Bad songs earn bad reputations, but the particular disdain this one attracts is tangled up with people’s love for its creator. Everyone’s entitled a clunker sometimes but it’s galling when one becomes a great artist’s most popular song. At the back of our minds we all know that if Stevie Wonder was to go under a bus tomorrow it wouldn’t be “Living For The City” that racked up the RIP downloads.
Not that Wonder’s ever shown a hint of embarrassment, and why should he? “I Just Called To Say I Love You” hasn’t just made him an awful lot of money, it’s a fine idea for a song. The basic notion – don’t need a special occasion to tell you I love you – is sentimental but no more so than most other love songs: it’s the kind of thing you could imagine making a lovely little doo-wop record, and maybe that simplicity is what Wonder was going for. Then the conceit used to get this across – list all the days this one isn’t – has a charm too: it’s the “don’t know much about history…” structure.
But that’s where things start to go wrong. Once you’ve gone down that route you’re path-dependent – the song can’t vary from its conceit. And anyone listening ‘gets’ the conceit after a single verse, so the song starts to implode after a minute or so. So end it – but pop songs need to be more than a minute long. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is bad because Stevie Wonder is trapped by his own good idea. You might even detect a desperation in the key changes as he looks for a way to get some life into the song. Too late – and by this time even Wonder’s typically lovely singing is starting to feel like mockery. Yes, he could make a hallmark card sound tender – such a shame he had to.