What’s Going On: beyond the meanings of Marvin Gaye’s song

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This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

Understanding is the lifeblood of a masterpiece album.

In order to understand the essence of What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye’s album released in 1971, we need to start with a letter. One of the many that Frankie, his younger brother, sent to Marvin. In that space on paper he tried to describe the dirty war in Vietnam, in which he found himself involved, putting his emotions on paper.

Late at night, talking about life and death, soldiers and government, whites and blacks. About veterans who returned home just to be called “murderers” and to discover that their workplace was devoured by the economic crisis or by prejudice. The Gaye brothers read, talked and cried. How many African-Americans were gone to fight? And how many were dead? How many knew what they were doing? And how many of those desperate black boys were able to read?

You see, war is not the answer 
For only love can conquer hate

That stuff had to be told as well as the street clashes, the frustration of the veterans, the “brothers” who burned their brains with drugs, the social injustice that starved children and the anger that rose from the streets.

“What’s going on?” was a popular greeting among African Americans – the equivalent of “How are you?”. The question was the extreme synthesis of Gaye’s bewilderment over the destinies of the nation and the letters of his younger brother.

Mother, mother 
Everybody thinks we’re wrong 
Oh, but who are they to judge us 
Simply ’cause our hair is long 
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way 
To bring some understanding here today

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

What came ut came was a velvet cry, in a compassionate recall, between notes that seem to belong to another world, to another dimension, a different world present in the cracks between the white and the black keys of the piano.

It’s like we see Marvin, while reading the letters and feeling a sense of inferiority for that brave younger brother who was on the other side of the world, while he… what was he doing? Who was he? Perhaps a pampered star. A gear of the music industry.

He sighs “honey” and “baby” in the songs that the producers of Motown (legendary record label born in Detroit, called “Motor town” for the large number of factories and car workshops) gave him. Meanwhile, thousands of young people died in Vietnam… But there wasn’t only the external war. Many black boys fought daily the injustices in the streets of America, in the thousands of Vietnams they had in their own living places.

The echoes of all this became too loud to be ignored. Marvin Gaye realized that he could no longer hide himself behind sweet love songs. Life was asking him to take a step forward.

This is how What’s going on was born: a spiritual album.

That question was the extreme synthesis of Gaye’s loss. A look full of love on a humanity in crisis: mothers who absorb the pain of the community, children who die in Vietnam, fathers tempted to respond violently to violence. In the title track Marvin sings:

Mother, mother 
There’s too many of you crying 
Brother, brother, brother 
There’s far too many of you dying 
Father, father […] 
You know we’ve got to find a way […] 
To bring some lovin’ here today 
Don’t punish me with brutality 
Talk to me, so you can see 
Oh, what’s going on

Simple and enlightening words. The understanding as a form of struggle. Only music had the answer to that question. It was love for the community, for your neighbor, translated into melody.

This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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