“An artist, if he is truly an artist, is only interested in one thing and that is to wake up the minds of men, to have mankind and womankind realize that there is something greater than what we see on the surface.” –Marvin Gaye
What’s Going On is the 11th studio album by the “Prince of Soul”, Marvin Gaye. It is the finest work of Mr. Gaye’s legendary career, an album that blazed the trail of social commentary in music, and challenged the notion of the place of celebrities in relation to social issues. This concept album is beautiful, thoughtful, solemn, and hopeful. One of the exemplary albums when it comes to showcasing the power of the human voice, a quintessentially American album, a timeless classic whose relevance is just as strong 50 years after release as it was in 1971, and one of the greatest albums ever released. The power of this simple, 35 minute long record derives from one simple question, one that has yet to be answered a half of a century later: What’s going on?
This month’s theme is all about celebrating the power of the human voice, and, of course, Marvin Gaye has an incredible voice. Today’s blog, though, is not about using one’s voice to make beautiful song, rather, it is about using one’s voice to speak their mind, to affect change, to challenge the hearts around them, and to really say something important. Marvin Gaye was a man who, for 14 years, sang beautiful soul songs for Motown Records. More often than not, Marvin was singing love songs, songs to be danced to, sing along duets, and other easy to listen to pieces of entertainment. The man was a big star, a staple of black entertainment, a suave and sexy entertainer who was known as just that: an entertainer. Early in 1970, though, this icon of popular music saw something that would awaken within him something greater. Upon watching police beating black kids who hadn’t done anything wrong Marvin couldn’t help but wonder: “What’s going on?” One thing led to another within Marvin as he continued to think “What is happening here?” and “Why are we sending kids across the world to die?” Feelings built up by the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, police brutality, poverty, and pollution came to a breaking point as Marvin watched what was only a microcosm of a plague affecting America, the nation over. The famous artist and entertainer focused his talents into making a new album, one entirely unlike any he had made before. The man decided to use his status and his voice not to try to sell records and entertain people but to make the world around him better. That album was What’s Going On, the subject of today’s blog.
What’s Going On is a concept album in which most of its tracks blend straight into the next. If you aren’t paying attention, you may not even realize that it’s a new song at all, at least not for the first 6 songs that made up side 1 of the vinyl. The album was written to be more of a story than just a man telling you how he feels, and Marvin’s story is told through the eyes of a young man returning, damaged, from the shores of Vietnam to see hate and violence on the streets of his beloved homeland. The titular opening track is considered to by many to be a protest song but Marvin himself rejected that notion. “It’s a love song” he would say, and the same would go for the entire album. Marvin approaches his subject material with some amount of positivity, convinced that love and understanding will heal the world. Interestingly, Mr. Gaye does not place blame or villainy on any person or group. He remarks that war is hell and laments the unnecessary violence the world over, among other things, but never does he condemn then president Nixon, or anybody else for that matter. Instead, Marvin turns to spirituality, suggesting that if we all lived our lives as Christ called us to the world would be a far better place. In the 2nd verse of “God is Love” Marvin says “Don’t go and talk about my father, ‘Cause God is my friend. He loves us whether or not we know it and He’ll forgive all our sins. And all He asks of us is we give each other love.” A simple message, and, as the world is today, an impossibility. But Marvin knew that and his saying that God and love are all that can save us wasn’t so much a call to action as a reminder. What’s Going On does not offer answers because there is no clear answer. He points out the flaws, laments the destruction, fears for the future and the youth in “Save the Children” (the children to whom he refers are the people of my parents’ generation) and weeps for mother nature. But Marvin knows that he doesn’t have the answers. Nobody does. Sadly, a half of a century later not only has Gaye’s question gone unanswered, but in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the political division from the last 5 years, and the polar ice caps melting more each day, What’s Going On is as relevant as it as ever been.
Marvin Gaye’s 1971 seminal concept album has proven itself to be a timeless classic. It doesn’t contain the greatest vocal performances we’ve ever heard, the most intricate instrumentals, the finest production, or the catchiest songs. What this album contains, what gives it such power, what earned it the top spot on Rolling Stone Magazine’s recently updated 500 greatest albums list is what Marvin has to say. Marvin Gaye, as a figure, stepped down into vulnerability much like Sinatra did on In the Wee Small Hours, but instead of lamenting a personal love lost, Marvin laments for a love altogether absent the world over. What’s Going On exists outside of time or place, now, but if the late great Marvin Gaye could have it his way, I’m sure he’d rather have its relevance end with the 70’s. But here we are, year after year facing the same hardships and evils that have plagued us for generations. Maybe someday we’ll find an answer to Marvin’s question, but now it seems that the youth have moved onto a new question, one that I’m sure Mr. Gaye would find heartening: “What can I do to make it better?”
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” -1 John 4:12