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

When the album was released on 28 September 1976, it was an instant commercial success, becoming one of the first albums in history to debut at #1 on the Billboard album chart in the US. It was no surprise when, after Grammy awards for Album of the Year for 1973’s Innervisions and 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Wonder won for Songs in the Key of Life. In the year between the latter two wins, Paul Simon won and thanked Wonder for not releasing an album that year.

Wonder’s music crossed boundaries of genre, race, age, and gender, and the album illuminates what I call racialized universality. It’s when a public figure is constructed as transcending race when appealing to values that are supposedly held in high esteem by the dominant cultural group—specifically whites when it comes to race. Think of how often a story about a person of color gets constructed as universal when it supposedly proves the value of dominant institutions of education, for example, and is seen as proof of the idea of meritocratic, Horatio Alger-style pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

Wonder fit this narrative in some ways. In addition to being young, gifted, and black (to use Nina Simone’s famous wording), Wonder was blind. He used his contractual clout to create music of exquisite beauty when he couldn’t see the instruments he played with extraordinary virtuosity. The US loves narratives of exceptionalism, and Wonder is, after all, an exceptionally gifted individual. Still, the problem with such ideas of “race transcending” and “colorblindness” is the inequity and power dynamics that they ignore. Even as James Baldwin and others have noted the fiction of whiteness, white supremacy is real, and acting color-blind does not make racialized problems disappear.

As Marable argues in The Great Wells of Democracy: Reconstructing Race and Politics in the 21st Century (BasicCivitas Books, New York, 2002), “[T]o be truly color-blind in a nation that aggressively maintains structural racism and oppressive social hierarchies is to become blind to the reality and living consequences of American history. It is to become ‘invisible’ at a moment when racism as a destructive social force is still all too visible.” Of course, some are unaware of white supremacy and its resultant privilege for people constructed as white. However, Marable’s argument that ignoring history has massive consequences in the 21st century is still valuable.

Stevie Wonder’s music can be universal in its themes while simultaneously being specific in its musical aesthetics derived from jazz, gospel, blues, and other black genres of music. Songs in the Key of Life may have a message of universal love and community, but to read its messages as “color-blind” overlooks the album’s potency and resonance then and now. The opening “Love’s in Need of Love Today” may make a powerful statement, but using Wonder’s call to love others as an excuse to ignore race and its impact misses the point.

Rather, the song can help to acknowledge racism and to heal from there. In its sociopolitical context, the song is not a plea for colorblindness, but songs with messages about love and universal siblinghood are often misunderstood as discouraging debates around and acknowledgment of oppression. Therefore, it is more accurate to read “Love’s in Need” as responding to its time and the rising dissatisfaction, especially in black communities around the world, with the forces of white supremacy and colonialism.

A song like “Love’s in Need” sets up the album for an overall tone of what philosopher Cornel West calls audacious hope, a concept that acknowledges sorrowful and bleak realities while encouraging action in the service of love, peace, and justice. In 1993, West delivered a commencement speech at Wesleyan University and said:

“[T]here is a need for audacious hope. And it’s not optimism. I’m in no way an optimist. I’ve been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope, that’s something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay from 1879 called “The Sentiment of Rationality”, where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that’s what I’m talking about.”

West sees optimism as empty and audacious hope as preferable because it encourages working for change even when the evidence suggests there’s no chance of success. Songs in the Key of Life includes both nostalgia for earlier times (“I Wish”) and critiques of it (“Pastime Paradise”). In these songs, the hope is infectious even when the social commentary is devastating. In “Pastime Paradise”, the ending, encouraging listeners to “start living for the future paradise,” sounds like a spiritual example of what composer Olly Wilson calls the heterogeneous sound ideal, a tradition of contrasting different types of tone quality in black music traditions.

Wonder’s voice rises above contrasting spiritual and religious musical idioms with Hare Krishna singers chanting in unison overlayed with a gospel choir harmonizing in a minor key to the civil rights movement standard “We Shall Overcome”. With Stevie’s singing above multiple religious and sociopolitical traditions and the instruments getting louder near the end, “Pastime Paradise” exemplifies what Wilson labeled as “[t]he tendency to create a high density of musical events within a relatively short musical time frame—a tendency to fill up all the musical space” (Wilson’s essay, “The Heterogeneous Sound Ideal,” is collected in Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture, edited by Gena Dagel Caponi, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1999).

