Is 1971, EUA still engulfed in the Vietnam War, Nixon is the first President to visit Communist China. It was a year marked by social, political, international and economical mayhem. Musically, one of the perkiest moments during that time of uncertainty came on May 21st when Motown Records, located in Detroit, released the Marvin Gaye masterpiece What’s Going On.
The reason that What’s Going On stands out as a masterpiece is because it went beyond the music conceptually, and became a ‘concept’ in its approach as a social commentary. Marvin was Motown’s leading soul singer and until What’s Going On was made, he and others were never given the freedom to write or sing their own music.
Inspired in part by his brother Frankie’s harrowing letters home from Vietnam, the album was both an affirmation of Gaye’s Christian beliefs and a moving cri de coeur about contemporary social problems and issues – ghetto life, the poverty gap, heroin abuse, traumatised war veterans, ecology, child poverty, political paralysis – which still resonate today. Unsurprisingly, when Motown boss Berry Gordy first heard the title-track, he vetoed its release, believing the label’s famed “Sound of Young America” should not be this bleak. But Gaye stuck to his guns, threatening to never record for the label again unless his project saw fruition, then hurriedly finished the other tracks whilst Gordy’s attention was focused on Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles. What’s Going On would be the last album the company recorded in its original Hitsville USA base.
The album What’s Going On can be viewed as forms of music, poetry, or art. It can also be looked at as a protest, a statement or narrative. The album used all these different perspectives and combined them, creating a mosaic made of themes that questioned the social, political and economical condition of America. As a result, the listener is given a frame of reference in which to question his or her own living history.
The opening track, “What’s Going On” represents a statement that sets the stage for the rest of the album. There is a conversation already taking place, opening a proverbial ‘door’ to the listener, as if to invite them to ‘sit-in’ and take part. The sounds of people chatting, throwing out catch phrases that were hip to the 1960’s in particular, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Can you dig it?’ ‘Everything is everything.’ ‘Solid!’ act as reflections to a recent past since these terms were out dated by the time they were used and function to establish the time frame of the commentary. Marvin starts by referring to the conflict in Vietnam, “…You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate…” Then he shifts the listeners perspective to focus on the conditions at home,” everybody thinks we’re wrong/Oh, but who are they to judge us/Simply because our hair is long…Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality…” This refers to the Civil Rights movement that happened from 1954-1965. It could also refer to the white students gunned down at Kent State and the lesser-known black students, also gunned down, in their dormitory at Jackson State College. He goes on with, “What’s going on/ Yeah, what’s going on/Tell me, what’s going on/I’ll tell you what’s going on.” He starts to interpret the events in forms of questions that act to foreshadow the thematic nature of the album.
The second song, “What’s Happening Brother” Marvin uses the dialogue of the returning veteran to ask the question: what’s going on? “War is hell, when will it end, /When will people start gettin’ together again.” And he continues with “Are thing really gettin’ better like the newspaper said/What else is new my friend, besides what I read/Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend/Money is tighter than it’s ever been/Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land…” This song and “What’s Going On” foreshadow the disparity that starts to take place in the upcoming themes.
On the third track, “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”, the album lulls musically and creates a ‘drug-induced’ like state. According to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, between the years of 1960-1970, Detroit saw the active drug addict population increased by 89%. (649) That stunning change had to have some influence for Marvin to addresses the topic of drug addiction. The song’s implication is clear from the beginning, “Flyin’ high in the friendly sky/Flying high without ever leavin’ the ground…” Marvin sings a duet with himself, one voice as a ‘hooked’ addict, and the other as the soul of the addict struggling with that addiction. The addict sings “So stupid minded, /I can’t help it…I go to the place where good feelin’ awaits me and it’s bound to forsake me…” while in the background the ‘soul’ can be heard echoing “Can’t help it”, “Gotta have it” and “Self-destruction in my hand.” The addict ‘wins out’ over the soul in the end and faces his reality, “Well I know I’m hooked my friend/To the boys who make slaves out of men.”
