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That emotional moment couldn't have come at a better time. Stevie Wonder had been making hit singles since he was 12 years old—his breakthrough hit, "Fingertips Pt. 2," appeared on a 1963 album called The 12 Year Old Genius that became Motown Records' first chart-topping LP. But in 1971, when Wonder turned 21 and his long-standing contract with Motown expired, he left the company. After years of working for a record company whose explicit goal was to create big hits, the now-grown-up child prodigy wanted more freedom to craft an artistic identity of his own.
The boy genius who helped change MotownStevie Wonder was born to a large, poor family in inner city Detroit in 1950. The 1950s were an era of great prosperity and development for some, but the growing economy of the suburbs combined with the racial tensions of the Civil Rights era also meant "white flight" from the cities—white people left cities like Detroit in droves, often taking their economic investments with them. Just as Civil Rights activism began to win broad changes, the urban communities where many black youth lived were drained of many resources.
Motown Records stood out as one of the black businesses that managed to thrive in this rapidly changing environment. By focusing on black artists making pop hits for national audiences, Motown made itself almost immune to white flight and suburban sprawl. It was a Detroit company that emerged with a clear Detroit identity and was embraced both by the Black Power movement and by mixed-race national audiences. This huge success for a black business in the competitive music industry reflected and amplified some of the larger successes of Civil Rights activism.
Motown may have had great symbolic importance for black communities, but Motown Records was not a beacon of artistic innovation or experimentation. Under the hand of long-time CEO and co-founder Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown was instead notorious for maintaining tight artistic control and leaving little to chance. They were concerned with making polished hit songs, and routinely steered artists away from overtly political work.
By the early 1970s, though, some of Motown's biggest artists were fed up with the system and demanded a change. The first concession to artistic license brought a huge success in the form of Marvin Gaye's groundbreaking album, What's Going On. In a major break from Motown's previous attempts to operate as an apolitical hit machine, What's Going On was a heady concept album about war, urban life, and liberation at the height of the Black Power era. Just as Marvin Gaye made his point with Motown's executives, Stevie Wonder came back into the picture asking for a new contract with Motown—a contract that gave him ownership over his songs and creative control over his albums. "Music changes," said Wonder later on, "and if you're in the line of change and don't move, you get trampled" (Werner, Higher Ground). After a tough and intense round of negotiations, Wonder won the contract in a breakthrough move for Motown artists.
"An aura of bad vibrations"Motown would not regret their decision to negotiate with Wonder. The first album under Stevie's control, Music of My Mind, gave Motown a hit single and revealed a cohesive musical vision under Stevie's direction. But it was the second of these albums, the late 1972 release Talking Book, that made Stevie Wonder a superstar. According to iTunes, the album "was hailed as a magnificently realized masterpiece." "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" both won Grammys in 1973. Stevie's creativity with the developing funk sound and electronic instruments won him acclaim not just for innovation, but also for almost unrivaled pop catchiness.
The music on "Superstition" is so memorable that it has since become a defining song of the funk genre. Maybe that's why most people know what "Superstition" sounds like, but few take note of what the song is really about. One Wonder biographer proposed that the song suits the times: "The lyrics swirl with nightmare images out of Robert Johnson or Bob Dylan," wrote a biographer about "Superstition." Although the lyrics are more a stock list of superstitions than a nightmarish vision, it doesn't take a careful to study to notice a mood of pessimistic realism in the song.
Well, guess what? Stevie Wonder actually was feeling down about some things when he made Talking Book: "I hate to sound pessimistic, but we have serious problems that have to be dealt with," he said. "Nixon is cutting off all these programs and holding back funds. Who do you think it's hurting? The black man. We have always been the last to get and the first to have it taken away" (Werner, Higher Ground). "Superstition" does not address these issues directly, but it captures what Werner calls "an aura of bad vibrations." Bad things are going down, "Superstition" warns—but false beliefs are not the way out of a bad situation.
Come 1972, a bad situation it was indeed, at least for some. The Black Power movement was beginning to fall apart. Many in the movement had been killed or imprisoned; representatives at large, like Stevie Wonder, began to wonder whether all of their onstage advocacy and fundraising through big benefit concerts had really meant anything. The hippie movement of the 1960s spiraled away from the anti-war sentiment that was originally its mainstay. The U.S. finally pulled out of the Vietnam War unceremoniously, and Nixon's Watergate scandal began to unfold in the public sphere, leading to his eventual impeachment in 1974.
So, what can we trust, Stevie?"Superstition ain't the way," cried Wonder. Okay, so worrying about crossing the path of a black cat is not a great way to go through life. But if we can't worry about walking under ladders and watch for the writing on the wall, what is the way?
Well, for Stevie Wonder, the way was always music itself. Talking Book and the albums that came after it throughout the 1970s made Stevie Wonder into one of the biggest stars in the world, and even though the causes he believed in didn't always turn out well for him, he stuck with his beliefs and kept developing as a musician at the same time. Forty years and dozens of hit songs, albums, honors and awards later, Stevie Wonder still believes in what he does. Here's what he told Oprah in 2004: "No matter what, no one can take [music] away from me. Even if I was a slave or Blind Tom, and every instrument was taken away, I could still imagine music and hear chords in my head. As incredible as that is, God has also given me a yearning to do more. I'm playing blues now, and I want to do gospel. I lived through an earthquake once, and it made me realize that I have to do the best I can in life. I always just want to do better. I have to love and share like there's no tomorrow. Another thing I've learned recently is that I cannot play God. I cannot solve everyone's problems."