What’s Going On In Retrospect: Understanding Marvin Gaye’s Hope for the Future Fifty Years Later
In May 1971, amidst political and cultural turmoil across the United States and around the world, Marvin Gaye released his seminal album What’s Going On. Despite initial doubts from Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, the album received critical success across the board, breaking from the traditional pop mold of Motown’s catalog to date. In the fifty years since its original release, What’s Going On has been noted as one of the most important albums of all time, with the Rolling Stone ranking it at number one on their 2020 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. While emblematic of the social strife and injustice of the time, What’s Going On contains themes and commentary that remain hauntingly relevant in our contemporary context. Fifty years later, we should be able to reflect upon the album simply as a nostalgic innovation in American popular music rather than as a representation of the present. However, despite Gaye’s intentions to draw attention and incite action aimed at fixing the issues he discusses, the album instead took on a prophetic nature, foreshadowing the continued struggles of our contemporary moment. To fully understand the impact of the album fifty years since its initial release, it is important to delve into both the context behind its creation, the messaging within the album, and then evaluate how that messaging remains relevant in our contemporary context.
On May 15, 1969, Ronaldo “Obie” Benson and the rest of his group, The Four Tops, arrived in Berkley, California to witness “Bloody Thursday” at UC Berkeley’s People’s Park. Like the Kent State protest just a year later in May of 1970, People’s Park “Bloody Thursday” was a day marred by mass police violence against student protestors, injuring up to fifty people and killing one. After witnessing this violence, Benson and Motown lyricist, Al Cleveland, sat down to write a song that would capture the pain and confusion that plagued the United States in the late 60s and into the 70s. Upon its completion, Benson and Cleveland pitched the song to the rest of The Four Tops, who rejected it on the premise of the song being too political, and then later to Joan Baez who also turned it down (Rolling Stone).
Eventually in 1970, they brought the song to Motown’s shining star, Marvin Gaye, who, while experiencing immense personal turmoil, was looking to shift his public image away from that of a pop heartthrob and take greater control of his career (Rolling Stone). Through the late 60s and into 1970, Marvin Gaye was overtaken by a profound depression due to struggles with his first marriage and his personal conflictions about his growing success, limiting his ability to perform live. This depression was exacerbated by the death of Tammi Terrell, his duet partner and close friend, in March of 1970. Terrell’s death had an immense and lasting impact on Gaye, causing him to reevaluate the music he was creating and take greater personal control over his career. It also caused a tonal shift in Gaye’s music, altering it from romantic, up-tempo pop songs to darker, more introspective pieces like the ones released on What’s Going On. To Gaye, the country’s political and cultural strife, paired with his personal spiritual and emotional struggles prompted “the strong urge to write music and write lyrics that would touch the souls of men,” (Pollard 24:27-24:34). “What’s Going on”, was released as a single in January of 1971, after original pushback from Berry Gordy regarding the song’s political nature. Despite Gordy’s concerns, the song was met with critical success, prompting him to give Gaye the greenlight to craft a full-length album to support it.
The production of “What’s Going On” as a single was revolutionary for Motown at the time. Produced by Marvin Gaye himself rather than by a Motown in-house producer, the song threw away the traditional Motown sound and replaced it with one that was darker, funkier, and more soulful. While the song still includes the Motown Funk Brothers, a group of session musicians who worked on several important Motown releases, Gaye also made a point to bring in the Detroit Symphony to overlay strings over his arrangement. Having attempted to join the Detroit Lions in the late 60s, he became good friends with several players, who were then featured in the song’s introduction, in what sounds like a party amongst old friends. Overlaying the party is a saxophone solo performed by Eli Fontaine. Unbeknownst to Fontaine who believed he was simply warming up, Gaye was recording, and this warm-up became the iconic saxophone solo that sets the tone for the remainder of the song (Kot and DeRogatis).
