What's Going On
In a Nutshell
Take a polished pop star who doubles as a popular sex symbol, mix him with a hot button social issue, a lot of marijuana, and what might be the best back-up band in music history, and you have Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, What's Going On
. It would be like Beyoncé doing an anti-war single. Or like Justin Timberlake putting out a concept album about climate change. And if either of them ever attempts something like that, their success would be measured against Marvin Gaye's – that is to say, they'd have their work cut out for them.
About the Song
||Musician(s)||Marvin Gaye (lead and background vocals), Mel Farr and Lem Barnery (background vocals), The Funk Brothers (instrumentation and spoken interlude), Detroit Symphony Orchestra (instruments), Dave Van DePitte (arrangements)
|Album||What's Going On|
|Writer(s)||Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye|
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
The title track on What's Going On
is a profound outcry against some of the most immediate political troubles of the day. Popular sentiment against the Vietnam War
was at an all-time high. The protest culture of the late 1960s
and early 1970s had deeply influenced Gaye and many of the people around him, especially because of Motown's inevitable connections with the black power movement
. And some of Gaye's biggest heroes, namely Sam Cooke
, had sung powerful songs of protest in the not-so-distant past. The political climate was perfect for a meeting of pop soul music with soulful social commentary
On the Charts
"What's Going On" peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Hot Selling Singles in 1971.
"What's Going On" was named the #4 greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone.
Not surprisingly, the Motown-produced track was also named the #1 greatest Detroit song of all time by Metro Times
.What's Going On was rated
the sixth best album of all time by Rolling Stone
. The UK-based Guardian/Observer
named it the greatest album of the 20th century.
In 2003, a cover of "What's Going On" by Chaka Khan and members of the Funk Brothers won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. The track was recorded for the documentary Standing In the Shadows of Motown