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Persuasion in music: Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"

Marvin Gaye's "beautiful descent into despair" fuses sublime music with messages that have inspired and persuaded for over half a century

In 1964 a young man named Frances T. Gaye was drafted into the United States Army and sent to war. He spent three years in Vietnam, during which he would often write letters to his older brother in which he described the horrors that he saw and heard about, commenting at times on the pointlessness of the violent effort into which he, an unwilling soldier, had been cast. In 1967, Francis returned to the United States, where he, found that it was hard to find work and reintegrate into American society, as it was for many other veterans. During this struggle to make sense of the world around him, he continued the conversations with his brother, and in time the older man decided that he himself needed to make a statement about the condition of the nation and world during that difficult period in America’s history. A religious man who had grown up in the church led by his reverend father, Frances' brother wanted to persuade the world that it had lost its way and needed to return to a deep God-driven humanity.

Marvin Pentz Gaye, Frances’ older brother set out in 1970 to create a work of art that would alter the course of his life and the course of popular music. This would not be an easy task, for Gaye was under contract with Motown Records, and its boss, Barry Gordy, had built his successful label on what he called the “Sound of Young America.” Motown music was supposed to be happy, tuneful, and devoid of political statements. As Gordy once said, “I never wanted Motown to be a mouthpiece for civil rights.”

Based in Detroit, Gordy had borrowed the assembly line idea and applied it to music production: the creative process was divided into specialized roles, in which a strict quality control department kept the hits coming. Gaye was a singer — formed in the image of Nat King Cole — and his only role at Motown was to be a crooner of the standard R&B tunes for which Motown was famous. He was doing well in the role, Gordy reminded Gaye when he brought up his idea, and Gordy told Gaye that making a socially conscious album was career suicide.

Undeterred, Gaye recorded the first track, What’s Going On. The first version of the song was written by Renaldo Benson, a member of the Four Tops, another Motown Group, after witnessing the “Bloody Thursday” riots (and the police reaction) on May 15, 1969. Benson turned the song over to Gaye, who revised it and produced it himself, rejecting the usual Motown production process. The song’s title is a statement, not a question — in fact, it is the exposition of Gaye’s main arguments that the nation and world have taken a wrong turn and that war is not the solution:

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today - Ya
Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way

Gaye completed the track, but he could not persuade Gordy to release it. In fact, it only became public because Harry Balk, a Motown executive, secretly commissioned an initial pressing and then released the records to radio stations without Gordy’s permission. All one-hundred thousand copies of the song were sold on the first day of airplay, January 17, 1971, and Gordy personally drove to Gaye’s home to ask him to finish the album. Gordy promised Gaye something no other Motown artist had ever had — complete artistic control — if he finished the album in thirty days. Gaye agreed. Working virtually non-stop for a month, he and his many collaborators created a masterpiece.1 While the album is most familiar for its shimmering, jazz-infused continuous flow, it also contained two powerful messages aimed at persuading both his broad musical audience and his fellow musicians at Motown.2 Let’s look at the former first.

Picking up where the arguments of What’s Going On left off, the album’s second track, What’s Happening Brother, tells the story of a Vietnam veteran trying to make sense of the society to which he has returned:

Are things really gettin' better, like the newspaper said
What else is new my friend, besides what I read
Can't find no work, can't find no job my friend
Money is tighter than it's ever been
Say man, I just don't understand
What's going on across this land

The confusion and misery the soldier finds in the second track morphs into the third, Flying High in the Friendly Sky, in which the music slows so that an addict can confess to God that his inability to cope with the world around him has led him to the only solace he can find:

Flying high in the friendly sky, oh Lord
Without ever leaving the ground
And I ain't seen nothing but trouble baby
Nobody really understands, no no (help me, somebody)
And I go to the place where good feelin' awaits me
Self-destruction's in my hand
Oh Lord, so stupid minded (can you help me? Can you help?)
Oh Lord, I go crazy when I can't find it (help me)
Well I know, I'm hooked, my friend (got to help me)
To the boy who makes slaves out of men (got to help me)

The next track, Save the Children, highlights a persuasion technique known as interrogation (emphasized through the double layering of Gaye’s voice in the recording), in which he asks his audience questions about himself, about God, and about the state of the world:

I just want to ask a question:
Who really cares, to save a world in despair?
Who really cares?
There'll come a time (There'll come a time)
When the world won't be singing (When the world won't be singing)
Flowers won't grow (flowers won't grow, no)
Bells won't be ringing (the bells won't be ringing)
Who really cares? (Who really cares?)
Who's willing to try? (Who is willing to try?)
To save the world, (to save the world)
That's destined to die (that is destined to die)

In the fourth track, God Is Love, Gaye refuses to succumb to despair completely and presents another of the album’s key arguments, which is augmented with a fusion of character origin, moral arguments, as well as exhortative and religious emotions:

Love your mother, she bore you
Love your father, he works for you
Love your sister, she's good to you
Love your brother, your brother
Don't go and talk about my father, He's good to us,
God is my friend
Jesus is my friend
For when we call in Him for mercy, Mercy Father
He'll be merciful, my friend

