When Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder released the song “Ebony and Ivory” in 1982, I was a 10-year-old, racially mixed fifth-grader obsessed with music. I had grown up listening to both Stevie Wonder and The Beatles, and the song’s simple message of racial unity, which my family had ingrained in me since birth, resonated with me. I knew that racial inequities existed — I heard firsthand stories and I watched TV — but now, two of my heroes were evangelizing a message that I’d always believed. They convinced me that racial equality was finally on its way, and I couldn’t wait; not because my life was hard, but because I knew that everyone wasn’t as fortunate as I was.
“Ebony and Ivory” quickly became a global hit that reached #1 on both the U.S. and U.K. charts. Rolling Stone’s review of McCartney’s album Tug Of War devoted an entire paragraph to the song; the track received the ultimate compliment when Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo parodied it on Saturday Night Live.
This was at the dawn of the MTV era, and the song’s accompanying music video was one of very few that featured a Black artist and a White artist performing together — not to mention sitting side by side on a (life-sized) piano keyboard. I felt like they were singing to me and also singing about me—in a tune that was so simple it sounded like it had been written for children. I liked Duran Duran, but lyrically the band offered me nothing — it was a party, an escape. I loved Prince but I felt no personal connection to his highly sexualized songs. But when Stevie Wonder sang lines like, “There is good and bad in everyone,” and talked about living “together in perfect harmony,” a switch flipped in my young brain. This, I thought, is what it feels like to connect with a song.
This weekend, the song celebrates its 38th anniversary — yet now, I hear it with a more cynical ear. I’ve grown skeptical of the song’s seemingly altruistic message, and I’m disappointed that its thesis has been largely ignored. Almost four decades later, we’re still nowhere near perfect harmony.
Wonder’s participation, in hindsight, feels out of step. Over the course of his epic 1973 song “Living For the City,” the protagonist goes from a bus station in New York City to being framed and sentenced to a 10-year prison bid — a stunning indictment of systemic racism. His 1974 hit “You Haven’t Done Nothing” undermines President Nixon’s showboating strides toward racial equality. With stately, synthesized strings, Wonder’s 1976 song “Village Ghetto Land” tells the ominous tale of everyday life in the Black ghettos of America: people eating dog food, babies dying before they’re born. Coming after those, “Ebony and Ivory” sounds much closer to the comforting na na na naaaas of McCartney’s “Hey Jude.”
Perhaps the goal hadn’t been to unite the races as I’d once assumed. Perhaps the goal had been to create a hit song that spoke to a wide audience.
By that time, Wonder was a few years removed from his “classic period,” the five critically and commercially successful albums he released between 1972 and 1976. His 1979 Journey Through “The Secret Life Of Plants” Soundtrack was a commercial disappointment, and while Hotter Than July (1980) attempted to usher in a new decade by returning to form, it did so without gusto. Stevie Wonder needed a hit, and when McCartney — who wrote “Ebony and Ivory” — asked him to sing it, Wonder felt drawn to its positivity and agreed.
McCartney’s message was simple and seemingly innocent: Can’t we all just get along?
In 1982, race relations in the United States were improving. The Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act had both been signed over a decade earlier. The Loving ruling of 1967 had legalized interracial marriage nationwide, and the children of the Loving Generation were now of record-buying age — soon to be of voting age. America was finally integrated, supposedly. After the White flight to the suburbs and mass disenfranchisement of Black Americans had led to the deterioration of many cities in the ’70s, “Ebony and Ivory” reassured me that people — both Black and White — were working toward unity. The song strived for a reprieve from racial tension and it offered direction and hope.
As I grew older and became a college radio DJ and a record store clerk, though, my perception of “Ebony and Ivory” evolved; I began to question the song’s motives. Perhaps the goal hadn’t been to unite the races as I’d once assumed. Perhaps the goal had been to create a hit song that spoke to a wide audience. The budding music businessman in me was impressed, but the child in me was disillusioned. Both of us felt duped. My childhood notion that the song spoke to everyone — and that everyone was listening — proved to be false and as I aged, the broad idea of racial unity felt more out of reach. The older I got, the more embarrassed I felt for taking the song so literally.
Today, “Ebony and Ivory” sounds dated, like ’80s mouthwash masking a ’70s soft rock hangover. It’s a karaoke go-to that’s performed with feigned sincerity. Now, when I hear “Ebony and Ivory,” I wish I could laugh and reflect upon how much has changed in those 38 years — how unnecessary and irrelevant the song’s message feels four decades later. But instead, I think about how little has changed and how, in many ways, the world feels even less united. Every day we face headlines, statistics, and smartphone videos of racial injustice in America. In the best cases, discrimination continues to exist; in the worst cases, people are beaten, shot, and lynched.
“Ebony and Ivory” is hardly a fist in the air. It’s not a wake-up call to the omnipresence of racial injustice. It’s a lighthearted ditty performed by two of the greatest songwriters of all time. Perhaps McCartney as its delivery vessel drained some of its credibility: A song about racial unity, written by a White man and performed with a popular Black accomplice.
“Ebony and Ivory” will never exist in the pantheon of great protest songs like “Strange Fruit” or “What’s Going On.” That was likely never the goal. It’s a nonthreatening social commentary that makes no criticism and trumpets no call to action. As much as the song’s vision of “perfect harmony” felt reassuring to 10-year-old me, it now feels naive and distant from my adult point of view — a ubiquitous anthem forever shrouded in sarcastic delivery.