A Look At the Marvin Gaye classic, ‘What’s Going On’ & Examining Why It’s Still Relevant
While many albums may be considered “classics,” few truly live up to the hype. Fewer stand the real test of time, and never really merit a second listen. They may feel dated, too far removed or detached from our daily experience to be truly appreciated. Some, however, reach another level, becoming not just classics, but eternal, their messages reaching decades of fans and generations of listeners without losing any of their original power. If now were a time for the rediscovery of any classic album, perhaps none could be more perfect than Marvin Gaye’s 1971 opus, What’s Going On. Few albums can truly capture a moment in time, while remaining completely timeless themselves. Fewer still reflect the artist’s inner turmoil, confronting the listener and challenging them to alter their perceptions. Now, more than ever, the aptly entitled What’s Going On deserves another listen. Recorded forty years ago during the social and political nightmare that was the early seventies, it was the first time in his career that Gaye had complete freedom on an album, working as co-songwriter and sole producer.
Marvin Gaye took this artistic license and, rather than churn out the more radio friendly Motown hits of his past, chose to explore what he saw as the major problems facing American society, including the Vietnam War, poverty, drug addiction, and environmental destruction. Sound familiar?
With America in the middle of yet another unpopular war, an economic crisis leaving millions unemployed, oil still poisoning the Gulf, and, most recently, a nuclear crisis in Japan, Gaye’s message may be more prescient than ever.
Filled with biting political and social commentary, often running the gambit from hopelessness and elation, it was Gaye’s most personal album to date. Deeply affected by his brother’s accounts of his service in the Vietnam War, Gaye composed “What’s Going On”, perhaps the most famous protest song ever recorded. A catchy, socially conscience pop song was pretty much unheard of at the time. In fact, Motown was apprehensive about releasing it, thinking that it might be a little too political for audiences to swallow. Continuing the cycle of war-related material, “What’s Going On” fades into “What’s Happening Brother”, a funky yet heartbreaking account of a soldier’s return home from the battlefield. The stunning lack of reception for these men coming back from Vietnam really bothered Gaye, and although the track is rather short, it eludes to several issues affecting returning veterans, including the lack of employment, and, as some have pointed out, the lingering dangers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This theme of mental anguish continues in what is most definitely the darkest of the album’s songs, “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky).” While Marvin Gaye was often dodgy concerning the song’s literal meaning, in the listener’s minds there is no doubt that it deals with the ravages of heroin addiction, a problem that has increased tenfold since the time of the recording. Over the years we have seen countless studies conducted by the US State Department dealing with the reintegration of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, suicides accounted for more US Army personnel deaths than combat related incidents. And even though this country has witnessed the harsh treatment of Vietnam vets, the homelessness and drug addiction that often accompanied their mental suffering, little has yet to be done in the way of treating them. Though these people lay down their lives for their country, the funding for their treatment always seems to be far and few in between. In many ways, Gaye’s tunes of the wayward soldier coming home to a strange and alien place in 1971 doesn’t sound so far off.
On “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Gaye becomes somewhat of a prophet, lamenting on man’s destruction of the environment. Although these concerns were not really in the forefront of popular thought, Gaye sought to bring these issues to light in what was perhaps the first major artistic recognition of the dangers of oil drilling and nuclear fallout. Listening to it now can be chilling, like an eerie warning from some soul-driven time machine. In 2011, we’re certainly seeing just how destructive human interference can be. As for the oil spill in the Gulf, the jury is still out on if and when the levels of toxicity will ever reach a safe level. Similarly, last week’s tsunami and quake in Japan, while both devastating and horrific in their own rights, have unleashed a new kind of hell on the people as the Fukushima nuclear reactor is emitting dangerous levels of radiation in the surrounding area. The long term effects of this incident remain unclear, yet there is little hope for any normalcy in the near future.
The album closes with the haunting, dreamlike “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, in which Gaye reflects on the crumbling of the inner cities. Ironically enough, the entire recording took place in Detroit, one of the cities most affected by the 2008 recession. A recent census stated that nearly 25 percent of the population has left as of 2011, the once booming center of the American auto industry now resembling a post-apocalyptic ghost town. Unfortunately, the plight of the working class has only worsened in recent years, and Motown itself has bared the brunt of America’s economic woes. At his darkest, Marvin Gaye seems doubtful of the very future of America, expressing his sorrow for future generations on “Save the Children”.
Yet while What’s Going On is quite a dark album, somewhat of a soundtrack for the disenfranchised, there is an underlying sense of hope. Marvin Gaye’s eternal message of love and understanding permeate on a number of tracks, including “Right On”, an upbeat Latin groove celebrating the joy of economic, political, and racial unity, and “God Is Love”, exulting the forgiving and cleansing powers of religion. On these tracks, it’s as if Marvin Gaye is putting his hand on our shoulder, ushering us with love and care through the storm. That is, after all, what he strived for most in his life: universal love. You can hear it everywhere in his music, even during those instances when he dwells on the darker side of existence. The album is a classic for a reason. It showcases with incomparable grace and beauty the very best and worst that life has to offer. Perhaps in these uncertain times, we should all stop and ask ourselves the very question that Gaye forced us to ponder forty years ago: What’s going on?