The legendary musician Marvin Gaye has produced some timeless classic hits over his musical career. However, when it comes to the relevancy of the themes in his songs, “What’s Going On” from 1971 remains very valid even today. Topics such as oppression, police brutality, poverty, and more captured in these lyrics are possibly more relevant today nearly 50 years after the song’s release. This is not a good sign for humankind.
Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On” on January 21, 1971, which is part of his album of the same name. This song and the album marked a shift in the style of music by Marvin Gaye, moving towards a more personal and political stance seeking for justice.
The song reached #2 on Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold over 200,000 copies in the UK. However, the song is ranked at #4 on Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time‘ list. It is also ranked at #2 on ‘Detroit’s 100 Greatest Songs’ list by the Detroit Free Press. Also, the song was listed into ‘500 Songs that Shaped Rock’ list by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and achieved #14 on the ‘100 Greatest Rock Songs’ list by VH1.
What Inspired “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye?
The song was inspired by the events surrounding the event now knows as ‘Bloody Thursday.’ Mowtonw member Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson witnessed police brutality, protests, and people’s anti-war cries on May 15, 1969. Moved by this situation Benson talked to his friend Al Cleveland who turned his vision into a song. Marvin Gaye later altered some lyrics to match his style and to give it a more ‘story’ vibe.
Marvin Gaye himself was moved by the futility of war as he discussed the topic at length with his brother Frankie returning from the Vietnam War. Hence, Gaye himself had been moved by this topic. In particular, Marvin Gaye mentioned that he was moved by the 1965 Watts Riots, revolving around police brutality against minority races.
There was some hesitation to release this track by Mowtown Records as the song tasted a bit like a ‘protest song.’ However, Benson assured that it’s not a protest song, but rather a love song. Marvin Gaye threatened to leave the record label to get it released. And following the song’s success, it is believed that the label’s stance on future likely songs was shifted in favor of the artists and their artistic freedom.
Listen to “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
“What’s Going On” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
The intro to the song finds a confused singer looking at the events unfolding around him. He is at a loss of words for what he sees around him. He sees things that he should not be seeing. Marvin Gaye calls it a ‘groovy party’ as a sarcastic remark at the mess that is created in the society. It also tones down the song from taking an aggressive approach to the matter.
A war, especially faught in another country, is the most futile thing ever. The Vietnam War is a prime example of this. When the dust settled the USA had achieved nothing.
One of the saddest aspects of war is obviously the loss of lives. The brothers in arms sacrifice their life for no cause at all, and the chain of misery does not end there. The soldiers’ wives, children, parents, relatives, and friends are left devastated. One death ripples through dozens of living souls.
Marvin Gaye sings that there needs to be a better solution to all this. Starting from war, to protests and police brutality at home, needs to come to an end. There needs to be more love spread all around.
In the second verse of “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye talks to all the decision-makers (fathers of nations) of the world. He pleads them not to escalate things into meaningless struggles.
However, there is a sadder story associated with his plea to the ‘Fathers.’ Thirteen years after this song, in 1984, Marvin Gayne intervened an altercation between his parents. Marvin Gaye ended up striking his father for verbally abusing his mom. Gaye’s father, Marvin Gaye Sr. went to his room, grabbed his shotgun, and shot Marvin Gaye twice-once in the chest which proved to be fatal. Marvin Gaye was dead within an hour. In prison, Gaye Sr. was questioned if he loved his son and his response was “Let’s say that I didn’t dislike him.” Hence, there could have been a messy relationship between Marvin Gaye and his father even at the time of composing this song which could have resulted in the lyric “Father, father / We don’t need to escalate.”
In the chorus of the song, Marvin Gaye turns his attention towards the youth protesting for change back at home. They are marching against racial discrimination, poverty, police brutality, fruitless wars, and so on. However, more or less, these marches are met with force by police, which further escalates the problems. Marvin Gaye suggests not to punish the people, but rather sit down and talk. There may be some common ground that everyone could agree on. If not for anything else, at least this will prevent the innocent citizens at home from suffering for having them heard.
In the third verse, Gaye talks about being discriminated based on their looks. A heavy percentage of the anti-war protestors were hippies, who were known for their long hair and plain clothes. More often than not, based on their looks, hippies’ voices were overlooked in most matters of society. However, they were one of the most peaceful people ever. So, Marvin Gaye is baffled by how a certain community loses its basic rights based on its looks. But one thing he is sure about is that they need to find a way to stop all of this.
“What’s Going On” song’s relevance has peaked in today’s society as the discrimination and police brutality towards African Americans have increased heavily in recent times. Massive protests, even outside of the USA, broke out over the tragic murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police department on May 25, 2020. An increasing trend of police brutality in recent times against minority races can be seen here.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Do you believe this is a protest song or a song of love by Marvin Gaye?
Check out the complete lyrics and further meaning breakdown on Genius.