The fifth track, Mercy, Mercy Me (a musical extension of the fourth track) is perhaps the album’s most prescient, a remarkable (for its time) lamentation on the state of the natural world in which Gaye begs Jesus to pity and forgive humanity for what it has done to God’s creation:

Oh Jesus, yeah, mercy, mercy me, ah
Ah, things ain't what they used to be (ain't what they used to be)
Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Hey, mercy, mercy me, oh
Hey, things ain't what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

We see in this track a fusion of ecological argument and religious emotion that was as unprecedented as it was persuasive. Gaye was a man on a mission, and he understood the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish. “I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say," Gaye explained to Rolling Stone magazine at the time. “I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people,” he added, noting that “I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world." As one critic has observed:

Gaye looked at the world, specifically the prevalence of industrialization and corporate greed, and saw a population that had lost its way. From the singer’s perspective, the quest for the almighty dollar had torn followers away from Jesus. “His hope is a beacon of light, and with him there is no fear, no death,” the singer is quoted as saying in the book Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. “When we don’t follow his example and turn to exploitation and greed, we destroy ourselves. That’s what ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ is about.”3

In the fifth track, Right On, Gaye presents the answer to the social and spiritual ills that fill the album’s first four tracks:

Ah, true love, love
Love for your brother
Love, for God
Pure love
Love can conquer hate everytime
Give out some love and you'll find
Peace sublime

The track is an emotional promise to his audience: devote your life to loving your fellow humans in the way of the Lord, and you will be rewarded with a sublime peace that will conquer the hate of the world. It is a lovely sentiment, told in an upbeat musical style that breaks from the sound of most of the other tracks. It is as if Gaye was taking a pause from the seriousness of his previous statements and wanted to give the audience a chance to breathe and absorb the essence of his message. The unique (for the album) sound of Right on, fuses into the soft, almost whispered, sounds of the sixth, Wholy Holy, in which Gaye prays aloud, echoing the hopes, sounds, and feelings of Gospel music at its finest:

Jesus left a long time ago, said he would return
He left us a book to believe in
In it we've got an awful lot to learn
Oh, wholy holy
Oh Lord
We can conquer hate forever, yes we can
Ah, wholy holy, Oh Lord
We can rock the world's foundation
Yes we can
Better believe it

The religious emotion of Wholy Holy is short-lived, and in the last track, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), Gaye closes out the album by returning to the grim reality that he presented in the first track:

Oh, make me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Yea, it makes me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God know where we're heading
Oh, make me wanna holler

In the work’s final moments, it is anger and frustration — not the sweet emotion of divine grace — that Gaye uses to plead his case. That the work ends on such a troubled note may result from the state of Gaye’s own life at the time the record was made. Gaye’s dream was to be an athlete, not a musician, and he suffered from depression, cocaine addiction, tax debt, and two troubled marriages. His was a sad life that came to a tragic end on the night of April 1, 1984, when his own father shot him in the chest three times after an argument.

In his personal life, Gaye was never able to find the peace and love for which he argues so eloquently and beautifully in What’s Going On. However, in this work, Gaye presented an emotional dissection of a nation torn apart by war and racial strife but also a prayer for those who turned, as he often did, to drugs to escape the sadness and injustice that surrounded so many Black Americans. Both messages came through loud and clear to his audience, and their immediate embrace of the album’s arguments and emotions is a testament to the persuasive power of Gaye’s artistic creation. The message to Gaye’s fellow artists was also understood, especially by the young Stevie Wonder. Music executive and long-time friend of Wonder, Steve McKeever, has said that, “[What’s Going On] was everything to Stevie. Marvin was his teacher. He was in the studio when Marvin was making that record.” Following his experience watching the creation of What’s Going On, one critic has noted, Stevie Wonder’s new albums “played like finely curated insights on life, love, birth, death, pain, political angst, social injustice and every emotion in between.”

A half-century has passed since Gaye made his case to the world, and with each passing year, the greatness of his work is more recognized. Indeed, in 2016 Rolling Stone updated its list of the five-hundred greatest albums of all time and placed What’s Going On at the top.4 In doing so, the magazine noted not just the work’s inherent brilliance but also how it persuaded other musicians, at Motown and elsewhere, to follow Gaye’s lead and make statements about the social and political issues that defined the day. Indeed, it is hard to think of any artist from the 1970s that so influenced future Black artists to come, noted the music writer Jeremy Helligar in 2021. “There may not have been a surplus of joy on What’s Going On,” Helligar concludes, “but by descending so beautifully into despair, Gaye created brand new hope for generations to come.”5

1What's Going On was the first Motown album to credit all of the musicians who played on it, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's string section.
2For a full musical critique, see Jacob Barnhill’s “Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and the Civil Rights Movement: A History and Analysis.” Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 234.
3Irwin, Corey. “When Marvin Gaye Turned Environmentalist With Mercy Mercy Me.”, June 11, 2020.
4The former #1 had been the Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
5Helligar, Jeremy. “How Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ Changed the Sound of R&B Forever.” Variety, May 21, 2021.
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