalicious song, and it has an awesome message.

The inspiration:

It all began in 1972, with the then-22 year old musician seeking to step out of the shadow of Ray Charles, whom he had been cast by the music industry as a younger version of, partly for his sound and undeniable talent as both a pianist and a singer, but mostly for his coincidental blindness. In a jam session with Jeff Beck for the production of what would eventually be Stevie's starmaking album, Talking Book, Beck came out with a novel drumbeat, immediately inspiring Stevie's writing of a bass part, to be played on his "funky, dirty, stinky, nasty instrument" -- the clavinet. Other musical elements followed, the rise and fall of the trumpets trumpeting notes, sometimes stairstepping, sometimes flowing close to free jazz until all come winding together in a chaotically, beautifully layered ending.

The Execution:

Here is an original studio-recording version:

And here's a later, faster version:

The song launches itself with what has become one of the most iconic bass lines known to music, a variation of a conventional run up and down the pentatonic scale made wild by the interspersing of ghost notes between the scale notes. This is shortly joined by a small but potent section of brass instruments. And then Stevie starts singing, tearing into lyrics, "Very supersititous, writing's on the wall," which give the song meaning above and beyond the greatness of the music itself. Now, Stevie could've taken this masterfully funkalicious tune and turned out a song with lyrics on most any subject, for example those most ubiquitous themes of the genre, love, sex, and just plain partying. But he instead chose superstition as the theme, excoriating by name irrational belief in such fanciful flights as bad luck from walking under a ladder ('ladder's 'bout to fall'), triskadekaphobia ('thirteen month old baby'), and breaking of mirrors ('broke the looking glass'), the last event being followed by 'seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past'.

This overall sentimentation is then most powerfully reflected in the repeated refrain:

When you believe in things
That you dont understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition aint the way
An almost primal singing scream is arced by double-tracking over the words, 'then you suffer,' almost a lamentation of suffering on its own. In the next verse, he interestingly includes 'wash your face and hands,' though not typically a superstition, certainly something done to a superstitious degree by some, especially germaphobes and the OCD-stricken. This line may be read to suggest a biblical reference as well, as does the earlier line 'the writing's on the wall. After another refrain comes something else which seems telling about the song as a whole; mixed in amongst all the other beliefs dismissed for their harmful nonsensically, in the spot where the falling ladder stood in the first verse, is the comment, 'devil's on his way'-- the inescapable implication being, the devil is simply yet another silly superstition, a falsity as with all the rest.

The Contemplation:

In an interview on the release of the album, Stevie waxed lyrical in speaking of the superstition decried in the lyrics: "The worst thing is, the more you believe in it, the more bad things happen to you. You're so afraid that something terrible is going to come up, that you are much more vulnerable."

Superstition is the funkiest song on the album, indeed the only one which aims for funkaliciousness. It took a while for the ambition of the song to sink into the music market, with the song reaching the Pop and R&B number one spots some three months after its release. And it is the only song directed toward a seemingly antireligious theme. Now, I won't pretend to have any inkling of Stevie being anything but a traditional theist. He had earlier recorded gospel numbers as well, and has had no dearth of references to theistic beliefs in later songs. And it may well be that Stevie was excluding his own beliefs from the condemned categorization, possibly even considering the superstitions addressed as counterclaims to his religion.But whether he intended or not, this song tells a good part of the story for those who have broken the bounds of theism altogether and leapt into the sea of other possibilities.

It may be that other listeners don't get this out of the song, we humans being adept at reading the validation of our own desires into the things we see and hear and feel. And, most assuredly, it is the music as a whole, rather than the message, which made this song the hit which it was and is. But even as the song contains one of the funkiest baseline/horn combos ever belted out, it unquestionably conveys one message vital to the philosophy of freethought: the irrational belief in superstitious leads to suffering of the funkiest kind.

No comments: