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Meaning

The executives at Motown Records didn't want "What's Going On" on the airwaves. Motown's CEO, Berry Gordy, had already said it was the worst record he'd ever heard and flatly refused to release it. He was irritated with the song's musical tributes to jazz and nervous about making something political (Michael Eric Dyson, Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye, 61). According to his own account, here's what he told the prince of Motown: "Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career? Why do you want to put out a song about the Vietnam War, police brutality and all of these things? You've got all these great love songs. You're the hottest artist, the sex symbol of the sixties and seventies…" (Dyson 61).

Despite Gordy's strong position, in 1970 the sex symbol of the sixties and seventies dug his heels in and refused to make a single new recording for Motown until the tune was released. After a year-and-a-half long stalemate, some lower execs at the company snuck "What's Going On" out of the studio and onto the air without telling the boss.

Before Gordy even knew what had happened, "What's Going On" sold 100,000 singles in one day and received 100,000 reorders. The profiteering Motown Records founder did a 180 without blinking an eye. Within a week, he was literally begging Gaye to make a whole album supporting the song, saying "I may not like it, but I need a million more like it" (Dyson 62).

The title track was only the beginning of a cascade of concept-album brilliance from a star previously known primarily for good looks and easy listening. The album, framed as a long lament told from the perspective of a young Vietnam war veteran, boldly defies many previous Motown standards: the album is jazz-influenced and brainy, there are many songs longer than the usual 3-minute limit, and the songs are written as a series of connected thoughts that are musically and conceptually coherent (most of Motown's pop fare was written to be released in single format). Most importantly, it is a social issue album that talks about race and human suffering. While hopeful and sweet in its own way, the album was hardly a collection of uplifting Motown ditties.

When Marvin Gaye, Motown's biggest hit-maker, joined the chorus of millions of young people who were speaking out against war, poverty, violence, and environmental destruction, he went against the grain at Motown. Gordy founded the record company in 1959 with the explicit intention of making pop hits, bringing his experience working at Ford Motor Company with him as inspiration. Henry Ford focused on a sleek, polished product, consumer ease, and predictability at the expense of individuality—and so did Hitsville, the unapologetic name of Motown's studios in the motor city. Gordy was interested in producing what he thought people wanted, at the expense of artistic control. Though it might not seem like a promising artistic approach in some ways, the philosophy produced a series of influential hits that brought black voices into America's mainstream. The polished, poppy, and bright sound of Motown is familiar to most of us today.

Born in 1939, the young Marvin Gaye was a musical prodigy, charming and eloquent, famously late and even more famously stubborn. He escaped a harsh childhood in Washington, D.C., housing projects under the hand of his father, a violent and abusive evangelical pastor. Gaye came to Motown in 1959 seeking a boost in his musical career, and quickly made a romantic contact with his first wife-to-be, Anna Gordy—Berry Gordy's sister. Gordy resisted Marvin's stubbornness but fell for his talent. Though Gaye first recorded on Motown as a drummer in Smokey Robinson's back-up band, by the mid-1960s he was a hit-maker in his own right.

Gaye's collaborations with other artists were a huge part of his career, and in the mid-60s he found his match in young singing prodigy Tammi Terrell. As race riots tore apart the streets of Detroit, Gaye and Terrell rode high on their biggest hit to date, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Months later, the 21-year-old Terrell collapsed during a performance and found out she had a brain tumor. While Terrell's health slowly declined, Gaye released big hits like "Heard It Through the Grapevine". Terrell, his greatest collaborator ever, died in early 1970, and Gaye went into a funk so deep that he didn't return to the stage for five years.

Marvin's deep funk corresponded with an even deeper funk pervading the country's political landscape. The U.S. war in Vietnam, initiated in 1961, had dragged on through multiple presidencies and countless deaths. In May 1970, in the immediate wake of Tammi's death, the news spread that four young anti-war protestors had been killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. Days later, two more protestors were murdered at Jackson State University in Mississippi. In January 1971, a Gallup poll said 59% of Americans believed that the U.S. had made a mistake by sending troops to Vietnam. Marvin's own brother, Frankie, was overseas in Vietnam, having been drafted against his will, and by that time over half of Americans personally knew someone who had died in the war. The country spit out songs of protest and political consciousness, while Gaye "withdrew into existential rumination and musical brooding" (Dyson 46).

Events like the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, one of the most destructive urban uprisings in U.S. history, deeply moved the sensitive singer: "I remember I was listening to a tune of mine playing on the radio, 'Pretty Little Baby,' when the announcer interrupted with news about the Watts riot. My stomach got real tight and my heart started beating like crazy. I wanted to throw the radio down and burn all the bull---- songs I'd been singing and get out there and kick a-- with the rest of the brothers. I knew they were going about it wrong, I knew they weren't thinking, but I understood anger that builds up over years—s---, over centuries—and I felt myself exploding. Why didn't our music have anything to do with this? Wasn't music supposed to express feelings? No, according to BG [Berry Gordy], music's supposed to sell. That's his trip. And it was mine" (Dyson 91-92).

By 1970, Gaye wanted to push the envelope. Undeniably, the successes of 1960s civil rights helped propel Motown into fame and fortune. Motown probably also aided the civil rights organizers by dazzling white audiences with all-black stars on a black-owned label. But when Motown's brooding star told Berry Gordy that he wanted to do an anthem for world peace as his next release, the call was initially denied flat-out. Gaye was right: Gordy didn't think it would sell, and selling was what mattered. Notoriously independent-minded, Marvin Gaye simply dug his heels in. It was "What's Going On," or nothing. He refused to record another song for Motown until the single was released.

Gaye connected personally with the song, but it was also the product of another one of his collaborations. Obie Benson, a member of Motown's"Four Tops" singing group, had seen protestors in San Francisco getting beaten up by police. As he tells it, he thought to himself, "What's going on?" It disturbed him, and drove him to co-write the first version of the song with his upstairs neighbor Al Cleveland.

"See, it's really a love song," Benson says. "These people had so much love, and the police were just beating them because they were hippies. Then we were sending people over to war, and they didn't want to go. And there were mothers who had that experience in their lifetime of sending their offspring off to fight. So that question had to be answered" (Dyson 53-54). Benson and Cleveland brought the song to Marvin, reworked it as a group, and convinced him to record it as his own song. 

With the release of "What's Going On," Marvin Gaye almost immediately became "deep" in the eyes of the world, a three-dimensional icon instead of a two-dimensional one. His new image fit the mood of the times, and Motown also got a big hit out of it. Gordy insisted on more, and Gaye gave it to him—on the condition that he had total artistic control over his record. Artistic control for musicians was almost unheard of at Motown, and suddenly Gaye wanted the process to be centered on the artists, on ideas, and on the passion for social justice that emerged out of his own experience as a black man growing up in urban America.

New and surprising though it was for Motown, Gaye's plan worked. Motown's downstairs recording studio was known as "the snakepit" for the intense competition between artists and the rigid approach of producers. According to cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson, by the end of making What's Going On, Gaye "had transformed the Snakepit into a sanctuary of progressive jazz-influenced black music." The album that Gaye and the Funk Brothers laid down in merely 10 days' time was polished, conceptual, and socially relevant to boot.

"War is not the answer, only love can conquer hate," Marvin crooned. Maybe that doesn't seem so profound now, but the album achieved classic status almost immediately. Gaye had his finger on the pulse of his listeners, and he asked the simple question that even the politically disengaged couldn't help but ask: "What's going on?" By asking that question, brought himself closer to his listeners, and expressed anger and frustration about the times coupled with a more innocent bewilderment and call for peace. The album has a message, but the message is down-to-earth and intimate, portrayed through jazz licks, gentle beats, and Gaye's soothing, emotional tenor. Rather than being on the receiving end of another political message or list of demands, listeners struggle through the issues of the time alongside Gaye and the Funk Brothers. Dyson called the album a "talisman"; Smokey Robinson called it "the greatest album of all time."

In some sense, this peak in the singer's artistic life may have been the beginning of the end. Gaye's career after "What's Going On" was a series of ups and downs, still littered with hits like "Let's Get It On" and "Sexual Healing." He went from pushing the musical and political envelope to pushing the sexual one, struggling publicly with the politics of free love and his own desire to balance his strict religious background with his sexual desires. But he also struggled throughout with a severe addiction to cocaine, a tortured relationship with his father, and a messy second marriage that included violent outbursts on his part. After a 3-year self-imposed exile in Hawaii and Europe, Gaye ended up living back with his parents in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Gaye was paranoid and suicidal, driven to distraction by his emotional demons and mostly unable to work. In a horrifying turn of events, Gaye was shot to death by his own father during a fight the day before his 45th birthday, in April 1984. People say the tortured singer had a death wish, tragically fulfilled by the very man who brought him onto the earth. Marvin's mother was present during the shooting, adding a special poignancy to the opening lines of "What's Going On": "Mother, mother mother/There's too many of you crying."

Because of "What's Going On," the image of Marvin Gaye is inseparable from the memory of the era of war protests and black power, but he also endures as a sex symbol and pop superstar. It's hard to imagine a pop star these days bridging that gap quite so smoothly—maybe it was his good looks, or maybe it was the times, but Gaye made the leap with style. He knew that you didn't have to be Huey Newton to advocate for social change in your own way.

"You know what bothers me?" Marvin Gaye said to a radio reporter in the early 1970s. "It bothers me tremendously to see us sit around and look at the people virtually destroying us, and pretending that it's okay. I cannot understand how we human beings can let a few powerful men in the world treat us like cattle, and insensitive people, and robots. We're programmed, we're sensitized, we're Big Brothered, and we're police stated. We have no fight, we seem apathetic…I don't see why so many people in the world are allowing a few men to destroy our civilization…Stand up and say, 'We people who love to live the simple life, who love the sun and the air and the birds and the bees, whom you people don't seem to have any regard for…' Somewhere, somehow, it has to be stopped, or we're gonna all be destroyed and very soon, perhaps in my lifetime."

Or, to paraphrase: "Right on, baby…what's going on?"
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