Thus, Songs represents racialized musical aesthetics as well as racialized messages in particular contexts, so reading its lyrics of love and hope as “color-blind” does not accurately reflect the different layers of meaning that the album’s tracks convey.

In another example, “Black Man”, Wonder’s lyrics prioritize the achievements of blacks in a multiracial society while emphasizing constructed American ideals of justice, peace, and equality. “It’s time to learn this world was made for all men,” he sings, but the lyrics belie an interpretation of this as a song promoting color-blind equality. Instead, Wonder and co-writer Gary Byrd believe in equity, which recognizes race and racism and its power dynamics and how different groups need to be treated differently to mitigate how they are already treated differently under social systems in the US.

The song was clearly written for the 1976 Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence (“the birthday of a nation”). Despite its didactic qualities—including educational lessons from teachers to chanting schoolchildren naming answers to questions about who accomplished various historic achievements—the song is far funkier than most songs about history (e.g., Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”), including with a computerized vocal from Wonder playing underneath the history lesson section at the end. This aesthetic practice is grounded in black American and Afrodiasporic traditions of innovative instrument usage and construction, as ethnomusicologist Ernest D. Brown Jr. highlights Wonder’s work with synthesizers and clavinets in his essay, “African American Instrument Construction and Music Making” (in African American Music: An Introduction, edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, second edition, New York, Routledge, 2015).

One of the most critical qualities of the album is its collective, communal feel. Wonder used dozens of more musicians on Songs than he had on the mostly self-played masterpieces that preceded it, including Talking Book and Innervisions. Masterpiece tracks like “Another Star” and “As” can feel like celebratory dance parties, including with featuring guest musicians like keyboardist Herbie Hancock, guitarist George Benson, and flutist Bobbi Humphrey. Songs in the Key of Life is clearly Wonder’s vision, but its stress on musical collaboration and songwriters help enhance this communal, participatory dynamic.

The album also highlights double meanings and multiple valences in Black music traditions globally. For example, Werner interprets the message of “Another Star” as communal rather than individual, and scholar Francesca T. Royster sees “As” as spiritual rather than romantic. If anything, the multiplicity of interpretations of these songs’ meanings makes the album that much more resonant to larger numbers of people.

The legacy of Songs in the Key of Life echoes decades after its release. In 2020, Rolling Stone ranked it the #4 greatest album of all time in their poll, a testament to its staying power. Neal calls the album Wonder’s “career-defining opus”, further arguing, “Though Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On could be regarded as the quintessential black protest recording, Wonder more consistently provided a window into a wide-ranging and dynamic African-American humanity” (Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation, 2003, Routledge, New York). Neal also writes in What the Music Said that the album is “perhaps his finest, if not the finest recording of the contemporary black popular tradition”. As an example of its influence, the range of the music over the album’s sizable length resonates with generations of listeners, including in samples by rap artists like Coolio and Will Smith in the 1990s.

In contemporary academia, scholars continue to find new, fresh angles to examine the album and its impact. Royster’s 2013 book, Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor), argues about Wonder’s work, including Songs, that it shaped and reflected changing conceptions of race and gender. She writes, “In his period of increasingly independent artistic production, Wonder was able not only to open up his own aesthetic but to capture the public’s attention, modeling a dynamic, hip, and also reflective mode of blackness.” She adds, “Wonder’s bodily and vocal performances challenge the codes of gender and genre. Neither cool nor fierce, Wonder remains difficult to fit into readily available continuums of black sexuality. He represents a space still not yet occupied.” Thus, Royster highlights how Wonder’s ideas of gender and masculinity are more introspective than patriarchal norms might have expected, and his challenging those norms made a significant impact on what gets called the post-soul era of black American music and culture.

Though composer William C. Banfield’s 2010 book Cultural Codes: Makings of a Black Music Philosophy: An Interpretive History from Spirituals to Hip Hop (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2010) is not written from an especially contemporary perspective, instead taking after 1960s cultural nationalists like Amiri Baraka, Banfield notably calls Wonder “the greatest example of . . . the remarkable genius of Black music. A songwriter of lyrical, melodic, and poetic beauty, insight, depth, and musical versatility, he is incomparable to anyone we have seen in modern music culture.” With Wonder’s recording of Songs in the Key of Life, Banfield writes, “[A]fter an almost fatal car crash, Wonder woke from a coma with a new vision that reawakened listeners.”

Whether or not listeners today enjoy Songs in the Key of Life, its legacy ensures that the album and its vision(s) will be heard for generations to come and continue to conjure new meanings, influences, and experiences.