Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a momentous display of rhetoric as art form and critique on the nation’s troubled condition.
The popularity of protest music has lasted through decades, shapeshifting to fit the needs of the period’s society. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a momentous display of rhetoric as art form and critique on the nation’s troubled condition. By 1970, Gaye experienced a multitude of heartaches in his life and career, with the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell and the return of his jaded brother from the violent Vietnam War. In this time of hate and disillusion, Gaye saw the need to promote love and unity in the face of America’s challenges, even at the risk of breaking with Motown’s aversion to political messaging.
The song is an abstract critique of leaders’ wrongdoings that still emphasizes the need for peaceful action as a response. Gaye’s laid-back nature seems to almost discover its persuasive voice as the song develops. The song opens with a party atmosphere, suggesting the unity Gaye wishes to promote in his change-starved listeners. Gaye’s whispered tone reflects his humility and defeat in the face of horrific reality, as he begs mother, brother, and father to consider his plea for humanity.
While his call for love is explicit, the persuasive language Gaye uses to connect with listeners on a platform of emotion and shared experience is implicit. Gaye uses his established credibility to strengthen the emotion and achieve the desired impact of his musical conversation with a world-weary audience. While Gaye focuses above all on the intangible aspects of society’s wrongdoings, such as emotional turmoil and wedges between relationships, he includes a mention of “picket lines and picket signs,” referring to labor unrest, anti-war demonstrations, and other protests of the time. Gaye reveals his political consciousness in this statement alone, as he is aware of the tragic government brutality that has followed these instances of unity, such as in the case of the Kent State shooting.
Nevertheless, it isn’t this specific reference to America’s tribulations that invoked listeners to consider their stake in their country’s future; it was Gaye’s solidarity with fellow victims, at a level deeper than speech. The lyricism of “What’s Going On” is masterful in its steady logic and emotional ties to the world outside — for instance, the lyric “You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate,” itself amplifies Martin Luther King Jr’s perceptive quote that “hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Even the syntax of the lyrics aims to unify Gaye with listeners, as the song’s title and mentions of “What’s Going On” is framed as a question, yet never uses question marks in its dictation in album songbooks, and rather grants Gaye the opportunity to describe “what’s going on” as a friend. Besides these two meanings, the phrase “what’s going on” can also be interpreted as a friendly, common greeting representing solidarity in young American communities, shown through the overlapping voices that greet one another behind the music.
Beyond lyricism, though, Gaye moves his audience through the intensity and passion of his individual performance and the song’s production. Since Motown favored apolitical lyrics, Gaye conveyed the emotion of his appeal at a deeper level of the performance than political statements. The climax of the song occurs as the instrumentation builds in layers of intensifying drums, melodic vibraphone, cluttered speech, and the soulful scatting of Gaye (“What’s Going On”, 1’38” to 2’05”). This impactful moment of production and clear resolution as Gaye croons, “Mother, Mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong,” serves as a final persuasion for a skeptical audience to realize the peace Gaye strives for as represented in his music. More than a passing instance of political protest, Gaye positioned “What’s Going On” as an anthem for united love, representing the famous, the overlooked, the victims, the passionate, and the uninformed as an equal community through music.