From its opening, the lyrics of “What’s Going On” invites the listener into a conversation with Gaye to reflect upon the experiences of people all over the country who had been affected by the Vietnam War. The opening line, “[m]other, mother / There’s too many of you crying” reflects upon the number of mothers who had lost their sons to the war, emphasizing a perpetual state of grief (What's Going On 0:17-0:24). Directly following the grief of these mothers, he addresses their lost sons, with “[b]rother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying,” (0:25-0:33). Later, drawing from the experience of witnessing police violence at People’s Park, Benson and Gaye comment on the brutality used against protestors of the War. Overall, the song establishes a key message that drives the remainder of the album—"only love can conquer hate,” (0:58-1:02). For Gaye, love is seen as a form of salvation and establishing this theme in What’s Going On’s introduction allows his audience to carry that message through the following eight songs, representing a hope for love despite the darkness that Gaye grapples with throughout the album.
From a contemporary lens, the song’s themes take on a new meaning when applied to Black Lives Matter protests from the summer of 2020. Aside from lyrics such as “[p]icket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality,” that can represent violence inflicted upon BLM protestors, Gaye’s address to mothers and their dying sons can also represent the lives lost and families torn apart by racially charged police violence that disproportionately targets Black Americans (What's Going On 1:14-1:23). The reapplication of “What’s Going On” from a song about the human toll of the Vietnam War into a song about the human toll of white supremacy and police violence hauntingly echoes Gaye’s worldly observations discussed later in “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” showcasing the continued prevalence of violence in the United States.
“What’s Happening Brother” continues the conversational narrative of “What’s Going On”, this time from the perspective of a soldier returning home from Vietnam, namely based on conversations between Gaye and his brother, Freddie. The song reflects the confusion of returning soldiers, who were leaving a warzone overseas and returning to a political and cultural battleground in the United States. At the start of the war, the US was in a period of economic prosperity; however, after funding the war for nearly a decade, a number of vast political changes, sweeping protests, and the deaths of nearly 60,000 American soldiers, the United States that Freddie Gaye and many other veterans had left was not the one that they were returning to. In the first verse, Gaye begs the question, “[w]hen will people start getting together again?” (What's Happening Brother 0:44-0:50). This question of peace is a frequent theme throughout the album, in the form of both physical peace as well as spiritual peace and is largely emphasized in the LP’s latter half. The second verse reflects the abysmal treatment of returning veterans, who rather than being met with a Hero’s Welcome, were met with disdain and quickly forgotten. “Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend / Money is tighter than it’s ever been” reflects both the neglect of returning veterans but also places an emphasis on the economic toll of the war (1:09-1:18). The third verse takes a lighter tone than the previous, focusing on the small joys of American life, such as ball clubs and dance halls. The veteran asks if even these seemingly little things had changed since his deployment or if they would still be able to provide the same comfort that they had before the war. Finally, the song ends by once again asking the listener “what’s happening brother,” calling them to keep the question in the back of their mind as they continue through the album (2:03-2:05).
The album’s third song “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” shifts the listeners focus away from the plight of Vietnam veterans and instead turns our attention to what is left of America. Looking to draw attention to the growing heroin epidemic that was impacting Black communities across his city of Detroit as well as across the country, Gaye plays upon the United Airlines slogan, “fly the friendly skies,” to paint a harrowing picture of addiction (Kot and DeRogatis). While never explicitly referring to heroin, it can be inferred in towards the end of the second verse in the lines “[w]ell I know I’m hooked my friends / To the boy who makes slaves out of men,” which draws a metaphor between slavery and the harrowing physicality of heroin addiction (Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky) 2:46-3:03). In the song’s two verses, Gaye sets up a juxtaposition in his depictions of this addiction, first saying that the drug takes him “to the place where danger awaits me” (0:43-0:47), while in the second verse referring to it as “the place where the good feeling awaits me” (2:09-2:15). This juxtaposition addresses the complexity of addiction and how a drug as painful and dangerous as heroin can simultaneously be used as a way of escaping the pain around one’s self. This song also introduces the reader to a level of self-reflection that the previous two songs had not. Rather than reflecting upon a state of affairs, Gaye looks inward. This allows him to better explore his own spiritual identity and frame of mind later in the album.
