When this came up on the randomizer I’d been using for my Every Hot 100 Number-One Single project, I was instantly elated. And in the very next instant, I literally laughed out loud to myself. Because this is one of the most panned singles of Stevie Wonder’s entire illustrious career and one that I suspect most would expect me to fully tear into. But nah – if you read my overview of 1984’s top 100 songs, I actually enjoy this song quite a bit. It’s one of the songs that I’ve been most looking forward to covering in this challenge, so pardon me if this particular review gets a bit long.
Steve Wonder is a performer who basically needs no introduction. By 1984, he had achieved seven number-one singles, many more top ten singles, and a status of one of the most prominent, influential performers of the 20th century. This reputation even continued into the 80s, where he opted for more adult contemporary-style R&B fare, in sharp contrast to the smooth funk and pop-infused soul of his creative peak. In 1984, he was assigned to write and perform some material for the American film The Lady in Red; thus “I Just Called To Say I Love You” was one of seven songs written and three songs performed for this soundtrack. “I Just Called” was chosen to be the leading marketable single and… well, the rest, as they say, is history.
There’s no denying that this song was huge right from the get-go. First, it topped the Hot 100 for three straight weeks (though it was only the 25th biggest song of Billboard that year – what can I say, 1984 was stacked). Though this song was even more successful in the UK where it achieved the number-one spot for six weeks – Wonder’s first chart-topper of the country – and was the third biggest song of the year. During its run, it would eventually top every single chart it placed in – which, worldwide, counted up to nineteen charts conquered! I believe this is the most for any single ever, but I’m willing to be proved wrong. And it doesn’t stop there – later on, it would win the Oscar for Best Original Song and the equivalent Golden Globe. (Interestingly enough, the other nominees for Best Original Song were “Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now)”, “Footloose”, “Let’s Hear It For the Boy”, and “Ghostbusters” – all chart-toppers! This is the only time this has ever happened in the history of the Academy Awards, so that’s kind of cool.)
Maybe unsurprisingly (especially after all these accolades), “I Just Called to Say I Love You” holds the important distinction of being Wonder’s best-selling single ever. Unfortunately, though, there’s a downside to this, as “I Just Called” is also widely notorious for being one of the most hated of any song from Wonder’s illustrious career. I guess much of this might have to do with sheer overplay, but this wouldn’t necessarily be the case for folks my age or younger, as we were born long after 1984 and the song itself doesn’t get the massive airplay it used to (unlike fellow 1984 peers “Thriller” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, for example). So we’re forced to conclude that the content of the song itself is reprehensible, at least for a sizable fraction of Stevie Wonder fans.
The basic concept of the song, as surmised from the title, involves the speaker going out of the way to emit those three little words to the apple of his eye; as the chorus goes, “I just called to say I love you / I just called to say how much I care”. To further expound upon these intentions, Wonder repeatedly reiterates that there is no special occasion in his affectionate phone call, and he does so by going through each month of the calendar year in order and specifying the month’s particular holiday or occasion. For example, the first line of the first verse goes, “No New Year’s Day to celebrate”, the second line declares, “No chocolate-covered candy hearts to give away”… yeah, you get the drill. While January and February are pretty easy to assign a holiday too, others aren’t so obvious resulting in clumsy lines like, “No summer’s high, no warm July / No harvest moon to light one tender August night”. In any case, they all find their way back home to that warm titular phrase.
So yeah, it’s corny… hence the widespread chagrin. I guess it’s hard for many to not feel betrayed by an artist who had released such cutting edge material in the previous two decades. Unlike the swelling romance of “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once in My Life”, the sharp social commentary of “Higher Ground” and “Living For the City”, or the just plain funkiness of “Superstition” – this song is mellow, milquetoast, and totally play-by-numbers in form and function. Even the instrumentation is just so different from his previous works. While lush instrumental backup is part of what makes Wonder’s best songs so wonderful, the primary instrument here is the keyboard, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it weren’t placed on the most drab, generic-sounding setting imaginable. Seriously, I’ve heard karaoke versions of this song where the backing music isn’t all that different from the single version.
Since I’m including all these common criticisms to this review, I would like to remind y’all that I am actually quite fond of this song myself. So, what makes this good? Well, for one, Wonder sings the hell out of this one – certainly not something atypical of him. But as cheesy as these lyrics and their sentiments are, there remains a genuine radiance of warmth and positivity, as if Wonder were singing to his soulmate at that very moment. While he tends to stick explicitly to the pretty sterile melody, some of my favorite moments of his performance are the moments when he lets his voice waver and soar, even when that particular line doesn’t exactly call for it. I’m sure he knows how silly a line like “No giving thanks to all the Christmas joy you bring” is, but his delivery of it makes it feel like the most heartwarming compliment imaginable.
I also love how the melody itself, namely how simple and lovely it is. I’m a pretty big karaoke junkie, and this song was practically made to be sung by barflies with one too many drinks and just enough confidence. It also has a key change at the final chorus, which is always bound to make my heart swell no matter what. While this doesn’t hold a candle to the singer-songwriter’s beat tunes, I can’t help but love the positive vibes this song emits without ever trying too hard. And I couldn’t dare end this review without mentioning the vocoder – yes, there is a vocoder here! You can hear a fragment of it during the outro, but the soundtrack version of the song is twice as long and includes the previously-sung verses repeated again through vocoder effect. If that’s not the epitome of 80s cheese, then I don’t know what is.