You never really need a good reason to listen to Stevie Wonder. But his peak run of albums in the 1970s are particularly welcome today. The songs are beautiful, they’re familiar, and they’re varied. They engage melancholy without being defeated by sadness; they engage anger without being defeated by despair. Stevie Wonder is invincible.
He’s also probably underrecognized as a political songwriter. Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sly Stone, or even George Clinton are probably much better known for their politics and political anthems. Stevie, the balladeer, is just as fierce, but sly, emotional, and psychologically devastating.
Here are three songs, from three albums recorded in three consecutive years, all from the Nixon era. Each year, the lyrics get more pointed, more obvious in their contempt. But it’s a contempt mingled with understanding, and grounded in a deep, deep love for the people most affected by political failure.
On August 7, 1974, Stevie released “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” as a single, with the two-year-old “Big Brother” as a B-side. (MESSAGE!) Two days later, Nixon resigned.1 By November, the song was a Billboard number one.
And that’s why you don’t mess with Stevie Wonder.
(There was even a Trump-themed remix of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” that came out last year, but I’m not really a fan. I’d rather listen to Stevie sing with the Jackson 5 than hear his music all mixed up with Trump quotes.)
The next album that would come in the sequence is Songs In the Key of Life. Out of all of Stevie’s albums, this is the hardest for me to listen to right now. It touches too many personal memories, hopes and fears and dreams.
Songs in the Key of Life tries to reconcile the reality of the post-Nixon era — the pain that even though the enemy is gone, the work is not done and the world has not been transformed — with an inclusive hope that it one day will be, and that faith, hope, and love are still possible.
It’s what makes the album such a magnificent achievement. But I’m not there. I don’t know when I will be. So for now I’m keeping Songs In the Key of Life on the shelf. An unopened bottle of champagne for a day I may never see. But I’d like to.
Nixon had more material problems right then than Stevie, but still, that’s good timing.↩