From “Flyin’ High”, we then move into “Save the Children,” a powerful plea to save the world for future generations. Gaye asks his audience “[w]ho really cares, to save a world in despair,” a question that acknowledges the difficulty of trying to fix something when there is seemingly no hope for it (Save the Children 0:03-0:11). This sad reality is reflected later in the verse when he asks “[w]ho is willing to try? / To save the world, / That’s destined to die,” a haunting reflection that draws on the perceived inevitability of world destruction (0:52-1:11). Gaye pleads to his audience that while “we can’t stop living” (2:00-2:05), we can begin to “live life for the children”, acknowledging that while it is too late to save ourselves, we still have the power to save our children (2:21-2:29). This plea, while directed at Gaye’s own peers, can be reevaluated as a modern generational call to action, crying out for contemporary audiences to prioritize not only their own self-interests, but the interests of future generations.
The sixth song on the album, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” takes on another angle of human destruction, focusing more on the environment than the self. Thise song also stands out in its messaging, because despite the creation of the EPA and the establishment of Earth Day both occurring within the year and a half before Gaye released What’s Going On, environmental issues weren’t seen as a pressing topic for most Americans who were still in the midst of dealing with the war in Vietnam, rising poverty rates, and a rapidly spreading drug epidemic (Kot and DeRogatis). Regardless of public discussion, Gaye saw the environment as an urgent problem and “Mercy Mercy Me” acts as a song of mourning for the destruction of our planet. Each of the song’s four verses begins with the somber “[m]ercy, mercy me / Things ain’t what they used to be,” before addressing pollution, oil spills, radioactive waste, and overpopulation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) 0:12-0:20).
The ninth and final song, “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, is arguably the most complex song on the album, circling through themes of violence, poverty, and war that are seemingly spread throughout the album. The song, which originally began as a joke about not wanting to pay taxes between Gaye and his cowriter, James Nyx Jr., eventually evolved into a powerful evaluation of American values (Kot and DeRogatis). The first verse of the song questions government spending and how it furthers existing inequities, taking a jab at the exorbitant funding given to NASA in the late 60s and into the 70s: “Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the have-not’s,” taking on the tension between the poverty of inner-city communities, largely communities of color, and government funding being spent of seemingly less important issues, like space travel (Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) 0:41-0:50). “Money, we make it / Before we see it, you take it,” critiques the high tax rates that contributed to the funding of NASA while simultaneously feeding into the poverty that was ravaging inner-city communities (0:51-0:59). With this verse, Gaye and Nyx Jr. aimed to draw attention to the fact that while American cities like Detroit were crumbling due to economic disparity, the United States government was funneling money into a war that was gaining disapproval with every passing day and other programs that weren’t directly benefitting the American people (Kot and DeRogatis). This is reemphasized in the second verse, where Gaye directly calls out US funding of the superficial ‘war against communism’ in Vietnam, observing that while “[b]ills pile up sky high,” the United States government proceeds to “[s]end that boy off to die” (Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) 1:31-1:40). Gaye comes back to this critique of taxes in the song’s third verse, stating that the “[n]atural fact is (Oh, honey that) / I can’t pay my taxes,” bringing together the original joke between Gaye and Nyx Jr. while also working to reinforce Gaye’s critique of US spending (2:39-2:47).
The fourth verse of the song draws on the intersectional relationship between the financial disparities from the previous two verses, and adds in elements of police brutality, first mentioned in “What’s Going On” at the start of the album. As poverty increases in inner-city areas, so does fear and desperation, leading to an increase in crime rates as people do whatever is necessary to keep themselves and their families safe and alive. Rather than addressing the systemic causes of these issues, local governments over police these communities, creating a positive correlation to “[c]rime […] increasing” and “[t]rigger happy policing” (Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) 2:58-3:08).
The chorus of “Inner City Blues” is just as powerful as its four verses. Each of the three choruses is a variation of “[o]h, make me wanna holler / The way they do my life” (1:00-1:04). This hollering is a result of building social pressure, where the only release available is through crying out, an idea which is mirrored 43 years later in Cynthia Rankine’s book, Citizen. About a third of the way through the book, Rankine notes that “[o]ccasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out—[t]o know what you’ll sound like is worth noting—” (Rankine 69).
