To understand how big a departure What’s Going On was for Marvin Gaye, a person only has to listen to the songs he had recorded up to that point in his career. Gaye was perhaps the main piston in the Motown Records engine in 1971. If Motown had an assembly line approach to making records, Gaye was the voice of the assembly line. Motown staff members wrote and produced his songs, and Gaye used his soulful vocal ability to entertain the masses.
Nobody can argue with the assembly line’s results. Through the company’s guidance, Gaye was the voice for such classics as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You,” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” Gaye also sang several hit duets with Tammi Terrell and Kim Weston. In just a few years, Gaye experienced more success than most performers enjoy in an entire career. However, in his heart, Gaye was simply too independent a man to remain an assembly line worker.
By the early 1970s, Gaye was ready to use his clout as the most popular male singer at Motown to get more artistic freedom. The result of this power struggle was this album. On What’s Going On, gone were the lightweight two or three minute singles mostly associated with Gaye. Motown had dealt with topical issues to a degree, but not like Gaye did on this album. When listening to these songs, a person can literally hear this man’s heart bleeding.
What’s Going On is a deceptive record on first listening. The songs have a seductive groove enhanced by full orchestration and hints of jazz and gospel music that seem more soothing than anything else. Gaye used this sound to much success throughout the rest of his career, most notably on his last major hit “Sexual Healing” in the early 1980s.
However, even a casual listen to each song’s words show an artist in conflict with the world around him. The world’s problems overtake everybody at some point, and this was one of those times for Gaye. He surveyed his world on this album, and he hated what he saw. War, poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, failed relationships, tax problems and more swirled around him. But the album’s tone is not accusatory like somebody waving a finger in a person’s face. Sorrow and heartbreak for a world gone wrong is the heart of this album.
The title track sets the tone for what follows. The song’s melancholy words are swept along by a fluid groove. As the old Disney song said “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” The likeable musical arrangement allowed Gaye to reflect on society’s problems without alienating the listener, and the album’s title track became a major hit.
“What’s Happening Brother” was a reflection on the Vietnam War. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Want to Holler)” communicated the despair of ghetto life. “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” detailed environmental abuse, while “Save the Children” wondered about the neglect of children.
However, Gaye found comfort and refuge in his faith on songs like “Wholy Holy” and “God Is Love.” An undeniable spiritual element enveloped this album, even on the songs that dealt with bleak subjects. Compassion is a central ingredient that runs throughout all these songs, which is at the heart of Christianity. Gaye revealed himself to be a very tenderhearted person on this album. Some artists embrace causes only to appear relevant, but genuineness graces each song here.
Taking a risk is a very difficult thing to do for all people. It requires making yourself vulnerable, and since it is human nature to want to be in control, people often shy away from doing it. This is especially true for rich and popular people because it makes them put in jeopardy their relationship with their audience. If an artist alienates his audience, making a living becomes much more difficult.
However, Gaye rose above those concerns on this album. Part of being a visionary is being willing to pursue truth regardless of the consequences. An artist’s vision is a form of truth. To hear music in his head that was completely different from what his audience expected had to have been scary in some respects. But Gaye listened to the sounds and maintained his artistic integrity. His obedience resulted in a remarkable album, which maintains its place in American culture long after his death. I guess the word to describe it is: timeless.