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Why Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ is still a sign of the times

Most famed for his iconic 1968 rendition of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ and his wonderfully sensual 1982 single ‘Sexual Healing’, Marvin Gaye was one of the most seminal singers of his generation and left an indelible mark in Motown and soul during his tenure.

The titular track of his critically acclaimed album What’s Going On is him at his most politically and socially conscious. The single characterises an LP which has Gaye responding to the turbulent USA of the 70s, with its political corruption, racial tensions, conflict concerning attitudes towards sex, and an unjust Vietnam War to boot.

Impressively, despite its subject matter being birthed from tragic circumstances, the song has an air of hope and warmth

A song which record executive Berry Gordy felt was a complete misfire upon recording, and one which initially wasn’t meant for Gaye to sing individually, ‘What’s Going On’ was his call for solidarity in a world he felt was spiralling into chaos. Little did he know though that this track would only become increasingly appropriate as time wore on.

Impressively, despite its subject matter being birthed from tragic circumstances, the song has an air of hope and warmth. Portrayed, in part, by the hubbub of pleasant chatter that bookends the piece, as well as Gaye’s spontaneous scatting and vocalisations littered throughout. This enables the listener to indulge in the sentiment of the track due to its infectious atmosphere, instead of engaging primarily out of obligation because of its admirable message.

The song is beautifully arranged. The lovely saxophone introduction injects some classiness into the piece, and the string arrangements provide richness too. It’s particularly apparent in the latter half of the track, where the strings swell and nicely carry the vocal melody along with the listener at the third verse and second chorus. Despite this, the grooves are expertly intact with the bongo percussion and the nifty bass-work adding to the song’s swagger. The vocal arrangements are delightful too with Gaye’s ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ providing backing vocals at the chorus that sell the wholesomeness of the piece, and generally they give the track a level of vitality apt for such a song. Needless to say, it’s the ideal foundation for the terrific lyrics and lead vocal.

Gaye’s vocal performance is the prime reason why this song isn’t corny or cheesy. It’s splendid in its charisma and self-assurance, as well as being nicely temperate and melodic with the right emphasis at the right notes at the right time. This displays how his sentiment isn’t forced nor contrived – it’s clear he was sincere about his message.

Here the lyrics are poetic in their universality, which is partly why the track is so appropriate today. When Gaye sings: “Mother, mother there’s too many of you crying/ Brother, brother, brother there’s far too many of you dying”, the epithets in “mother” and “brother” are inclusive enough to account for many sectors of the population irrespective of time and place. The allusions to hysteria and violence also subtly convey the turmoil present in the US then, but unequivocally allows the current anarchy we are all embroiled in concerning politics, race relations and the coronavirus to resonate.

Ultimately, ‘What’s Going On’ encapsulates the troubling times we have found ourselves in for so many years

The lyric “Father, father we don’t need to escalate” is equally clever. Though referencing the USA’s misconduct in Vietnam, it can represent the growing mismanagement of power that plagues western politics, which is predominantly led by men, ever since including presidential scandals, unjust involvements in warfare, and the absurdity that can arise from partisan politics at times.

The chorus is simply superb though. Gaye alludes to activism (“picket lines, and picket signs”), violence (“don’t punish me, with brutality”), and the desire for communication (“talk to me, so you can see”) which are realities that are still well and truly alive this current year especially surrounding racial movements like BLM, economic and political dichotomies, and discussions about sexual orientation and sex work. The refrain “What’s going on?” couldn’t be any more salient given how this current year has been and still is nightmarish – rife with confusion, hurt and disconnection for various reasons.

Gaye‘s call for unity in singing: “for only love can conquer hate” is quite poignant, since in 50 years we have not only failed to unify, but arguably become more divided on a larger scale.

Ultimately, ‘What’s Going On’ encapsulates the troubling times we have found ourselves in for so many years. Gaye’s yearning for togetherness is far from passé, given these bewilderingly tragic times, and if the world keeps going where it’s heading it’s inconceivable how this splendid song can cease to be relevant.

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