Popular music has always been an escapist art form, but in 1974, it went extra soft. Olivia Newton-John’s teary, chart-topping “I Honestly Love You” would go on to be the Grammys’ record of the year, and 1974’s other number-ones, were, for the most part, easy listening, from Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” to Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby.”
Meanwhile, Black power was cooling off. Godfather of Soul James Brown would enjoy his final top 40 crossover hits for more than a decade in 1974, and the bracing sociological statement that was Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1971 album “What’s Going On” had already given way to the bedroom anthems of his 1973 opus “Let’s Get It On.”
Then along came Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” the first single from his 1974 album, “Fullfillingness’s First Finale,” which would eventually become the second of his three ‘70s albums to win the Grammy for album of the year. It wasn’t just a blistering indictment of the then-current state of affairs, as his 1973 hit “Higher Ground” had been; “You Haven’t Done Nothin,’” in all its double-negative glory, was scathing political recrimination aimed directly at the White man in charge. “Richard Nixon,” it seemed to be saying, “this one’s for you.” Incidentally, the 37th US President resigned on August 8, 1974, the day after “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” was released as a single.
To be fair to all that had come before it, Black activism had scaled the pop chart before Wonder’s early to mid-’70s triumphs. Previously, though, it had mostly been in the form of James Brown’s declarations of Black pride and more passive political commentary. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” had looked at socio-political issues with journalistic precision through a soothing musical lens. “War,” the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong composition that Edwin Starr took to number one in 1970, was passionate and incendiary, but it was a protest song aimed at an intangible concept.
The then-24-year-old Wonder, though, did what few other superstars of the era had been willing – or interested – in doing in a single aimed at the top of the charts. He didn’t just criticize the system in this anti-establishment protest song; he raged against the machine and thoroughly annihilated it. “And we are sick and tired of hearing your song/ Tellin’ how you are gonna change right from wrong/ ‘Cause if you really want to hear our views/ You haven’t done nothin’,” he sang on the year’s most bracing chorus. “Seasons in the Sun,” this was not.
For all its fire and brimstone, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” was anger you could dance to. Wonder kept fans on their toes, but not in the way 1974’s proto-disco smashes like The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” did. He was fervent pentacostal preacher crossed with rabble-rouser statesman, whipping congregations and constituents into a frenzy. When he performed “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” at the 1975 Grammys, the A-listers assembled, which included Helen Reddy, Tony Orlando, Gladys Knight and the Pips and “Poetry Man” singer Phoebe Snow, went absolutely insane. As iconic Grammy moments go, for me, it ranks right up there with Pink’s acrobatic “Glitter in the Air” act in 2010.
“The revolution will not be televised,” Gil Scott-Heron had announced three years earlier on a precursor to “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” that was perhaps too Black and in-your-face to trouble the pop charts. But this time, it was on prime-time TV. Unlike in the ‘60s when images of Blacks being attacked with hoses and beaten by White cops dominated the media, a Black man was controlling the narrative on the music industry’s biggest night of the year.
It’s impossible to overstate how revolutionary this was at the time. Wonder wasn’t just painting a portrait of a world on fire, as he had done in 1973’s “Living for the City” or as Marvin Gaye had done in “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” He wasn’t selling hope and unity the way Sly and the Family Stone had done in “Everyday People” or the way The O’Jays had done in “Love Train.” He was smashing the system, directly calling out political leaders for screwing things up. Though the song wasn’t overtly racial, it represented Black pride and righteous indignation in a three-and-a-half-minute sermon. It was Wonder’s “Richard Nixon doesn’t care about Black people” moment.
Although Wonder had already made the move to more socially conscious music by 1974, “Nothin’” still represented a sharp departure from his previous work. Straddling rock, soul, funk, pop and even doo-wop, it sounded like nothing else that was riding so high on the charts. Yet despite its explosive themes and music, the political grenade had an undeniable pop sensibility that was enhanced by the presence of The Jackson 5 on backing vocals. (Michael Jackson, who was 15 when it was recorded, brought his tutor to the recording session.)
Today, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” might be the most underrated of Wonder’s classic ‘70s singles (“Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” get far more play), yet lyrically it remains more relevant than any of his five No. 1s that decade. What an uncomfortable listen it must have been for the gatekeepers in government and the masses that still championed them in spite of Watergate (the “Stop the Steal”-ers of 1974). It held up a mirror to a status quo that was still controlled by white men and guided by the principles of white supremacy, revealing all its ugly scars and scabs.
The focused fury of Wonder’s song – which The Who frontman Roger Daltrey covered for his 2018 album, “As Long As I Have You” – paved a path for The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power” the following year as well as the politicized rap and alternative rock that would take shape in the ‘80s and rule the mainstream in the ’90s. I hear its influence every time I listen to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” Run-D.M.C.’s first album and even “Ignoreland,” the standout track on R.E.M.’s 1992 masterpiece “Automatic for the People” on which Michael Stipe spits out similar admonitions with the lyrical and vocal agility of a rapper.
Last year, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” played on repeat in my brain throughout the election cycle. It gets a spin there every time I hear White politicians say how much they’ve done for the Black community when the Black body count says otherwise. As corpses continue to pile up, we can look back to the past and dust off old hits that dreamed of a better day and still make us cry, like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” But tears are not enough now, and they certainly weren’t in 1974.
What the world and Blacks needed then was a flipside to safe, hopeful activism – a Black power anthem that called for accountability with unflinching, brutal honesty. With Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” that’s exactly what they got.
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