On May 21, 1971, soul singer and songwriter, Marvin Gaye, released his seventh studio album, “What’s Going On,” with Motown Records. Straying from his original roots as a showman, Gaye changed his style to develop more socially-aware music, which sought to change the perspectives of American citizens.
The album itself is one of the most critically beloved records ever. On Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of all Time,” Gaye’s masterpiece is ranked sixth.
“Gaye has designed his album as one many-faceted statement on conditions in the world today, made nearly seamless by careful transitions between the cuts,” said Vince Aletti of the Rolling Stone following the album’s release.
It’s clear that Gaye’s voice is his bread and butter. His powerful tone and sensual voice gave him the title of the “Prince of Motown.” Yet, in “What’s Going On,” it is Gaye’s message that stands out.
The album was Gaye’s first attempt at a concept album, which is a compilation of songs and melodies that are meant to portray an overall message, theme or narrative. The record starts with a sound bite of a party in which there is a reunion amongst family members. It is later learned in the first song of the album, titled “What’s Going On,” that the party was meant to represent a reunion between a returning Vietnam soldier and his family.
A moment such as this happened in Gaye’s life. His brother, Frankie Gaye, fought in the Vietnam War; Their reunion influenced Gaye to construct the concept album.
The entire piece is told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran. Yet, it is not solely an album about the war that redefined the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Themes such as environmental consciousness, the continued injustices of African Americans and the suffering of impoverished black neighborhoods are prevalent.
What makes Gaye’s concept album so special is that the theme correlates with the most difficult point of his life.
As a Motown icon, Gaye felt restricted under the Motown formula that allowed him to find mainstream success, and he had the urge to expand as a musician. He was also struggling in his personal life. His marriage with Anna Gordy was falling apart, and the death of his close friend and singing partner Tami Terrell affected him greatly.
In addition, the country was experiencing hardships of its own. The Vietnam War was continuing to exacerbate the American public. Not only were people on the battlefield losing their lives, but people calling for action on the streets were dying. Gaye was concerned with the dangerous trends America faced, and little to none saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
“My phone would ring, and it’s Motown wanting me to start working and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?’ The murders at Kent State made me sick,” stated Marvin Gaye when reflecting on the album’s purpose. “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me. Neither did instant-message songs.”
Gaye was releasing music that encouraged change within his home country, but it also represents the more broad theme of community. In Gaye’s case, his community was the black individuals who lived in the roughneck neighborhoods of struggling inner-cities. He was the voice for these people during a daunting time when hardly anyone was able to provide their perspective.
To take a closer look at this idea, look at the lyrics of the ninth track of the record entitled “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”
“This ain’t livin/ No, no, no/ Inflation no chance/ To increase finance/ Bills pile up sky high/ Send that boy off to die/ Make me wanna holler.”
Gaye attempted to give a clear representation of the lives of the lower class, the dangers they are forced to face (especially during a time of war) and the complications that make their financial state even more frustrating.
So yes, Gaye made a political statement that causes people to consider the struggling African American community. But when dissecting the album further, you can see that Gaye ultimately showed the importance of community and the love and compromise it can bring.
He says in the first track,”War is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate.” This idea was certainly true in 1970, but it can also be applied to the conflicts that plague our nation today. And it has become more and more clear that love can be discerned through communities coming together and building a strong foundation. This is precisely what Gaye is pleading for in his work.