‘What’s Going On,’ Fifty Years Later

Mural featuring singer Marvin Gaye in Washington, D.C., January 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A timeless Marvin Gaye song and album still speak to us.

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye was in a dark place. Despite his musical successes in the 1960s, the Motown legend was struggling financially (with the IRS, and with his record label), personally (with drug addiction, and with his marriage to Anna Gordy, which would soon end), and musically (Tammi Terrell, his collaborator on such songs as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” had died of a brain tumor at 24). Gaye attempted suicide; only a timely intervention prevented it. He considered trying out for the Detroit Lions; players he knew advised him against it. Gaye seemed spent, despondent.

All the while, however, he was preparing a musical masterpiece: “What’s Going On,” released 50 years ago this week. But even this song, which became a huge hit, was a struggle to produce. Motown head Berry Gordy was skeptical; its lyrics focused on contemporary discontent (and were in fact inspired by police brutality), then unusual for a Motown song. But its success gave Gaye the leeway he needed to create an album with it as the title track, released later in 1971 to much acclaim. Its reputation has survived the test of time: Last year, Rolling Stone named it the best album of all time. Rankings can be subjective. But it’s hard to deny the musical merit of What’s Going On — or a relevance that is at once refreshing and bracing, with a message as worth listening to 50 years later as its music.

What’s Going On is, in certain ways, a culmination of everything Marvin Gaye had learned and done with Motown up to that time. Its lush production, with strings and saxophone expertly incorporated in indelible melodies, bears a strong imprint of that studio’s sound, already famous by then for churning out hit after hit. Gaye puts his incredible vocal range to work in each song, switching from sultry and smooth to pure anguish as needed. It’s obviously an album that builds on what came before.

But it’s not just in the lyrics that What’s Going On distinguishes itself from other Motown material, great as that material was and remains. You get it first in the titular opening track, whose opening “notes” aren’t notes at all but rather a busy array of speaking voices, making the listener feel like he’s just walked into a party. And once the music begins, with its soaring strings carrying along Gaye’s smooth-or-straining singing, you hear another strange touch: The vocal is double-tracked, but one track lags behind the other. You hear Gaye’s voice twice, either for emphasis — or to introduce a sense of discord, a tension, into a song that remains highly pleasurable listening thanks to Gaye’s pure musical talent.

“What’s Going On” not only literally invites the listener into the album, but introduces its concept: an examination of contemporary life, particularly of African Americans. All was hardly well for black America in 1971 — a respect in which this album remains unfortunately relevant — and Gaye does not shy away from that. We see the struggles of the nation through a soldier just returned from war (“What’s Happening Brother”), through a drug addict (“Flyin’ High in the Friendly Sky”), and through other characters and perspectives. Though they are “Inner City Blues,” as identified by a later track, and it’s important not to deny them as such, as with all great art, the particular speaks to the universal. The economically distressed of all eras, including our own, find something sadly recognizable in the returned soldier’s plea for work: “Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend/Money is tighter than it’s ever been.” And too many nowadays have become familiar with the drug-user logic Gaye limns:

And I ain’t seen nothing but trouble baby

Nobody really understands, no no (help me, somebody)

And I go to the place where good feelin’ awaits me

Self-destruction’s in my hand

Oh Lord, so stupid minded.

And last year, many might have found depressing, almost recurrent relevance in some of the album’s closing lyrics:

Crime is increasing

Trigger happy policing

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Gaye’s social consciousness should not be downplayed; it should, in fact, be celebrated, for its relative novelty at the time and for the musical skill with which he advanced it. But it would be a mistake to interpret What’s Going On as simply an angry cry from the inner city. It is that, yes, but also much more: a truly heartfelt cry for compassion, for sympathy, for common understanding, and, above all, for love. Indeed, it’s all over the album, starting on the title track, where Gaye practically begs, “We have got to find a way/to bring some loving here today.” The soldier, struggling to find work for himself, nonetheless finds time to look at the chaos around him and ask, “When will people start getting together again?”

And it is not merely “love” as a kind of abstract pablum Gaye calls for. It is true understanding, one that renders its opposite powerless, as “only love can conquer hate.” It is a kind of universalization of the person-to-person love songs Gaye and Motown had made so famous in the prior decade. It is a love rooted in biblical exhortation. “He made this world for us to live in, and gave us everything/And all he asks of us is we give each other love,” Gaye sings on “God Is Love.” And it is a love that ought to be measured by this standard. As Gaye sings on “Wholy Holy”: “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.”

Fifty years later, America is in a hard place, not too dissimilar from where both the nation and Gaye himself were just before the release of “What’s Going On.” And much of our struggles seem to have arisen from the lack of the kind of compassion, sympathy, and understanding that Gaye calls for on What’s Going On. We could use some of those things today, and the album could help us get there. With a little luck, and a little love, maybe it could help us get through to better things to come.


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