Meditation on art: What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

This article I originally wrote or a project organized by my brother that is a listserve of sorts of family and friends’ favorite albums which he sends out every week, accompanied by a write-up of why it is our favorite album.

What’s Going On
 became my favorite album when I was 16, a junior in high school, living in a very comfortable suburb of Chicago during the late 1990s. This was a musical era that was pretty much the opposite of soulful. Top singles in 1999, the year I discovered What’s Going On, included “Believe” by Cher, “Every Morning” by Sugar Ray, and “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” 

When I first heard What’s Going On, I was in a coffee shop in junior year in high school with my mom and my best friend Catherine while the three of us were visiting Montreal. An old man was goading the barista to play the record he was holding, which was What’s Going On. The barista first said no, jokingly and then took the album. A minute later the title track filled the room, and I was swept away. 

What’s Going On,” which many of you have likely heard, begins with some jocular talk between several guys (“hey what’s happenin?” “this is a groovy party man”  “we can dig it”). But the tone of the lyrics changes immediately when the music starts. The first lyric is “Mother, mother there’s too many of you crying; brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” 

Marvin first wrote “What’s Going On” as a single. Berry Gordy, the head of the record company that Marvin worked for, called the song “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” He and Motown’s quality control department (quality control?!) believed it was too unusual and too political to be released for the radio.

For Marvin this music was a complete departure from his earlier pop hits, like “Grapevine,” “Stubborn Kinda Fellow,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Like his peers at Motown records, he had worked during the 1960s under the rules of Berry Gordy. By the end of the decade, Marvin was restless:

In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. 

I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.


Eventually, someone at Motown sent the track to a bunch of radio stations without Gordy’s knowledge. Contrary to what Gordy had expected, the song became an immediate hit and Motown’s top-selling single of that time. Gordy was shocked but not prideful. Instead, he told Marvin he could have free reign to expand it into an album, as long as it was done in 30 days.

What Marvin produced was in many ways an indictment of America in 1972. Take, for instance the lyrics of  the second song “What’s Happening Brother?”:

Are things really gettin’ better, like the newspaper said?

What else is new my friend, besides what I read?

Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend

Money is tighter than it’s ever been

Say man, I just don’t understand

What’s going on across this land

These words are set against a striking mix of “strong jazz, gospel, classical music orchestration and arrangements,” as  the Wikipedia entry on the album says.

The effect is a strange and disconcerting mix of optimism and despair, compassion and aimlessness.

Later that weekend in Montreal, I bought What’s Going On at a used record store. I listened to it obsessively that year, as my siblings Arthur and Adele can attest.

As the interminable time between when the Donald P. McMahon Project began, back in May of 2011, and when I was actually scheduled to have my album spotlighted, wore on, I began to have second thoughts about choosing What’s Going On

Part of me wondered whether I really liked it as much as I once did, whether I was clinging it for sentimental reasons, as a way to stay in touch with a younger self that I had outgrown. 

So over the past year or so, I decided to give What’s Going On a few listens to see if the magic was still there.

And the truth is, the magic wasn’t really there, or at least not in the way I imagined it.

Where it once was kind of an escape for me, an album that took me away from the mundanity of suburban life, I found in the present that the lyrics actually pretty well resembled the times we live in, what with the stagnant economy, needless wars, and a culture often driven by greed and venality.

Listening to it now, I also appreciate the religious aspect of the album, the frequent invocations of Jesus and God, which had once made me slightly uncomfortable.

But the message is really that good will prevail even in dark times because love is more powerful than hate, compassion more powerful than cruelty. Take for instance the last track “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which begins its close with this bleak lyric:

Crime is increasing

Trigger happy policing

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

But then, Marvin’s voice re-emerges, lightly singing a stanza from ”What’s Going On” 
Mother, mother
Everybody thinks we’re wrong
Who are they to judge us
Simply ‘cause we wear our hair long”

I’m still not exactly sure what about the album grabbed me when I was 16, but I think it has to do with it’s genuineness as well as its beauty. In music or any kind of art, it is surprisingly difficult to communicate feelings in a way that can be understood and accessed by others. It is very easy to come off sounding trite or phony, or pretentious, even when that is not your intent.  What’s Going On is an artist realizing what he wanted to do in spite of pushback and having it succeed. And it didn’t just succeed for him, it succeeded for so many listeners, including me.