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Music Review: "Whats Going On"

By: Ashlyn Kafer

Has Rolling Stone dropped the ball? Or do they know “What’s Going On”? A review on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album, “What’s Going On”.

Rolling Stone magazine, first published in 1967, has flourished into a main source of news pertaining to music, pop culture, as well as politics. In 2003, they attempted to compile a list of 500 albums, ranked from “worst to best” which was later updated in 2012. This list was viewed millions of times each year, and Rolling Stone realized how often tastes change and new genres emerge, and that their list grew further and further away from the truth. At the end of 2020, they released a redefined top 500 list, with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” being the number one album on the list.

It was the dawn of the Vietnam War, and the streets of America had escalated to a battle field of its own. However, art blossomed in a time of distress, giving creators the freedom to express the discontent experienced daily by American citizens and provide an outlet for expression that was slowly being withdrawn by the government. Although, many Americans also experienced immense depression in the wake of these hardships; Marvin Gaye was no exception. A phenomenal Motown singer and lyricist, Gaye had just his lost-long term duet partner-Tammi Terrel, his relationship with his wife was faltering, and he watched his brother return from Vietnam a changed man. Influenced by his depression, Gaye wrote a demo song called “What’s Going On”. While first it was rejected by Barry Gordy Jr, owner of the Motown record label, he later gave Marvin one month to create an album based on that song. Gaye threatened to leave the label which he had brought so much attention to, this is when he created one of the most renowned works in all of the music industry.

The album “What’s Going On” was released on May 21st, 1971 and runs for just over 35 minutes. The album begins with the song “What’s Going On” which was the inspiration for the entire album. In an interview with Detroit Free Press, Marvin said, “Human rights, that’s the theme.” The song begins with the sound of voices and a melodic voice chiming in to begin the music. The tune is smooth and contains background chatter to emphasize the confusion of the world. The lyrics add to the softness of the song in which they promote love and peace in a world of darkness and despair. One of the most fascinating parts of this album is the transition from song to song which makes the album feel like one long story where “What’s Going On” is followed by “What’s Happening Brother” which begins a succession of several songs in the album that are linked together.

With “What’s Happening Brother” seamlessly flowing into “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”, “Save The Children”, and “God is Love” into “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” it questions the morality of the world with a constant stream of orchestral tones and operatic background singers to tie it all together. The chorus of songs is broken up by “Right On” which introduces impressive flute riffs and the güiro as well as Gaye’s vocals becoming more pronounced with the change in mood from the previous songs. The album is wrapped up with “Wholy Holy” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” which are vastly contrasted in their sound with “Wholy Holy” sounding more gospel or soul and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” which relates most similarly to rhythm and blues as well as the first track on the album. It ends with the echoey vocals of Gaye over the sound of drums and a soft saxophone, making the message of the album presented in a peaceful and beautiful way.

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye is truly a masterpiece, and deserves its spot as number one on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums. The soothing melodies and instrumental breaks easily guide the listener through each song and take them on a journey of the problems faced in America with new ways to face those problems for all citizens. The message of the album is also emphasized by the flawless transition from song to song that creates easy listening and intrigue. This album is a must in any music library and truly defines the art of this time period, making the mellow vocals of Marvin Gaye some of the most inspirational and beautiful tones ever recorded.

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