Stevie Wonder 1973
Photo: Motown Records / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Universal Songs? Interpreting Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life is 45 years old. It’s a towering masterpiece in the histories of soul, pop, American music, and Black music worldwide.

Songs in the Key of Life
Stevie Wonder
28 September 1976

Forty-five years after its release, Stevie Wonder‘s Songs in the Key of Life is one of the most beloved albums ever made. Many have called the album a towering masterpiece in the histories of soul music, popular music, American music, and Black music worldwide. However, especially in Songs’ era, the album’s commercial and critical status occupied an unusual space in the years between the height of soul and the ascent of disco and urban contemporary markets that critic Nelson George famously called “the death of rhythm & blues” in his 1988 book of that title (Pantheon, New York, 1988).

Today, the supposed inferiority of this era’s music is being contested by scholars like Emily J. Lordi, whose book, The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s (Duke University Press, Durham, 2020), argues that there are patriarchal elements to George’s critique, as the supposed dilution of different black American traditions happened at a time when women and queer people were more prominent in black American music.

Similarly, while ethnomusicologist Portia K. Maultsby highlights “the decline of the soul era” with disco in her chapter on soul in African American Music: An Introduction (edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, 2nd edition, Routledge, New York, 2015), historian George Lipsitz instead emphasizes the underappreciated music of 1970s soul in his 2007 book, Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis), contrasting it with the more esteemed music of the 1960s.

Of course, Songs in the Key of Life is acclaimed by scholars of race and music as more of an exception to the era when Wonder recorded and released it. Mark Anthony Neal highlights Wonder’s work of the period, including Songs, aside that of jazz and spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron as “authentic black voices in an age of deterioration” in Neal’s book, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (Routledge, New York, 1999).

Nonetheless, the album’s acclaim in musical and scholarly circles contrasts with Songs in the Key of Life‘s initial critical reception. One of the most commercially significant albums of the 1970s in terms of chart success and now considered one of the most influential and important albums of the decade, Songs in the Key of Life was initially praised far less than albums like Innervisions (1973) and Talking Book (1972) had been. Critics like Rolling Stone’s Vince Aletti and the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, who called it a “flawed” masterpiece, highlighted the album’s convoluted lyrics.

Indeed, for some, the album is a bloated, self-indulgent, hokey album that shows all that talk of Wonder being a genius going to his head. And to be fair, the conciseness of his preceding albums had given way to a sense that Wonder could do whatever he wanted. But that doesn’t mean that Songs in the Key of Life is flawed.

Whether or not one loves the album’s lyrics, the music, especially the instrumental and vocal arrangements, is dazzling. And Wonder, whom Sinéad O’Connor called “a singer’s singer” on VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums of Rock & Roll special in 2001, exhibits a depth of feeling and a pure tone quality (timbre) in his vocals that help the album stand out in music history.

That said, the album should not only be considered a general masterpiece; its specific contexts, including in black American and international traditions, strengthen the album. As scholar Craig Werner writes in Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul (Crown, New York, 2004), calling it Wonder’s greatest album, “[C]ontext can’t be ignored.” The disillusionment in US society with the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation, and the loss of the Vietnam War increased deep divisions in the US.

In addition, on “Pastime Paradise” from Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder lists a series of words and phrases that highlight persistent problems of the 1970s and beyond: “Dissipation, race relations, consolation, segregation,” and so on. At least two more rhyming nouns could have fit in his lists of contemporary issues: mass migration and deindustrialization. Two of the dominant issues of race after the 1960s, they affected diverse communities structurally, economically, and socially, remaking black American life.

Historians like Joe William Trotter Jr. (The African American Experience, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2001) and Cultural Studies scholars like Neal have highlighted the breakdown of black American communities after the ostensible triumphs of black freedom struggles in the 1960s. When the US government enacted the Fair Housing Act of 1968, many in the black middle class moved out of segregated black neighborhoods for other opportunities, draining resources from black communities. Neal argues in What the Music Said that what gets called the post-civil rights era was harsher and more detrimental to black communities than the decades of Jim Crow de jure legal segregation.

