Study Guide

What's Going On

What's Going On Introduction

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

ArtistGaye, Marvin
Year1971
LabelMotown Records
Writer(s)Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye
Producer(s)Marvin Gaye
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)
Learn to play
AlbumWhat's Going On

Music Video

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Influences on Gaye, Marvin

Frank Sinatra
Smokey Robinson
Nat "King" Cole
Sam Cooke
Ray Charles
Bo Didley
James Brown

Influenced by Gaye, Marvin

R. Kelly
Stevie Wonder
Robert Palmer
Gregory Abbott
Chico DeBarge
K'Jon
Sleepy Brown
Tina Marie
Threshold
Steve Spacek
Peabo Bryson

What's Going On Resources

Books

Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye, by Michael Eric Dyson (2004)
Rather than attempting another complete biography, Dyson focuses on Gaye's passions and demons, putting them in the cultural context of the times, and of Dyson's own childhood.

Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, by David Ritz (2003)
This is considered to be the definitive record, at least so far, of Marvin Gaye's enigmatic life.

Albums

What's Going On Deluxe Edition (1971/2001)
This is a collector's item including alternate mixes and live takes of some of the best songs on the original album.

Let's Get It On (1973), Remastered
After he released What's Going On, Gaye was on a roll. This album, his most erotic to date, came out the next year.

Number 1's: Marvin Gaye (2007)
A compilation of his greatest hits from throughout his career including "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Sexual Healing."

Images

High Fashion Marvin, ca. 1971
Gaye was blessed to live in a different time, fashion-wise.

Album cover photo
This image of a stoic Marvin looking towards the sky brings out both his evangelical past (his father was a pastor) and his 1970s, black-power-influenced present.

Marvin Gaye, the hippie
Gaye's look during the 1960s and 1970s was usually more polished and traditional than most hippies, but he had his moments.

Movies & TV

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye (2006)
This is an in-depth documentary that details Marvin's traumatic childhood and tumultuous relationship with his father.

Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing: In Performance 1964-1981 (2004)
This DVD of live performances is a promising choice for fans.

Marvin Gaye: Behind the Legend (2004)
A short and incomplete view of the late life of Marvin Gaye that focuses on his career's decline and his time living in Ostend, Belgium.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
This documentary is a fantastic and fascinating exposé of the untold story of The Funk Brothers, the under-credited Motown musicians who played on "What's Going On."

Websites

Marvin Gaye page for Rolling Stone
From the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, 2001. Rolling Stone has named Gaye among the best singers and best artists of all time, and What's Going On among the best albums of all time. This is their profile of him as an artist.

Motown Slideshow
An audio and photo slideshow that briefly cruises through the fascinating musical history of Motown. "What's Going On" is named as Motown's number one most important song.

The Marvin Gaye Page
A fansite with lots of good basic info.

"Will Smith Refuses to Play Marvin Gaye in Biopic"
By World Entertainment News Network, April 2010. This is just a little teaser for a yet-to-be-released feature film about Gaye. Will Smith is great, but seeing him play Marvin might have been distracting because, well, he's Will Smith. We hope they find someone equally talented but more obscure.

Video & Audio

"What's Going On"
Just the original track.

"What's Going On/What's Happening Brother" Live
There is nothing like seeing people dressed up for live performance in the 1970s.

"Mercy, Mercy Me (The ecology)"
Marvin claims he didn't even know what "ecology" meant before he wrote this song. Though he never completed high school, he was clearly a quick learner.

Interview with Gaye from late in his life
He speaks on everything from his famous national anthem performance to sex, love, and considering suicide.