The primary distinction in the choruses is the final chorus right before the fourth verse, which shifts to “[o]h, make me wanna holler / And throw up both my hands” (Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) 2:47-2:52). This chorus and its placement before a verse about police brutality is a haunting image in the wake of the 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose murder shook the nation and popularized the use of the phrase “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as a rallying cry against injustice. While Gaye, who died thirty years before the murder of Michael Brown, inadvertently created a tie between his song and contemporary police brutality, his act of “throw[ing] up both [his] hands” was likely more of a sign of physical and spiritual exhaustion, demonstrating him physically crying out to God for salvation (2:50-2:52). The song ends with a reprise of the third verse of “What’s Going On”, which contains a critique of the political mistreatment of counterculture movements based on characteristics that are arguably irrelevant to one’s character, such as long hair. This brings the album to a close and draws the listeners attention back to the main question of the album: what’s going on?
Salvation is the final theme of What’s Going On, demonstrated primarily in the fifth and eighth songs, “God is Love” and “Wholy Holy”. These hymns are critically placed before “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, creating a juxtaposition between the beauty of God’s creation and how humans have seemingly crafted their own hell from it. “God is Love” praises God for the world he has given us and the forgiveness that He and Jesus have granted humankind from their sins. Gaye places an emphasis on what he believes to be the key tenet of God’s teachings—that “we give each other love,” a statement that actively retorts the violence and hatred that was causing mass destruction around the world (God Is Love 0:29-0:38). The song fluidly transitions into “Mercy Mercy Me”, a transition that could easily be missed if the messaging of the two songs weren’t in direct contention with one another. Where “God is Love” praises God’s merciful nature, “Mercy Mercy Me” calls upon it, crying for mercy from the human destruction of His Earth.
Gaye repeats this juxtaposition with the pairing of “Wholy Holy” and “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”. “Wholy Holy” calls upon the power and strength that impacts the whole self when individuals come together in service of the Lord. To do this, Gaye proposes, “we’ve got a lot to learn” from Jesus’ teachings of peace (Wholy Holy 1:31-1:38). The second verse preaches an idea of radical love and encapsulates the greater message of the entire album:
“Oh Lord, we can conquer hate forever, we need him Wholy We can rock the world’s foundation Everybody together, together and holy Will holler love, love, love across the nation” (1:48-2:38)
This sense of holy togetherness creates a radically different holler than the one created in “Inner City Blues”. Rather than crying out for salvation in a state of physical and spiritual weariness, “Wholy Holy” hollers for a man-made salvation, granted in the form of peace and care for fellow man. “We proclaim love, our salvation,” marks the powerful end of “Wholy Holy” and the beginning of the transition into “Inner City Blues” (2:48-2:55). These hymns seek to reestablish love at the core of the human experience, using the rest of the album to evaluate how love has gotten lost in the pursuit of material wealth and political power. Gaye wants to remind his audience that it is not enough to wait for heaven in the afterlife; as humans, we should be striving to build the world in God’s image, creating a culture of peace, love, and care in our communities now. These hymns demonstrate the spiritual lens from which Marvin Gaye analyzed his world. He chose to find hope in the darkness but was not blinded by faith to the ugliness in the world around him. He sought to use What’s Going On to push his audience to have faith in the world but not to lose sight of the issues facing our communities.
What’s Going On is, at its core, a call for action shrouded in hope for the future, but fifty years later, there are still critical arguments to be had about the progress we have made as a country towards this vision. During the album’s creation, it likely never occurred to Gaye that rather than stepping up to the plate to take on these pressing issues, American society at large would ignore the warning signs of looming disaster, leaving them to fester and worsen over the last five decades. It is easy to write off the album as just another great piece of art, and while that is true, What’s Going On is so much more than that. Within the album’s nine songs, Marvin Gaye lays out a roadmap for social change, one that is easy to miss without thoroughly evaluating Gaye’s messaging. This album’s continued violent relevance is a shameful reminder of the toxic social aversion to change that has plagued the United States since its founding.
