What's Going On
When Marvin Gaye brought the title track of 1971’s What’s Going On to Motown founder Berry Gordy, Gordy reportedly said it was the worst thing he’d ever heard. The music was too loose, the lyrics too political. Too political? Gaye countered. This is the 1970s: You’ve got the Vietnam War; you’ve got growing poverty and systemic racism; you’ve got an environment under threat. Even Elvis was singing protest songs (1969’s “In the Ghetto”)—why couldn’t Marvin Gaye?
The album’s genius is in its lightness. Songs drift and breathe; performances feel natural, even offhand—Eli Fontaine's saxophone part on the title track, for example, was recorded when Fontaine thought he was just warming up. As Sly & The Family Stone channeled their anger into into bitter funk (1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On), Gaye sublimated his in lush string sections and Latin percussion—signals not just of musical gentleness, but cultural sophistication. Even in the face of bleakness (the addiction portrait of “Flyin’ High [In the Friendly Sky],” “Inner City Blues [Make Me Wanna Holler]”), he floats.
The revelation is that political music doesn’t have to be confrontational—it can be mellow and inviting too, the province not just of radicals, but the same mixed, middle-class audiences that had been buying Gaye’s albums all along. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and as Gaye seems to say on What’s Going On, you don’t have to be a hippie to be worried by what you see—you just have to be human.