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Analysis of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"

Updated: 2 days ago

Sometime in the early 70s, Marvin Gaye looked at the world around him and was not happy with what he saw. Back in 1971 when his album “What’s Going On” made its debut, the Vietnam War was raging on and to Gaye, it seemed to be the beginning of the end. To understand the impact of this song and album, we must know the story and where it began. The title track What’s Going On came to fruition through a long series of trials and tribulations. When the song came to be, he was under the supervision of a record label called Motown, which was known for producing chart toppers through flawless performance, impeccable recording, and a well-devised image. In essence, Motown produced picture-perfect pop artists and gave many African-American artists a chance to shine. Of course, pop music back in the 70s was much more jazz-oriented, unlike what we know pop music as today. Gaye was under this label releasing songs like 1963’s Pride and Joy and 1967’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, songs that easily climbed the charts. So when Gaye brought What’s Going On to Motown founder Berry Gordy, a politically charged ode to the need for peace, he was not happy. 

Although civil rights were advancing in the 70s, there was still much deep-rooted racism that anyone could see. That’s part of why Motown was such a big deal, they were giving a voice to the voiceless. In this instance, Renaldo Benson, another Motown artist, witnessed an incident of police brutality during an anti-war protest and came to Gaye with the backbone of What’s Going On. Together, they finished writing the track, saying, “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality / Come on, talk to me, so you can see.” This song, of course, was inspired by all of the war-fueled questions everyone was asking. Why are they forcing our boys to fight a war they don’t understand? Why are we fighting in the first place? Is killing the answer?

Gordy originally did not let Gaye release it, claiming it was the “worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Harry Balk, who also worked at Motown, asked for the song to be released as well, and again, Gordy said no. This time he used the excuse that it sounded too old school, scatting was no longer popular. Gaye was fed up with being denied and eventually refused to record any more music until Gordy released it. The only real reason it got released at all was that Balk talked another executive into it, and they only folded because everyone was anxious for new Marvin Gaye material. It was received by the public with flying colors, and even Gordy, who hadn’t been informed of its release, was pleased with the results. This is important because it was not supposed to see the light of day, it was “too political”, and no one wanted to hear an opinion from Marvin Gaye. They wanted easy listening, something to dance to. Or so the label thought. 

Gordy was so impressed with the result that he encouraged Gaye to record the rest of the album, and for the first time, allowed him to produce his own music. Another thing about Motown is that they had a very specific vision for the music that left the studio, so giving Gaye full creative control was a huge deal. What resulted was a nine-track, thirty-six-minute album, titled “What’s Going On”, exemplifying the power of the title track. While I do believe the story and composition behind the first song are the most important, the other songs have just as much to say. 

Track two: What’s Happening Brother. This is the first track to bring home the perspective of the soldier. While What’s Going On, could be interpreted that way too, I believe it’s too general to be sure. While Gaye was never in the service himself, his brother, Frankie, was. This song portrays the real account of a soldier, just through Gaye’s storytelling. “I’m just gettin' back, but you knew I would / War is hell, when will it end? / When will people start gettin' together again? / Are things really gettin' better, like the newspaper said?” The lyrics are delivered smooth as butter, Gaye’s voice just takes you away. There’s a distant twinkling of a triangle, soft harmonies to back up the lead vocal line, and a groovy beat that makes you want to snap along with it. I think delivering it this way was a lot of the reason it was received well and held onto so tightly. 

Sometimes the most beautiful and powerful songs never get heard because they don’t have the element that makes them widely adored. There’s one little piece missing that keeps it off of the radio and out of the airwaves. Gaye was able to figure that element out with deep precision. He mastered the art of creating music with a meaning that anyone could listen to and enjoy. He was able to combine the radio-friendliness, appeasing Motown, with his feelings about the world around him. This song became one of the many anti-war anthems, people found comfort in the song just as many of the other songs and artists we’ve studied this term. “Can't find no work, can't find no job, my friend / Money is tighter than it's ever been.” The reality for the soldier in this story is a sad one. He comes back home just to find his country a mess. He’s gained nothing from sacrificing himself, mentally and physically, to a cause he does not understand. This soldier seems to turn around in confusion, to take a deep look at his surroundings. Maybe there’s a protest in the park across the street, and nearby a recruiting center looking for more soldiers. There might be a mother donating her son’s belongings to a shelter. He comes back and says “What's happening, brother? / What's been shaking up and down the line? / I want to know 'cause I'm slightly behind the times.” I can’t imagine being away for months on end just to come back to a place that no longer feels like the home, not only from the physical changes of the place but the emotional damage and changed mindset that the soldier would then have. Gaye paints a picture, which, unfortunately, was the reality for a lot of people. 

