50 years later, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” record remains scarily relevant

A+publicity+photo+released+by+Motown+Records+during+the+promotion+of+Gaye%27s+album+%22Let%27s+Get+It+On%22.+Photo+credit%3A+Jim+Britt%2FMotown+Records++%26+Public+Domain

Jim Britt/Motown Records

A publicity photo released by Motown Records during the promotion of Gaye’s album “Let’s Get It On”. Photo credit: Jim Britt/Motown Records & Public Domain

Rafael Magana, Arts and Entertainment Co-Editor

Almost 50 years ago, Marvin Gaye released his magnum opus “What’s Going On” through Motown Records. One of the most poignant records ever released, its subject matter serves as a grim reminder that 50 years later, not much has changed.

The record was released at a period of peak civil unrest and Gaye felt compelled to write a record that reflected the times that he lived in.

The record is a concept album that follows a veteran who returns from the Vietnam War to find their country in shambles. It explores topics ranging from police brutality, poverty in urban areas, our rapidly deteriorating ecosystem and substance abuse.

The record is indicative of the time it was released in. The United States was deep into the Vietnam War and a counterculture had emerged in protest of it.

Four years before the record’s release, the Detroit Race Riot of 1967 took place. African Americans were attacked by Detroit police for protesting the brutality that they faced. The result was a riot that ended with 7,000 people arrested and 44 dead.

The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and the public was becoming more aware of the ecosystem.

Through the lens of a concept album, Gaye speaks on these issues that he noticed and experienced firsthand as an African American man during the late 1960s.

The album’s first track “What’s Going On” asks just that: What’s going on in America?

Gaye pleads for peace, with the line “Picket lines (brother) and picket signs (brother), Don’t punish me (sister) with brutality” being an especially powerful line, even more so 50 years later.

Protesters are attacked during peaceful protests by police, and the unfortunate truth is that many of those who are attacked are often attacked due to the color of their skin. It’s a problem that’s equally as prevalent now as it was when Gaye pleaded for peace 50 years ago.

“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” chronicles one’s use of marijuana to cope with the world around them. Gaye himself often used the substance to escape the troubles that Black Americans often faced.

The lyric “So stupid minded, I can’t help it, so stupid minded. But I go crazy when I can’t find it. In the morning, I’ll be alright my friend. But soon the night will bring the pain” is a painful reminder that one can’t truly escape the tragedy of reality. It’s equally as true today.

“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” is Gaye’s sorrowful plea which calls serious change in our treatment of Mother Earth.

The final verse of the song asks the question: “Mercy, mercy me. Things aren’t what they used to be. What about this overcrowded land? How much more can she stand?”

It’s a sad thought that in 2021, things have only gotten worse. Modernization has absolutely destroyed our ecosystem, and the world is becoming increasingly more polluted, with warming on the rise.

“What’s Going On” was recorded at a time of great distress. Gaye wrote the record to document the struggles that Black Americans were facing, alongside the difficulties occurring all over the world.

Listening to the record, it’s clear that Gaye pleaded for peace above all. It’s a tragic thought that 50 years later, we haven’t achieved that peace.

The quest to achieve that peace is what makes “What’s Going On” so timeless. Perhaps in another 50 years, we’ll make Gaye proud. For the time being, however, there’s still work to do.

Never forget to ask “What’s going on?”.