Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On | Lyrics Meaning & Song Review

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Legendary musician Marvin Gaye has produced timeless classical hits during his musical career. However, when it comes to the relevance of the themes of his songs, 1971’s “What’s Going On” remains very valid even today. Topics such as oppression, police brutality, poverty and many more captured in these lyrics are perhaps more relevant today, nearly 50 years after the song’s release. This is not a good sign for mankind.

Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On” on January 21, 1971, which is part of his album of the same name. This song and album marked a change in Marvin Gaye’s style of music, moving towards a more personal and political stance in search of justice.

The song reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and has sold over 200,000 copies in the UK. However, the song is ranked # 4 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. It is also ranked # 2 on the Detroit Free Press 100 Best Songs list. Additionally, the song was listed in the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock” list by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and reached No. 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 known as “Bloody Thursday”. Mowtonw member Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson witnessed police brutality, protests and antiwar yelling from people on May 15, 1969. Moved by this situation, Benson spoke to his friend Al Cleveland who transformed his vision in one song. Marvin Gaye then modified some lyrics to match his style and give it a more “story” vibe.

Marvin Gaye himself was moved by the futility of war as he discussed the subject at length with his brother Frankie returning from the Vietnam War. Therefore, Gaye himself had been moved by this subject. In particular, Marvin Gaye mentioned that he was moved by the Watts Riots of 1965, which revolved around police brutality against minority races.

There was some reluctance to release this track through Mowtown Records as the song tasted a bit like a “protest song.” However, Benson assured that it was not a protest song, but rather a love song. Marvin Gaye threatened to quit the label to get it out. And after the song’s success, it is believed that the label’s stance on likely future songs was shifted in favor of the artists and their artistic freedom.

Listen to “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

Meaning of the lyrics and review of the song “What’s Going On”

Introduction

The song’s intro finds a singer confused looking at the events unfolding around him. He is at a loss for words for what he sees around him. He sees things he shouldn’t see. Marvin Gaye calls this a “groovy party” as a sarcastic remark about the mess that is created in society. It also toned down the song by taking an aggressive approach to the question.

Verse 1

A war, especially waged in another country, is the most futile thing there is. The Vietnam War is a perfect example. When the dust settled, the United States had accomplished nothing.

One of the saddest aspects of war is obviously the loss of human life. The brothers in arms sacrifice their lives for nothing, and the chain of misery does not end there. The soldiers’ wives, children, parents, relatives and friends are devastated. One death affects dozens of living souls.

Marvin Gaye sings that there has to be a better way to all of this. From the war, to the protests and the police brutality at home, must end. There must be more love poured out all around.

Verse 2

In the second verse of “What’s Going On”, Marvin Gaye addresses all the decision-makers (fathers of nations) of the world. He begs them not to degenerate into senseless struggles.

However, there is a sadder story associated with his appeal to the “Fathers”. Thirteen years after this song, in 1984, Marvin Gayne intervened in an altercation between his parents. Marvin Gaye ended up hitting his father for verbally assaulting his mother. Gaye’s father, Marvin Gaye Sr. went to his bedroom, grabbed his shotgun, and shot Marvin Gaye twice in the chest, which proved fatal. Marvin Gaye died in less than an hour. While in prison, Gaye Sr. was asked if he loved his son and his response was “Let’s say I didn’t hate him. Therefore, 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 lyrics. “Father, father / We don’t need to climb.”

Tragic!

Chorus

In the song’s chorus, Marvin Gaye turns his attention to the young people who are protesting for change at home. They march against racial discrimination, poverty, police brutality, sterile wars, etc. However, more or less, these marches are greeted with force by the police, making the problems even worse. Marvin Gaye suggests not to punish people, but rather to sit down and talk. There may be a common ground that everyone could agree on. If not for something else, at least that will prevent innocent citizens from suffering from being heard.

Verse 3

In the third verse, Gaye talks about being discriminated against because of his appearance. A significant percentage of anti-war protesters were hippies, known for their long hair and plain clothes. Most often, due to their appearance, the voices of hippies were neglected in most affairs of society. However, they were one of the most peaceful people of all time. So, Marvin Gaye is baffled by how a certain community loses their basic rights because of their looks. But one thing he’s sure is that they have to find a way to stop it all.

The relevance of the song “What’s Going On” has peaked in today’s society as discrimination and police brutality against African Americans has risen sharply in recent times. Massive protests, even outside the United States, have erupted over the tragic murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25, 2020. A growing trend of police brutality in recent times against minority races may be observed here.

Let us know what you think of this song in the comments below. Do you think this is a protest song or a Marvin Gaye love song?

Check out the full lyrics and breakdown of the senses on Genius.

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