Track three: Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky). If you know anything at all about the 60s and 70s, I’m sure you’re aware of the impact drugs had on their modern culture. Although Gaye didn’t outwardly say anything about this, the counterculture of the war was very prominently the “sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll” ideology. I don’t blame those people. They were probably all desperate for an escape. As a product of the drug part of sex drugs, rock ‘n roll, Gaye produces Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky). A bit of a different direction from the first two, Flyin’ High tells the story of addiction. This sky that our narrator is in is an illusion, one so vividly crafted under the influence of drugs, and maybe just the idea of them too. It’s an addictive place to be, to think about. How badly a person wants to go back to that place. And that can be done “without ever leaving the ground.” Another scene is so vividly portrayed to the listener here: A person, so despairingly grounded in their country with no escape. But, there is an escape after all. These drugs take them high above the places that they felt so stuck in. Why stay in a place that is so filled with danger and hatred? Towards the end of the song, there is an acknowledgment of this trouble. “Self-destruction's in my hand / Oh Lord, so stupid minded (can you help me? Can you help?) / Oh Lord, I go crazy when I can't find it (help me) / Well I know, I'm hooked, my friend (got to help me) / To the boy who makes slaves out of men (got to help me).” 

This is how humans work, always in search of pleasure. There is much greed to find more of what feels so good but is ultimately bad. Gaye did a wonderful job of explaining this back and forth. Loving the feeling of the drugs and where they can take a person, but knowing in the end, all it is is an escape from reality. This character, whether Gaye or simply a persona created to reflect the culture, understands the damage they’re doing with one pill, with one tab, whatever it be. Sonically, a lot of this album is very similar. There’s a lot of soul in this track, but the composition is relatively similar to the first two and the rest of the album. 

Track four: Save the Children. Much of the power in this song comes from Gaye’s choice to speak in it. It creates a statement, even though in much of the speaking he’s asking a question. “I just want to ask a question / Who really cares, to save a world in despair? / Who really cares?” I find it beautiful how he alternates between speaking and singing, and how in certain moments he overlaps them. It’s unique and creates two channels with different elements of power and strength in them, allowing the listener to be able to digest the song differently. Towards the end, it takes a turn back to the jazzy roots we’ve seen in the previous songs. It begs the question, who does care? Why is our society so insistent on pain? Once the Pentagon papers had been leaked to the public, people became aware that the U.S. was attacking many more areas than just what they’d claimed, more lives being lost without a cause. Reports and photos from throughout this war came back, depicting starved, burnt, and even dead Vietnamese children. Ones who no longer had a family. Ones with nowhere to go and without any understanding. There’s that element of it, and then there’s the side that could be understood as being about our soldiers. These mothers were losing their babies, these boys who barely had time to grow up before they were forced into a war. Who is going to save the soldiers? Who is going to save those Vietnamese children? Who is going to save the newborns whose inevitable future was to be drafted? How can our world progress without a new generation of young minds? Who is to blame?

Track five: God Is Love. Faith is where many people find shelter and solace. Just as some people leaned on drugs and sex when things got bad, others turned inward. Gaye sings of how God will forgive us for our sins, and all he asks of peace and that we love each other. “And when we call on Him for mercy, mercy father / He'll be merciful, my friend, oh, yes He will.” My takeaway from this song is that if everyone had dropped what they were doing, any wrong or unjust act, God would give mercy to the people. Again, this track sounds very similar to the others, but as I get deeper into the album, I think this is a purposeful decision. As the listener gets accustomed to the same sound, that jazzy, soulful, harmonic vibe, their focus turns more towards the lyrics (or at least it did for me). But, if we listen to the song without focusing on the lyrics,we we can pick apart each extremely detailed element. From the tambourine, the bongo, the double-tracking, the backup vocals, the string arrangements, the piano, just all of it. It’s meant to be heard and enjoyed, but the way those elements are composed still allows the vocals and lyrics to be the main display. 

