1. I am a big fan of lists.
2. I am a big fan of music.
3. Lists about music are my favorite lists.
4. High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies (a love story about music lists).
5. I don’t think Beatles albums should count when making a best-albums-of-all-time list.
If you have ever picked up a magazine, read an online article, or viewed a TV program presenting that medium’s list of the best albums ever, there are some standards and norms that you will see over and over:
1. A Beatles album will always top the list. Usually it is Revolver or Sgt Peppers.
2. The Beatles always get at least two albums on the list.
3. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is always on it.
4. No album made after 1980 will be on the list. Apparently, once the war on drugs began, music started going downhill.
5. Objectivity goes out the window and the list-maker begins offering obligatory nods to the gods of historic popular music…The Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, etc.
6. There is always one sort-of obscure album on the list that most people have not heard before here or there. Usually, it’s London Calling by The Clash.
7. You will never find a hiphop album on the list, certainly never a rap album.
8. Elvis, Springsteen, Joni Mitchell and The Velvet Underground always seem to just miss it.
9. There will never be an instrumental-only album on the list; probably not even in the top 25 (except maybe for Miles Davis). It’s like the makers of these lists never heard an amazing jazz, classical, blues or electronica album.
10. There are no women on the list.
Then, somewhere in the middle of the top ten, usually around number 5-8 will be What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. He is the only black artist in the top ten, which is amazing to me. Hendrix, Aretha, Miles Davis, Robert Johnson, Jay-Z, The Supremes, Sam Cooke, The Temptations, Louis Armstrong, Prince, Ella Fitzgerald, Public Enemy, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, BB King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson…none of these and many more outstanding black artists who made truly profound albums are ever on the list.
A few summers ago, I was reading one of these top-ten-albums-of-all-time lists, which had “What’s Going On” at number six, and noticed that fact for the first time — about the lack of black artists. I knew that Marvin Gaye was a Motown artist, and What’s Going On was released sometime in the late 60s or early 70s. My mom grew up in Detroit in the 60s and early 70s, and experienced firsthand the political and racial tension, including riots in the city and at her high school during that time, so I was naturally interested in her story as it might be heard through this album. I had heard the tracks “What’s Going On” and “Mercy, Mercy Me” before, and thought they were pretty great so I picked up the album to study.
This post is not going to be a report or even good overview of the story of the creation of the album. I am no music historian and couldn’t come even close to depth of story and information you’ll get here, or here.
I do want to share a bit about my experience and relationship with this album though — and thusly, Marvin Gaye — because it is a beautifully complex piece of art from an artist with a beautifully complex soul.
To begin, the historical context is very important.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were a time of bright hope in America:
1. World War II and Korea were over, the boys were back from war.
2. America was experiencing financial prosperity like it had never known.
3. The Bay of Pigs invasion did not result in nuclear war with the Soviet Union, so that was good.
4. Racial tensions were clearly present but also peacefully championed by a strong leader and preacher, Martin Luther King Jr.
5. John F Kennedy — a young, charismatic president promising hope and change — was in the White House.
6. The March On Washington in August 1963, with the MLK Jr’s immortal “I Have A Dream” speech, remained peaceful and seemed to be having strong cultural effect.
7. The leaders of the The March even got an audience with President Kennedy, who affirmed their cause and methods, promising civil rights legislative change.
1. In 1961 and 1962, troops were began to be committed en masse to an arising conflict in Vietnam.
2. In June 1963, Medgar Evers was assassinated.
3. In September 1963, four black children were killed in the racially-motivated bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.3.
4. In November 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated.
5. 1965 is the generally accepted start to American involvement in full-scale war in Vietnam.
6. In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated.
7. The country was deeply divided and strongly conflicted regarding the war in Vietnam from its beginning to the end (1965-1973).
8. From 1964 to the release of the album in 1971, race riots were erupting in major cities all over the country. Rochester, New York, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, San Francisco, Newark, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Jackson, Camden…the list goes on. (If you want your mind blown, listen to this episode of This American Life, reporting on the causation of these riots. I promise you will not regret it.)
9. The worst of these riots was in Detroit, July 1967. 43 people were killed, almost 1200 injured, 72oo arrested, 2000 buildings destroyed.
