Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Stevie Wonder Is a Masterpiece

The first notes of Songs in the Key of Life waft up from a choir of humming colored folks who might be refugees from Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky. Their music is mellifluous, placid, and elevated; it seems to epitomize (as black critic Donald Bogle wrote of Cabin in the Sky) "ersatz Negro folk culture. . . . passed off as the real thing." The catch is that this ersatz culture may be the real thing. For the leader of the choir, distinctly audible in the foreground, doesn't sound so innocuous; the other voices are obviously there to round out a quavery tenor of subtly disquieting indecorum. What's more, his mild uncouthness extends to the lyric; within two lines, nine words--"Good morn or evening friends/Here's your friendly announcer"--he has committed two minor literary gaffes: the skewed parallelism of "morn or evening" and the apparently inadvertent echo of "friends" and "friendly."

Fallacious or not, questions of intention arise immediately, as they so often do in popular culture. In order to understand what is actually going on here we are well-advised to try to determine what is supposed to be going on. So if we've forgotten for a moment who this artist is, with his "serious news for everybody," we are now obliged to remember. This is Stevie Wonder. He is black and considers that an advantage; he is blind and given to mystic visions. His music is both meticulous and wildly expressionistic; his words combine a preacher's eloquence with an autodidact's clumsiness. And a small detail: In one of his best and favorite jokes, he impersonates a disc jockey, everybody's friendly announcer.

Who can gauge what intentions these credentials imply? Perhaps Stevie Wonder hopes to reclaim an unfairly discredited manifestation of black culture--the genteel Hollywood gospel chorus--with his blessing. Or perhaps the chorus--which, as it turns out, consists entirely of taped overdubs of Stevie's own voice--merely reifies the man's idealist notion of black spirituality. Perhaps the musical ambiguity is deliberate, the stilted language a gentle gibe at the "announcer," at Stevie himself. Or perhaps it's all just sloppiness. Only two things are clear. First, this man is too secure in his own artistic power to concern himself with such quibbles; he doesn't worry whether we think he's wise or foolish, careless or precise. Second, this music is so audacious and so gorgeous that it seems pointless for us to worry about it either.

That is to say, among other things, that this album has presence--it's really out there--and that its presence counts for something. After playing it obsessively for a few days, I put on WNEW-FM for a taste of the real world, and, as if in a dream, there was my friendly announcer, and I don't mean Dave Herman, crooning the song I've just been writing about, "Love's in Need of Love Today." Why had I bothered to tune in, I wondered, when this lovely stuff was waiting on my turntable? But I bristled nevertheless when Dave Herman referred to the album as "Stevie Wonder's new masterpiece."

Words like "masterpiece" get thrown around much too glibly in the music biz, and when you talk about someone's "new" masterpiece, you're coming close to implying that the someone is a genius (now where have I heard that before?) who just churns one out every year or two. As the virtues of rock and roll are not those commonly associated with masterpieces--works which, as Bob Dylan sardonically observed, are supposed to make everything "smooth like a rhapsody"--this seems unlikely. Yet for all the indulgence of the usage, I found myself in sympathy even as I bristled. The irresistible beauty of this record calls for inept superlatives. In fact, Stevie Wonder has had me thinking for the better part of a week about just what a rock and roll masterpiece might be.

My first conclusion is that presence counts for a lot. A rock and roll masterpiece must be a pop masterpiece. Not pop as distinguished from rock--Exile on Main Street and Layla, both assuredly rock, are two of the worthiest pretenders to the category--but pop as distinguished from aesthetic. This is an old riff, very un-'76, and I feel a little I fogeyish coming down on it after arguing the primacy of the aesthetic for the past couple of years. I really do believe that Eno's Another Green World is a greater rock record than, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd's perfectly admirable One More from the Road, without benefit of sales, airplay, or (for that matter) blues chords and backbeat, and that something similar goes for Ramones, in many musical ways its polar opposite. But those are tours de force; they're too rarefied. Even efforts like Randy Newman's Good Old Boys (with an audience that acts like a cult) or Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic (a gold album masquerading as polished dross) are borderline. Or so I feel right now. For Stevie Wonder has reminded me vividly of the reason I've always paid attention to rock and roll, rather than to potential passions like jazz or the novel--which is that rock and roll not only says something about masses of people but also says something to them. For the first time in too many years, a large, heterogeneous mass of people has communed around a musical package of consistent and considerable aesthetic interest, and they have lent it their collective authority.

I mean, lots of people ask me about this record--not pros, or fans, just contemporaries, give or take five years on the up side and 15 on the down. To an extent, their curiosity reflects a suspense hyped up by titanic money battles and Stevie's perfectionitis in the studio and then relieved by the evidence on the radio that at least their anticipation would not end in flatulent letdown. But it also reflects something more sustaining. People care about Stevie Wonder--they like him, they respect him, they find pleasure and hope in him. And while it is impossible to credit this audience with critical reserve--the $13.98 double-LP was instant number one--it is also impossible, at least for me, to fault its faith. Frankly, I was expecting a letdown. This is one of those instances when the audience knew better. That's one of the rewards of being a rock critic sometimes.

