Music

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On Is a Political Decoy

Photo of Marvin Gaye, March 23, 1966 (J. Edward Bailey/Wikimedia Commons)
The Left misuses black popular music to distract from its power-grabbing radicalism.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, just named the greatest album of all time by a Rolling Stone magazine poll, has lost its original cultural meaning — which parallels the fate of America’s once-sacred black civil-rights movement. In 1971, following the emotional devastation of Sixties riots and anti–Vietnam War demonstrations, Gaye recorded the album to bring social consciousness to his popular R & B Love Man act. Now, many decades and social reforms later, What’s Going On is taken up by the liberal media as a wake-up call and positioned as a decoy to distract from their insidious political partisanship.

A song nobody cares about, such as John Legend’s Oscar-winning “Glory” from the movie Selma, is race bait, but Gaye’s title track “What’s Going On” is a decoy for the radical intentions of disaffected whites like the Antifa anarchists hiding their sedition and disaffection behind the ruse of Black Lives Matter. The song is no longer the black cri de coeur it used to be, but balm for hypocrites, especially the limousine liberals of leisure media like Rolling Stone.

Liberals secularize Gaye’s intent. His lyric “We have to find a way to bring some loving here today” anticipates what liberals say while ostracizing conservatives. They celebrate Gaye’s album for its social consciousness yet ignore its spiritual consciousness, just as spirituality is extracted from their politics.

Gaye’s black Christian embrace of all peoples is not appreciated by the album’s current fans; they’re insensitive to the soulful musings on track two –“What’s Happening, Brother?” — which is not Cornel West’s unctuous use of “brother” for everyone from Bill Clinton to Tucker Carlson, but genuine, R & B fraternalism. “When will people start getting together again?” Gaye asks.

From the album’s opening party vibe, Gaye offers a masterful blend of harmoniousness, the thing that the angry Left forbids. The album’s lack of harshness, its soft rhetoric and tenderly voiced petitions, do not match today’s tantrums — they contradict the violence and stubborn unwillingness to compromise or express empathy and compassion. What’s Going On is non-militant whereas the Black Lives Antifa movement has proven destructive. It is necessary to call out this BLA alliance in order to clarify the usurpation of black American social and spiritual aspiration by the plainly political, even satanic aims of social domination. This is key to understanding how Gaye’s entreaty opposes today’s inflammatory, anarchic rhetoric.

The album’s title bears no question mark even though liberal fans infer it. They overlook the lyric “Only love can conquer hate” to perpetuate the single-minded partisanship of that disingenuous anti-Trump slogan “Love Wins.” Similarly, track four, “God Is Love/Mercy, Mercy Me,” subtitled “The Ecology,” is taken to be about climate change — an outrageous misreading of Gaye’s ideational groove that’s all about maintaining spiritual balance, the song’s prayerful brotherhood and conviviality.

If you’ve seen a politician attempt to dance to win over votes, it’s always an embarrassing display of awkwardness and disconnection from common experience. You know that doofus trait if you’ve ever witnessed the privileged white kids on bikes chanting “Black Lives Mat-urrr!” There’s no way Rolling Stone pollsters who revere Nirvana’s Nevermind really appreciate the pure, smooth gestalt of track three, “Flyin’ High in the Friendly Sky,” which segues into “Save the Children.” The love-and-peace sentiments that Gaye distills to posterity (“Live life for the children”) are too optimistic for power-grabbers. When Gaye advises “Save our world that is destined to die,” he may sound like he just read that Seventies bestseller The Whole Earth Catalog, but he doesn’t sound like AOC.

In “God Is Love/Mercy Mercy Me,” Gaye’s plea “Go and talk about my Father,” expresses the Christianity that progressives have rejected. Yes, radio DJs often skipped the track’s first two minutes of groovy gospel, but ignoring it 50 years later is unacceptable. When Gaye sings “Things ain’t what they used to be,” he could be speaking directly to race hustlers Ava DuVernay and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who continue to want black people to think that current conditions are the same as they were in the Sixties and Seventies.

To hear only progressivism in “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” and “Inner City Blues” diminishes Gaye and underestimates his intelligence and sensitivity (like those who believe that the meretricious John Legend, real name John Stephens, is Gaye’s Millennial equal). Gaye’s art — his definitive Sinatra vibe — is heard on the jazzy, groove-oriented, seven-minutes-plus “Right On” (same title as the Last Poets’ proto-rap movie). It’s followed by “Wholly Holy,” where Gaye sings about salvation: “Jesus left us a book to believe in / We’ve got a lot to learn.” Neither Antifa nor Black Lives Matter would sign on to that.

The closing track, “Inner City Blues,” belongs to an already established genre of socially relevant black pop that Gaye would further personalize for his 1972 movie soundtrack Trouble Man (magisterially revived by Joni Mitchell), which corresponded with Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly anti-soundtrack (where the always conscious Mayfield challenged the ’70s drug epidemic, a problem the media ignore while excusing the junkies who predominate in Antifa). “Inner City Blues” surely influenced Stevie Wonder’s 1973 Innervisions and its neorealist track “Living for the City,” which can be heard as an extrapolation of Gaye’s lyric about “trigger-happy policing.” Note: It emphatically does not apply to the current anti-police rhetoric; Black Lives Antifa has disgraced the black communal history behind Gaye’s alarm.

***

As a Motown artist (Motown billed itself “The Sound of Young America”), Gaye was shrewd enough to lyricize the paranoia and self-righteousness of white dissidents, including it within black unease. His line “Who are they to judge us / Simply because we wear our hair long?” is smart pop, but not prescient. Neither is “Panic is spreading / God knows where / We’re heading,” which challenges an era that disavows a higher authority for the authority of its own Gnostic ruthlessness.

What’s Going On was of its time just as certainly as Gaye’s term “panic” does not describe our COVID situation, in which we’re ruled by tyrannical politicians and their colluding media. Only Morrissey has dared to record a song addressing citizens who take to fearful compliance. When Rolling Stone magazine exploits What’s Going On as a timely distress signal, the no-longer-hip publication becomes the journalistic equivalent of Joe Biden’s disingenuous “Come on, man!”

At the album’s mellifluous best, Gaye moves between observation and inquiry — but never protest. His emotional amplitude evokes a different sensibility and moral awareness than the generation raised on petulance knows. His consciousness was closer to Martin Luther King than Malcolm X; that’s why this album mentions God more than Al Sharpton ever does.

Subject to secular media’s impact, even fans of black pop are distanced from appreciating the cultural processes of faith, love, and perseverance that Gaye recorded. When an old VH1 talk show asked music industry pros about their favorite pop albums, What’s Going On was routinely cited as Gaye’s best. But panelist Mary Wilson, founder of Motown’s The Supremes, disagreed: “No, baby, it’s Let’s Get It On,” she insisted. And she didn’t mean “start the revolution.” Wilson knew what Gaye, her Motown peer, understood about life. Gaye’s conflicted eroticism — his personal secular-religious battle definitively expressed in 1982’s “Sexual Healing” — derived from the importance he placed on personal exchange and responsibility (not what leftist organizers misconstrue as “community”).

Gaye espoused a loving philosophy that has not been taught to those who believe dissent means that only they are right. The establishment media that heralds What’s Going On for its political purposes cheapen black American sense and sensuality. It’s part of an ongoing program that re-enslaves black life and art, reducing it to political utility. This is not rethinking the canon as Rolling Stone arrogantly states; it’s fickle self-congratulation which turns Gaye’s observations pietistic. A greatest album poll by the activist magazine The Atlantic would no doubt exploit Marvin Gaye and produce the same specious result: Black pop as a decoy for elitist power.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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