While 2020 brought its own set of unique problems, the largest takeaway in the last year has been the dramatic highlighting of existing injustices across the United States. Existing economic disparities, which have evolved from the same inequities that Gaye highlights in “What’s Happening Brother” and “Inner City Blues,” have become more glaringly apparent through US treatment of ‘essential workers’ and the failures to deploy proper economic safety nets for vulnerable communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, have sparked a massive resurgence in conversations regarding police brutality and systemic white supremacy. Black Lives Matter protests being targets of police violence echo the chorus “What’s Going On”, with the lines “[p]icket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality” (What's Going On 1:13-1:22), and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police demonstrate how “trigger happy policing” is still violently engrained within American society (Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) 2:58-3:08). The struggles with heroin addiction that Gaye details in “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” are still dangerously prevalent in the United States. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared the Opioid Epidemic a public health emergency, and in the 12-month period between June 2019 and 2020 alone, 14,480 Americans died from heroin overdoses. Finally, the Earth is still ravished by war and climate change, with either issue seemingly only worsening as each year passes.
With all that in mind, the United States has still come a long way from where we were as a country in 1971. While we still have a long way to go, a tremendous amount of progress has been made in the fight for racial equality and representation in the last fifty years, with our first Black President, our first female, Black, and Asian Vice President, and our first Black Secretary of State. Furthermore, the 117th Congress, who were just sworn in in January 2021, is the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress in history, with 23% of its members identifying as either racial or ethnic minorities. Next, with young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg, as well as policy efforts such as the Green New Deal, there is hope that one day, we will be able to successfully combat climate change and begin to “[l]ive life for the children” as Gaye pleads (Save the Children 2:21-2:29). Lastly, advocacy for greater funding and support of social safety nets, as well as the more widespread use of mutual aid funds, sparks hope that at least from the ground level, Americans are pushing for a more economically just society.
In conclusion, Marvin Gaye had a lot of hope for the progress of the United States, and 50 years later, we are still fighting towards his vision for a better, more loving world. The album serves to remind its contemporary audience that we no longer have the option to ignore the warning signs of disaster—we must collectively strive to make What’s Going On a snapshot of its historical moment rather than a current examination of social strife. In the grand scheme of things, the United States is still a young country, and the last 50 years have only made up a fifth of its history. We still have a long way to go, but this anniversary provides us the perfect opportunity to reflect on our progress, evaluate our future, and continue to ask, What’s Going On?
Bingham, Clara. The Battle for People's Park, Berkley 1969: When Vietnam Came Home. 6 July 2019. June 2021. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/06/the-battle-for-peoples-park-berkeley-1969-review-vietnam>.
Gaye, Marvin. "Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)." What's Going On. By Anna Gordy Gaye, Marvin Gaye and Elgie Stover. Motown Records, 1971.
Gaye, Marvin. "God Is Love." What's Going On. By Anna Gordy Gaye, et al. Motown Records, 1971.
Gaye, Marvin. "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)." What's Going On. By Marvin Gaye and James Nyx Jr. Motown Records, 1971.
Gaye, Marvin. "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." What's Going On. By Marvin Gaye. Motown Records, 1971.
Gaye, Marvin. "Save the Children." What's Going On. By Renaldo Benson, Marvin Gaye and Al Cleveland. Motown Records, 1971.
Gaye, Marvin. "What's Going On." What's Going On. By Gaye Marvin, Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland. Motown Records, 1971.
Gaye, Marvin. "What's Happening Brother." What's Going On. By Marvin Gaye and James Nyx Jr. Motown Records, 1971.
Gaye, Marvin. "Wholy Holy." What's Going On. By Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland. Motown Records, 1971.
Kot, Greg and Jim DeRogatis. "#571 Marvin Gaye's *What's Going On*." Sound Opinions. Chicago: WBEZ Chicago, 6 November 2016. Podcast.
Marvin Gaye: What's Going On. Dir. Sam Pollard. PBS. 2008.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.
Rolling Stone. The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. 22 September 2020. June 2021. <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/best-albums-of-all-time-1062063/bob-marley-and-the-wailers-legend-2-1063185/>.
Schaeffer, Katherine. Racial, ethnic diversity increases yet again with the 117th Congress. 28 January 2021. Pew Research Center. June 2021. <https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/28/racial-ethnic-diversity-increases-yet-again-with-the-117th-congress/>.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic? 19 February 2021. June 2021. <https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html>.