Marvin Gaye really was a sex symbol of the 1960s, but with the release of "What's Going On," he became more than a star. He became somebody who people felt they knew, identified with, and even struggled alongside. He became a symbol of complexity and vulnerability. He was also, at least for a period of time, the psychological center of soul music, which took the God-loving gospel style out of the church and into the world of secular pop. But behind his sparkling image, a history of abuse as well as a deserted evangelical piety fed both his musical explorations and his gradual personal deterioration. He was a pop star with stage fright and a superstar who believed no one loved him. "How did he ever get there?" researcher Harry Weinger wondered about the brilliance of Gaye's career. "It's a miracle he got there, and then what he did with it!"
Part of what makes Marvin Gaye such a lasting influence is the three-fold nature of his psyche: sex, God and politics obsessed and troubled him in almost equal parts. His genius was even more multi-faceted: he had a skill for collaboration, stylish vocals, composition, music production (which he discovered on "What's Going On," his first self-produced track), and he also rocked out on every instrument he picked up (he played drums, piano, and whatever suited his whims in the studio). His struggles combined with his genius came to define his music. His music was all about love, but Marvin was driven by a lifelong sense that he lacked just that.
Weinger summed up the key to "What's Going On" in the context of Gaye's overall work: "Marvin is a never ending source of artistry and fascination, because everything is great. Everything. And you read the books, you hear stories about his struggles with women, pushing against Berry, and going with the flow of the sixties, using his craft and his skills, and then he starts to push a little. What comes out of that?"
We've got the answer to Weinger's rhetorical question. It's "What's Going On."