What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye which was released in 1971 has a greater significance due to its socio-political implication. It has topped the Hot Souls Singles Chart for around five weeks and got the position of number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Furthermore it has been a widely successful song with 2 million of it copies sold. Originally the song was co-written by Benson, Al Cleveland and Gaye Marvin himself. However, it was produced by Marvin himself. It also topped Detroit’s Metro Times list among the 100 greatest songs of all time. In addition to that, the Rolling Stone ranked it the fourth greatest song of all time.
The significance of the song
The member of the Motown group, The Four Tops’ Renaldo Obie Benson got the inspiration when he witnessed the police brutality and violence on the protestors of anti-war. He felt disturbed and discussed his experience with his songwriter friend Al Cleveland. The latter suggested him to write a song which would reflect the former’s concern for the situation. At the first instance, Benson approached his band mates for producing this song together but they all declined citing that it was a protest song. Later, in the 70s, he presented the song to Marvin Gaye for its production. As soon as Gaye got his hands on the song, he refined it by adding his own lyrics and changing the melody altogether. Benson was happy with the rendition and mentioned that the modified version was more natural and ghetto thereby giving it a story like structure. Gaye later admitted that he too was influenced by the social evils happening around him, especially the 1965 Watts riots in the Los Angeles. He also expressed his concerns about the sociopolitical scenario around him which prompted him to write protest songs instead of just romantic songs. He also had a conversation with his cousin who served at the Vietnam War as soldier troops. All these incidents deeply moved him and prompted him to produce this song, “What’s going on”.
Analyzing the lyrics of the song, it can be found that it has a wide message to the audiences about peace, love and harmony in the times of hatred and violence. The lyrics starts with addressing everyone with mother, brother and father indicating universal brotherhood. It sends a message to everyone for the restoration of love and stopping hatred, war and violence towards humanity. He said, “War is not the answer” and emphasized on love to be the only solution to heal. In the third stanza, he addresses the authorities or most probably the right wing extremists to not punish him with brutality for protesting or for not conforming to the propaganda done by the government. He asked them to talk to him, and try to see what he sees, and then only everybody will understand what’s really going on. This statement gives us a deeper message of trying to understand the differences that exist between individuals. This rejects the idea of rigidity and to make an effort to understand each other with compassion and love. The anti-establishment factor of the song cannot be denied as it is a kind of protest song which essentially points out the brutality of the police sponsored by the state at various instances mentioned above that prompted the writers to pen down this song. In the fifth stanza, it also points out at the discriminatory nature of humans when they see something that is beyond the social conventions. As for instance, the society judges people with men having long hairs and have a stereotypical notion of being cheeky, malicious and disrespectful. Therefore, the writer is straight in pointing out that even if we have long hairs, who are they to judge? He also ended this line by saying a way needs to be found out in order to bring understanding.
The entire song reflects the radical transformation of the society and also emphasizes the black protest movement. It raged against the state sponsored violence against the protestors and became one of the influential songs of all time. The lyrical relevance can be found at all ages and is an important revolutionary song.
The music and critical reception
The music of the song has a unique blend of mournful and rejoicing attitude which makes the song an interesting creation by Marvin Gaye. The doleful music is heavily contrasted with the loud chatter of the voices depicting a celebratory mood. Critics like Vince Alletti said that the lyrics were hardly brilliant but it’s the music that puts the magic charm in the entire song. The song gained massive success and was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 1972 in the best arrangement accompanying vocalist and the best male R&B Vocal Performance. However, it failed to gain any award for these categories. Apart from that, it was listed as one of the few best songs by many forums, singer-songwriters, magazines, music companies, etc. It has also topped many of the music charts, greatest hits and likewise multiple times. It can be said that the song has a massive influence on the then condition of the society which stood up against various injustice, hatred and intolerance against civilians.
The entire song is significant and will be an important song in the coming ages sue to its inclusiveness and strength in societal change. It can be used in various contexts, especially in a revolutionary aspect, where the common people will rise against the authoritarian injustices. It is the duty of the common people to rage against the establishment at harsh times. The African American rose against the white supremacy which resulted in a song like “What’s Going On”. Similarly, it can find its lyrical importance in various instances and would be an important song in the mass protest. A song which has the power to shake the societal norms and challenge the status quo is definitely holds an important song in the history. This song “What’s Going On” too has successfully been the face of the protests and have been an influence among the audiences.