OK, let’s clear this up right now: I’m a middle-class white girl from the Jersey suburbs. Things are this way by cosmic accident, I know, but I have at least acquired what I consider an appropriate level of white liberal guilt, which pokes at me whenever I tense up driving through an underresourced neighborhood or consider for a moment crossing the street to avoid walking through a group of teenagers of color. I believe it’s for this reason that I persist in guarding closely my intense love for Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” Until now, I guess.

Occasionally, when I find myself bopping around in the shower to the bass line and singing at the top of my lungs, I stop for a momentary evaluation. I’ve never been poor (at least not against my will) and I’ve certainly never been a “nappy-headed boy.” And despite the fact that I can now readily belt out lyrics about not caring when I didn’t get anything for Christmas, there has not been a Christmas in memory when I didn’t hungrily rip into a pile of gifts and, a few weeks later, lose or break most of them. And so, generally, I stare at the soap for a while, put the shampoo-bottle microphone down, and shame-spiral my way through half-heartedly shaving my legs as I lament my own culturally insensitive ignorance.

But I’m kind of a pain in the ass that way. Because the song isn’t about being poor. It’s about being a kid. Actually, it’s about wanting to be a kid again, because it’s only when you’re old that you realize how really freaking cool it was to be innocent even when you were guilty.

Smoking cigarettes and writing something nasty on the wall.
Teacher sends you to the principal’s office down the hall.
You grow up and learn that kinda thing ain’t right,
But while you were doing it, it sure felt outta sight.

And when you grow up and get a fancy liberal-arts education, you realize that Stevie Wonder is ripping off Augustine’s Confessions here (just as every R&B act for the rest of time will rip off Stevie Wonder)—and that every single kid, rich or poor, remembers doing something bad just because it felt good. And at the time the fear of punishment was no match for the sexiness of doing what it was we decided to do. But the punishments that came undoubtedly seemed world-ending. “I Wish” is an upbeat, catchy, groovy requiem for days gone. Now that we’re too grown-up for our own good, we wish detention was the price to pay for our adult-sized screwups. Among other lame side effects of being a grownup.

When one lyric in particular came back to me last summer, it was sort of like being bumped into by a stranger while you’re trying to get on the subway and realizing you know them. I was walking through D.C.‘s Chinatown with my roommate, away from the theater where we’d just seen Fahrenheit 9/11. She had been crying. I hadn’t been; I don’t know why. I just don’t cry at things that seem so inevitable. Anyway. My mind flashed over the scene of Britney Spears being interviewed on her feelings about the war in Iraq. She passes off the standard crap about trusting the president because, hell, he’s the president and that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? I don’t blame her. She has no idea what the hell she’s talking about and she has no reason to. Her albums will sell no matter what color the terror threat is this afternoon. But it seemed to me that at that moment it would have been nice to be Britney—to just have no idea about just how serious shit really is and no ambition to have an idea.

Looking back on when I
Was a little nappy-headed boy
Then my only worry
Was for Christmas—what would be my toy?
Even though we sometimes
Would not get a thing,
We were happy with the joy
The day would bring.

I wish those days could come back once more.
Why did those days ev-er have to go?
I wish those days could come back once more.
Why did those days ev-er have to go?
’Cause I love them so.

That’s what “I Wish” is about, in the end. About wishing sometimes just for a minute that you could give back most of the crap you’ve learned on purpose or by accident. About picking a spot in your personal system recovery before someone pointed out the fact that you were poor or ugly or couldn’t sing. About remembering what it was like when fucking up meant getting yelled at or grounded or stuck in detention instead of fined or imprisoned or screwed by your insurance company. About spending every waking minute revising your Christmas list instead of your stock portfolio or your mental catalog of pictures you’ve seen of dead soldiers, charred Iraqi children, and desperate Sudanese mothers. Everyone has a song that marked the loss of their innocence. (For my seventh-grade class it was Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up”—yeah, I know.) Everyone also somewhere has a song that makes them want that innocence back, God damn it, ‘cause someone defrauded you about how sweet life would be once you achieved legal drinking age and in the years subsequent. Stevie Wonder is kind of a fucker that way. (Can I call a blind guy a fucker?) First it’s the bass groove, then it’s the kick-ass keyboards, then it’s the white guilt and the self-loathing and the longing for time you’ll never get back. And then you realize it’s the same for everyone. And you feel a little better. Not much, though. But it’s still on every iTunes playlist you’ve ever made.