But it doesn't mean I shouldn't go ahead and do my job. The only people I know who don't like this album are people who have no use for Stevie Wonder, but lots of people seem confused by it, and that needn't be. Granted that studio double-LPs invariably dish up too much new stuff to digest comfortably, and that Wonder's cannily self-indulgent decision to add a fifth side (in the form of a seven-inch 33-that-looks-like-a-45) has added to the sense of surfeit. Granted, too, that a promotional arrangement whereby a gaggle of journalists was flown to the country to listen, once, to the forthcoming release didn't clarify things any. And granted, finally, that Stevie Wonder resists analysis consciously and even aggressively--in the first stanza of "Joy Inside My Tears" he apologizes for using the nasty word "but," the analytic weapon that begins this paragraph. It's still possible to figure out what kind of masterpiece this might be.

The answer, as one might predict, is that it is a flawed one--not in the manner of Dylan and the Stones, who cultivated a rough tone that made flaws inevitable, even welcome (smooth like a rhapsody was not what they wanted their music to be), but by identifiable mistakes, failures of taste and concept. In this it reminds me a lot of Carole King's Tapestry. Especially since Tapestry was King's breakthrough, whereas Songs in the Key of Life is Stevie Wonder's fulfillingness, the parallel is far from exact, and it may bring sarcastic moans from the skeptical. But those who remember how fresh Tapestry sounded before it was transmogrified into an aural totem--the delight of finding that when a promising artist surpasses her potential, there's no way a few banal passages can diminish the general affection and admiration that results--will know what I mean.

There are errors of commission on Stevie Wonder's new masterpiece. A lot of this music (the final refrain of "Isn't She Lovely," for instance, or the homiletic "Black Man") goes on for too long; there are many awkward phrases ("founder of blood plasma"), forced rhymes ("red, blue, and white") and uncolloquial constructions ("for Christmas what would be my toy"); several of the songs (I would name "Summer Soft" and "If It's Magic") are, hopefully, quite forgettable. Talking Book is closer to a perfect album. But when Talking Book came out Stevie Wonder was still coming off the Rolling Stones tour. A more complex and satisfying delight--a delight that combines the freewheeling energy of Dylan and the Stones with the softer accessibility of a Carole King--is provided by an artist with the ambition to ride his own considerable momentum and the talent to do more than just hang on while doing so.

My reasoning, if that's what it is, is entirely appropriate to this album. Indeed, it's just what the announcer ordered. To put it in the jargon of a time gone by, I've overcome my own negative vibrations. Such, a discipline is the key to Stevie Wonder's prescription for life, what he means literally to denote when he says "love's in need of love" or warns against living in a "pastime [that is, "past time"] paradise," or, God knows, opines that "God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed." Sometimes he almost seems to mean that bad thoughts are the source of all evil, and I should point out to those sympathetic to this interpretation that its practicality is questionable, because it supplies no surefire method of eliminating the bad thoughts. I should also point out' that Stevie acknowledges just this problem in "Village Ghetto Land," which serves as an empiricist postscript to the idealist "Love's in Need of Love Today" and "Have a Talk with God" by implying quite pointedly that poverty and happiness are often mutually exclusive. The man is obviously no giant ideologically, but he does have a reasonably accurate idea of what's going down.

Ideology can hardly be his specialty in any case, because the locus of ideology is written language, whereas, for Stevie books must talk. In fact, no verbal analysis can do him justice. What makes the contradictory platitudes of his lyrics worth following through is the rhetorical impetus of his music. Even in the accompanying 24-page booklet the words aren't as stiff and preachy as his worst moments might have made you fear; sung or declaimed over a music much less vague and ballady than his worst moments might have made you fear, they take on a convincing vivacity. It is no accident that the rich, hortatory one-man music of "Love's in Need of Love Today" is counterposed against the more intimately devotional one-man music of "Have a Talk with God," or that when the theme turns sociopolitical in "Village Ghetto Land", Stevie's synthesizer, still solo, turns from African sounds to an ironic (though elegant) string-quartet minuet--the calm detachment of which is rudely interrupted by a jazz-funk instrumental from Stevie's Wonderlove band, which then moves into the boogieing black-music tribute, "Sir Duke."

There is wit, pace, variety, and dimension to this music. In themselves, the words--especially as brought to life by Stevie's high-spirited multivoice--have it all over the musings of Maurice White, or Eddie Levert reciting the verse of Kenneth Gamble; they're funnier and trickier. But as validated by the music they come close to redeeming the whole genre; they make clear that no matter how annoying the sociospiritual bullshit of Earth, Wind & Fire or the O'Jays may get, it still surpasses the escapist mythopoeia and greeting-card sentimentality that passes for poetry among too many white rockettes these days.

If Bob Dylan, say, scores an artistic punch with the rough tone, then Stevie Wonder is familiar with the artistic benefits of the genteel tone. He wants something like that gospel chorus in the sky--a chorus which has echoed through much of the most ambitious black music--just because of what it can say to masses of people. Sometimes he takes his advantage in a straightforward and seemly way--with synthesized strings, for instance, or with the beauty of that chorus itself--but sometimes he makes it work ass-backwards. His literary gaffes and ideological inadequacies can be blamed on confused cultural aspirations only after we're sure blame is called for; it may well be that it is only through such indiscretions that the earth-shattering, or -mending, presumption of his music can be conveyed. A blind man who can envision a time "when the rainbow burns the stars out of the sky" or write a song called "Ebony Eyes" is like a black man who can stick Glenn Miller in between Count Basie and Louis Armstrong in a litany of music heroes. He doesn't even acknowledge limitations that some would hope were beneath him. As in most rock and roll masterpieces, the flaws are a part of the challenge, and of the fun.

Village Voice, Nov. 8, 1976