10. 1968 was the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the high point of conflict and massive American casualties in Vietnam.
11. The Cold War was in full swing. The threat of all-out nuclear war was an ever-present fear in the American mind and heart.
11. In April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
12. In June 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
13. In November 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president, immediately escalating America’s involvement in the Vietnam.
In Marvin Gaye’s own life during this time:
1. Marvin’s brother, Frankie, was deployed to Vietnam, returning home with horror stories that moved Marvin to tears.
2. Marvin deeply wanted to release a protest album — or at least a protest song — but it was not the Motown way. His creative directors stymied his every attempt. Motown was to be about positivity and love, not politics or conflict.
3. Marvin had come to be known as an R&B sex symbol of sorts. He wanted to change this image, but did not see how he could without creative freedom.
4. Marvin’s long time singing partner Tammi Terrell died from a brain tumor in the spring of 1971.
Marvin was in a rough place that spring of ’71. When Marvin’s friend Obie Benson dropped the beginnings of the song “What’s Going On” in his lap with the caveat that Gaye be the one to finish and perform it, the platform for Marvin’s protest song appeared. Gaye poured himself into the creative process, channeling all his emotion an heart into that song, so much so that the song could not contain it. So the song became an album… a truly great, prophetic, culture-changing album.
The decision to study this album was a good one. For me it was revelatory, and I highly recommend you give it some space in your life. I listened to this album for six months straight and it opened for me a window into my mom’s story as a girl growing up in public school Detroit, into the story of civil rights, into the story of our collective broken history, and into the story of this artist who believed in hope in the midst of the harshness of his experience.
Here are my two main reflections:
1. Marvin Gaye writes and sings like someone who believes music can change things. It’s a Holy Grail of sorts in the music world, this idea of a song that can change the world. Mozart believed this, John Lennon believed this, Beastie Boys believed this, Bono believes this, Bruce Springsteen believes this, Matisyahu might believe this, Janelle Monae might believe this…that the perfect song at the perfect time can make change happen. With this album, I think Marvin Gaye did it. Ask any person who was an urban kid in the 60s and 70s if “What’s Going On” changed people. I was certainly changed by it.
2. The nature (and genius) of the album is to take a small, trite phrase and build a profound thought process around that group of words. Look at the list of songs:
What’s Going On?
What’s Happening, Brother?
Save The Children
God Is Love
Mercy Mercy Me
Inner City Blues
Two greetings: What’s Going On?, What’s Happening, Brother?
Three responses: Flyin’ High, Mercy Mercy Me, Right On
Three church phrases: Save The Children, God Is Love, Wholy Holy (Holy, Holy)
Typical track title from a southern black musician: Inner City Blues
All of these phrases are just things we get used to saying. They pour out of our mouths without a second thought as to the fact that the most simple statements often make the most profound points. At this moment in Gaye’s life — personally, politically, culturally, racially, spiritually — he really, genuinely wants to know: What is going on? What is happening?
His life is in turmoil.
His friends are dying.
His country is divided.
His people are discriminated against.
His label wants to squelch his voice.
His image is no longer who he wants to be.
His city is in upheaval.
He takes the familiar phrase you would hear from an old grandmother, “Mercy, mercy me,” and uses it to actually call down mercy on himself. The questions of the heart behind typified responses like “flyin’ high” and “right on” shine in the lyrics and music of those tracks. Gaye’s heart burns to to save real children, to reclaim a true, victorious love that is God (a beautifully soulful prayer on the album), and to make us church-folk rethink the language we have so cheapened in Wholy Holy.
The blues of the inner city are worth singing, and while Motown would rather focus on candy pop love songs and positivity, Gaye insists that you see and hear the real-time affects that war, grief, rage, fear, division, discrimination and hate are having on real people in real cities all across America. The power in his silky smooth voice is only accentuated by the dynamism of his poetry and the deep expression of the musicians who joined him in crafting this creative offering.
The best thing about this album is its theme of hope. Gaye makes you timelessly see and feel your own realities, stare them in the face, and then offers hope as you stand facing those truths. “What’s Going On” is a beautiful testament to the power of music, the power of art, the power of artistic vulnerability and the power of hope.