Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On': Songs We Love

May 20, 2011
Originally published on July 27, 2015 6:54 pm

Marvin Gaye's masterpiece What's Going On turns 40 on Saturday. Click the link above to hear Gaye biographer David Ritz evaluate the album and its legacy on Weekend Edition Saturday.

Marvin Gaye's What's Going On was an instant classic, as well as one of the most influential records from a passionate and enduring icon. Released on May 21, 1971, the album is an introspective, politically charged nine-piece song cycle that addresses the ravages of the Vietnam War, urban decay, drug abuse, civil unrest and injustice. Gaye was singing to his generation in an effort to wake people up to the struggles no one was willing to discuss at that time. But these songs are universal; they've transcended their time and place. Listen carefully and you'll notice how much they still resonate.

While What's Going On ranks among the best R&B records to so openly and artfully reflect such social consciousness, it was not the last of its kind. What's Going On has become a template for how to marry a strong message with a pop sensibility in order to reach as large an audience as possible. Gaye's songs are filled with sophisticated yet instantly recognizable hooks and languid, jazz-inflected funk grooves that would keep anyone dancing and singing along. If it weren't for Gaye's skillful songcraft, his message might have been lost. Thankfully, 40 years later, this music lives on.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of What's Going On, Motown is reissuing a new "Super Deluxe Edition" of the record, complete with unreleased tracks and rarities. Most of these songs will be immediately familiar, so NPR Music has assembled a panel of Marvin Gaye fans to reflect on the album and its legacy.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Music is a way many of us mark time in our lives or even of history.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On?")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Mother, mother. There's too many of you crying.

SIMON: Forty years ago today, Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On?" was released. It was sweet, sad and had bite. Without being explicit or obvious, it seemed to sing at the era of marching in the streets and mourning for those who died, both overseas and in the struggle for civil rights at home. The song seemed to catch the wave of history, became a huge hit.

David Ritz, the author of "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye" says...

Mr. DAVID RITZ (Author, "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye"): It kind of cries with poignancy and yet at the very same time, though, it's informed by incredibly deep blues. It's gorgeous. It's beautiful. It swings with a funk that has us hypnotized. It's an extraordinary opening statement to what has become one of the great and permanent works of American culture, I think.

SIMON: He says one of the reasons the music continues to stir us is that it repeats a question voiced by every generation.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On?")

Mr. GAYE: (Singing) Oh, what's going on? What's going on? What's going on? What's going on? Yeah, what's going on? Oh, what's going on?

Mr. RITZ: One of the reasons I think the album still kind of resonates so deeply is because it's an open question. It isn't an answer. And it's a genuine inquiry. It isn't gratuitous. He really does uses occasion to examine his heart and the heart of the country to try to understand what's going on.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On?")

Mr. GAYE: (Singing) Mother, Mother, everybody thinks we're wrong. Oh, but...

SIMON: Marvin Gaye became one of Motown's biggest stars, but he also had drug problems and struggled with depression. Moved to Belgium, then back with his parents and died in 1984 after an ugly struggle with his father over a gun. But the question he asked so lyrically survived.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On?")

Mr. GAYE: (Singing) ...some understanding here today. Oh, ooh-ooh. Picket lines. Brother. And picket signs. Brother. Don't punish me with brutality, brother. Come on, talk to me, brother, if you can see... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.