“Two Can Play the Game”: Recalculating the Minimum Number of Players in Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover”

It’s five. Stevie says two, but it has to be five lovers playing this game. Here’s how I arrive at that conclusion.

The song is in first and second person perspective, narrating his own experience while addressing “you, my part time lover.” The first verses indicate that his committed lover is female. 

First, the genders of the players and their sexual orientations matter in so far as they help us deduce how many lovers are involved in the song. Stevie presents as male. I guess we could argue that claim at length, but the song was released in 1985. There were other pop stars treading the androgynous line or leaping over it by then. Even a few out bisexual or homosexual artists. If Stevie was trying to give cues of non-male identity, he was doing it too subtly for me to recognize.

If she’s with me, I’ll blink the lights
to let you know tonight’s the night.

So far we have a narrator, his committed lover and his part time lover.

We have to consider that the part time lover could be a man. How can we tell the narrator’s sexual orientation? Because in another verse he says, 

but if there’s some emergency
have a male friend to ask for me
So then she won’t peek [?] it’s really you,
my part time lover.

His wife or committed lover would be suspicious if a woman was calling or asking for him. If the part time lover were male, there would be no point getting another male friend to ask for the narrator.

The final verse admits that someone “rang our doorbell” who wasn’t his part time lover. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t usually that suspicious, but in the context of this song, that’s enough to indicate he’s stepping out with someone else, a third lover. Could he be stepping out with his wife or original committed lover? I don’t think so. If a person is sneaking around with a part time lover in order to deceive a spouse or original lover, we wouldn’t expect that they stopped making love to the original committed lover. This brings the total to four players.

Enter the final player:

And then a man called our exchange
But didn’t want to leave his name.
I guess two can play the game
of part time lovers.

Again, in the context of this song, that’s enough to indicate infidelity. I was confused about whether this man on the phone is having an affair with the narrator’s original committed lover or with his first part time lover. “Our exchange” could mean the phone he shares at his home with his original committed lover. But “you” in the song is his part time lover, so “our” could mean the phone he shares at another residence with her. The final lines make it clear. 

You and me, part time lovers.
But she and he, part time lovers.

He wouldn’t say “she” if he meant the person he was addressing as “you” throughout the rest of the song. It must be his wife or original committed lover.

Lastly, I wanted to explore the possibility that the original committed lover was sneaking around behind the narrator’s back with part time lover number one. That could bring the number of players back down to four. Their genders and sexual orientations seem to argue against it. If the man calling the narrator’s phone number indicates one of his lovers is unfaithful to him, and if it’s two women having an affair with each other behind his back, why would they get a male friend to call? Unless the narrator already suspects one or both of them are bi? Is she doing the trick HE recommended by getting a male friend to ask for her? No, too convoluted, not enough context to assume they’re bi. I mean, more power to them if they’re bi or want open relationships, although they all should have been upfront about having open relationships if that's what they wanted. In which case the whole song would be pointless.

So I’m settling on five players. Five can play the game, consisting of one narrator, his committed lover, his part time lover, his second part time lover, and some guy who calls and won’t leave his name.