Track six: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology). Right away, Gaye sweeps the listener off their feet with that sweet twinkling of a triangle, segueing smoothly into his message, “Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me / Ah, things ain't what they used to be / Where did all the blue skies go? / Poison is the wind that blows / From the north and south and east.” The way we treat our home is addressed here. He speaks of radiation, oil spills, mercury, and even overpopulation. There are so many ways we abuse our planet, now more than ever, but Gaye reminds us that it was happening fifty years ago too. “Oh Jesus, yeah, mercy, mercy me, ah / Things ain't what they used to be / Radiation underground and in the sky / Animals and birds who live nearby are dying.” This is not because of a need for survival, it never has been, but more so out of greed do we kill our planet to profit. What a beautiful way he described it too, we’re killing the animals. In God Is Love, Gaye sings, “And when we call on Him for mercy, mercy father / He'll be merciful, my friend, oh, yes He will.” In Mercy Mercy Me, he seems to use that as his plea. We must ask for mercy for killing ourselves, for killing our planet, for killing our own kind. The connection between those two songs is one of my favorite parts of the whole album, especially since the part about mercy in God Is Love is pretty much the end of the song, it just segues into Mercy Mercy Me with purposeful precision. 

Track seven: Right On. The guiro and flute take over this song, bordering on overpowering, but still stays within Gaye’s blueprint. Granted, I’m listening to it with headphones, and I’m barely paying attention to the lyrics because of how loud the scraping of the guiro is in my right ear. It works well with the song, but it seems to take away from the focus on the delivery I was talking about earlier. “Some of us were born with money to spend / Some of us were born for races to win / Some of us are aware that it's good for us to care / Some of us feel the icy wind of poverty blowin' in the air.” I do wish there was more attention brought to the lyrics because they’re just wonderful. The saxophone towards the end is absolutely divine, too.

Gaye is able to say things in a way that is observant in nature, never attacking anyone, never undermining anyone, and this song is a great example of that. He’s correct about so many things. Each time someone is born, they’re born into a life that they did not choose. Some get lucky and grow up in a big house and always have a comfortable life. Others are born into poverty, automatically putting the responsibility of working hard to be above it on their shoulders simply because life dealt them a bad hand. Of course, there’s always the flip side. Maybe the rich person has a terrible relationship with their family and has never known love like that. Maybe the poor person grew up in such a loving environment that there’s no hate in their heart. There’s always pain no matter the situation. The message I take away from this song is that no matter your class differences, your race differences, or any kind of difference between two people, the answer is to work towards having love for everyone around. Hate can only be overcome by love. 

Track eight: Wholly Holy. This song does not need anything fancy to back it up like the last one did. It’s soft and tender, almost a ballad, just a track to get lost in. Gaye was not a worship artist, from my understanding he had never written music in this way, worshipping his God and encouraging people to do the same, insisting that the only way to find true peace is by turning to Jesus. Although many people had faith at that time, it was a big deal to hear something so opinionated from someone who was known for having chart-topping pop songs. “Jesus left a long time ago, said he would return (believe it) / He left us a book to believe in / In it we've got a lot to learn.” It’s along the same lines as God Is Love, Gaye believed God was the solution.

Track nine: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Right off the bat, the bass line sweeps you off your feet, instantly allowing you to feel the groove of the song. This has become one of my favorites from the album. Every song I’ve had the thought, “He’s so right, he was really onto something,” and this was no different. “Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the have nots / Money, we make it / Fore we see it you take it.” We know that our country has seemingly infinite funds with the amount they’re able to spend on unnecessary things or give to other countries, and that’s still incredibly relevant to this day, if not the most relevant theme from the album. Why is it that we as Americans have to give the government money that we earned without knowing where the money is even going? Why did, in the past, they go and spend that on the moon landing? Is that what’s most important? What about the people starving? What about the families that can’t afford to live in a house? It’s so frustrating because you have no clue what cause that money is going to. I adore the line “ Money, we make it / Fore we see it you take it,” because it’s so true. You never get to see that money before it’s gone. “Oh, crime is increasing / Trigger happy policing / Panic is spreading.” Sounds a little bit too much like modern-day America. Why is our beloved country this way?

Marvin Gaye's “What’s Going On” is a work of genius through and through, one that has stayed relevant to the state of our country for far too long. This music, his soulful style, has touched so many people’s hearts and will continue to. His legacy will always be remembered through those nine songs, and many more as well. But, this work showed Gaye at his most transparent, his most willing to stick up for what he believed in. Maybe we should be taking notes from him. He seems to tell the American people to stay strong, leave hate behind, and fight for peace both inward and outward. 


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