Without missing a beat “Save the Children” continues the intentional slowdown of the tempo, which serves as the conscience of the album. Once again Marvin uses two different vocal styles, the spoken word and the singing voice, one talking and the other singing as if to symbolize oneness in duality. This is the first song to essentially pose a blatant question. Marvin in a low tone and sleepy style starts the song with, “I just want to ask a question/Who really cares? /To save a world in despair/Who really cares?” And then begins to answer himself by singing, “When I look at the world it fills me with sorrow/Little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow…You see, let’s save the children/Let’s save all the children/Save the babies, save the babies…” The duality of images are apparent and similar to “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky). The social commentary of “Save the Children” directly reflects the events that happened in Birmingham years earlier as described by Juan Williams in Eyes on the Prize. Children were marching and protesting when Police Chief Bull Connor ordered police dogs to attack and firemen to use hoses that sprayed “100 pounds of pressure per square inch”(190) into the demonstration. In an abstract reflection concerning children, the song also refers to the tens of thousands of young men fighting and dying in Vietnam at the time.
Marvin, as a child, spent time in the church where his father preached. The churches impact and influence on Marvin allowed him to explore salvation, through a redemptive belief in God, and is paid special attention to in the song “God Is Love”. In this song Marvin reflects the non-violence preached by Martin Luther King Jr. in a way that looks at love as an answer to the times of despair. Marvin emphasis on family, sings “Love your mother, she bore you/love your father he works for you/Love your sister she good to you /Love your brother, your brother.” Marvin implies that salvation can only take place by spreading love from family to community and a belief in a higher power, “God is my friend/Jesus is my friend/For when we call on him for mercy Father/He’ll be merciful my friend/Oh, yes he will/All He asks of us, I know, is we give each other love.”
Marvin’s music had influenced other artists, and he had been influenced by his immediate surroundings and national events. The Food and Drug administration, in 1971, advised “… [The] American public to stop eating swordfish because more than 90 percent of samples tested contained excessive amounts of mercury.” The day that What’s Going On was released The New York Times released a new analysis by Boyce Rensberger that read “Mercury and Man: A Puzzle for Ecologists.” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” combines the environmental issues of the times while offering a gloomy outlook of a possible future. He sings, “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury/Ah oh, mercy, mercy me…” He then refers to the ‘Mother Earth’ and asks “What about this overcrowded land/How much more abuse from man can she stand?”
In the song “Right On”, he merges the despair with the promise of salvation through God and love, “…Some of us are aware/That it’s good for us to care/Some of us feel the icy wind of poverty blowing in the air…Love can conquer hate every time/Give out some love and you will find peace sublime…” In the article “Trouble Man: The Art and Politics of Marvin Gaye,” Mark Anthony states that “Gaye’s solution to the deterioration of America’s social fabric, a solution indicative of King’s influence on Gaye’s work, was to re-evaluate the role of human respect…”
While the tempo of the music has slowly increased by this point in the album, “Wholy Holy” brings it back to a slower, somber pace that serves as the conscience similar to the earlier songs “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)” and “Save The Children.” Love, as a movement, resembles the non-violent activities of the Civil Rights movement and a hope can be seen in the lyrical content of the song. For example, “We can conquer hate forever, yes we can/Ah, wholy holy/Oh, Lord/We can rock the world’s foundation/Yes we can…Holler love across the nation.” In that regard, the Civil Rights movement could be an example to the world as a whole; instead of the segregated Southern states themselves.
The lyrics to “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” almost read like a daily newspaper or eleven o’clock news broadcast from 1971. The New York Times issue that published the article about mercury was also filled with headlines and stories that mirrored the contemporary events against those events that Marvin was singing about. They read: Allied and Enemy War Deaths Decline, Census Finds Inflation Erased Gain in Family Income in 1970, Nixon’s Racial Stance and Experts See Soviet and U.S. Nuclear Arsenals in Rough Balance. He refers to Government spending and taxes, “Rockets, moon shots/Spend it on the have nots/Money, we make it/’Fore we see it, you take it…” Inspired again by social events, Marvin explains the condition of urban developments, “…Inflation, no chance/To increase finance/Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die/Make me wanna holler/The way they do my life…”
What’s Going On is not only Marvin Gaye’s masterwork, it’s the most vital and ardent record to come out of soul music, brought by one of its finest voices, a man finally free to speak his mind and so move from R&B sex symbol to true recording artist.