The Timeless Wisdom of "What's Going On"


“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

“Wild Thing, you make my heart sing, you make everything….groovy.”

No matter how long ago words were written, if they hold a truth, if they are honest, direct and poetic, the words will last. They will linger. They will be repeated. The words will become part of our culture. They will become part of who we are.

Recorded almost 50 years ago, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, from his remarkable, ground breaking What’s Going On album released in 1971, surveys the world around him, and listening to the lyrics in February of 2018, we realize how little has changed.

During the last week, as we continue to be bombarded with news of Russian election interference, the response to the school shooting in Parkland, FL and the ever increasing possibility of a nuclear war with North Korea, the honest, direct and thoughtful words recorded in a converted garage in Detroit in 1970 still resonate with us today.

“What’s Going On” begins with the sounds of men talking, having a good time at a party. A rhythm begins to play as a lonely soprano saxophone wails above the din. Gaye sings as the sounds of the party fade away. The sixties are over. The party has to come to an end. There are serious things going on.

“Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.”

Marvin Gaye is horrified at the state of the world. He sees violence, hunger and pain. He seeks a simple solution.

“Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.”

Substitute the word “trump” for “conquer,” and the song could have been written in 2018. Marvin Gaye encourages us…in the face of the Viet Nam war, in the face of racism and terrorism…to acknowledge that war is not the answer. We just have to “bring some lovin.”

“Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on”

Marvin Gaye co-wrote “What’s Going On” and, for the first time in the history of Motown, produced his own record. Gaye was making a statement, and he wanted the song to be a true artistic reflection of his world view. Upon hearing the song, Motown chief Barry Gordy told Gaye that it was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Gaye refused to record additional music until Motown released “What’s Going On.”

Berry acquiesced and released the song, which ultimately sold more than 2,000,000 copies, making it one of the most successful singles in the history of Motown.

It is easy to listen to music like this today and respond by encouraging more peace, more love. Alternatively, we could throw our hands up in the air, say the solutions are too complex and walk away. Sadly, we’ve been walking away for 50 years.

Maybe the answer is easy. Maybe the answer is as simple as a simple view of the world. If we respond with love, rather than hate. If we begin with peace, rather than anger. If we strive for unity, rather than divisiveness.

Maybe, the wisest words in the Motown canon come at the end of this revolutionary, genre defining song.

“In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on brother
Right on babe”

These words speak to us through the generations.

“What’s Going On”
Written by Al Cleveland, Renaldo Benson, Marvin Gaye
Performed by Marvin Gaye
Released January 20, 1971


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