Furthermore, historian Manning Marable and scholar Leith Mullings argue that the most salient factor affecting blacks in the final quarter of the 20th century “was the structural transformation of the processes of work and production in the United States and in the global economic system” (in their edited collection Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, 2000). Globalization and deindustrialization shut down many US manufacturing industries and moved jobs overseas, which shifted the economy to a managerial service-oriented one and removed stable employment for thousands of black Americans.

An additional and often overlooked factor shaping black American life in the 1970s and after is the mass movement of black immigrants from other parts of the world to the United States. With the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the US government began allowing larger numbers of African descent into the country, which changed even the meaning of terms like “African American”. Simultaneously, many black Americans enacted a reverse migration process, moving back to the South after migrating to the North earlier in the 20th century, indicating a shift in what Neal calls “the African-American diaspora”.

Historian Ira Berlin views migration as critical to understanding black history in the US and music as an especially potent reflection of what he calls the “contrapuntal narrative [of] movement and place”. In his book, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations, Berlin powerfully argues that this narrative is more accurate than a typical, linear “from slavery to freedom” arc for black American history.

Wonder’s album highlights the global implications in this back-and-forth dynamic in what scholar Paul Gilroy calls “the black Atlantic”, referring to an international, rather than ethnocentric, framework through which to interpret black culture(s) around the world. There are Latin jazz influences in “Another Star”. Hare Krishna singers appear on “Pastime Paradise”. “Black Man” is an ode to the multiracial heritage of America. Lyrics in multiple languages, including Zulu and Spanish, show up on “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing”. All of that reflects Wonder’s increasing awareness of the global interconnectedness of cultures of African descent.

Werner places Songs in the Key of Life in a racial context based in the United States, as he shows in Higher Ground that Wonder was “reflecting on a nation plunging from visionary hope to sour narcissism”. As often as the 1970s are depicted as the “Me” decade, Werner goes further by arguing, “no musician has ever had a better decade”, a strong statement with which I’m inclined to agree. In some ways, Wonder transcended the negative aspects associated with the decade while making some of the greatest, most buoyant music ever recorded.

Werner writes, “The core of Songs in the Key of Life is Wonder’s improvisational vision of a new and better world,” pointing to lyrical themes in “Saturn” and musical ones in the instrumental “Contusion” being tied to jazz. Werner convincingly argues, “Songs in the Key of Life weaves the threads of gospel, jazz, and the blues into a tapestry that defines the breadth and depth of the African American tradition as clearly as any record ever made.”

With its strong identification with black American music history and international overtones, Songs in the Key of Life strongly reflects an increasingly conscious and Afrodiasporic sense of black music. The album is among the most joyful in the popular music canon. Of course, there is also pointed social critique on songs like “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise” and heartache on “Summer Soft” and “Ordinary Pain”. Still, the album is so full of genuine positivity that to this day, many can’t help but smile and dance when they hear “Sir Duke” or “I Wish.”

Part of this exceptional verve in Wonder’s music came after a 1973 automobile accident that nearly killed him. He knew that he was lucky to be alive, and with the birth of his daughter Aisha, the exuberance and love in his tribute to her, “Isn’t She Lovely”, radiates from the music.

Earlier in the decade, Wonder hit what many called his creative breakthrough when he renegotiated his contract after he turned 21 and gained creative control over his music. The streak of albums from Music of My Mind in 1972 through Songs in the Key of Life has been called “the greatest creative run in the history of popular music” by Slate critic Jack Hamilton, and many have agreed.

But when Wonder was releasing at least one album a year, the delay for Songs was significant. With another contract renegotiation, where Wonder received an unprecedented $13 million, the album took over two years to complete, resulting in a 21-song, nearly two-hour extravaganza of two full-length LPs and a seven-inch EP.