Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On (1971)”

Prior to What’s Going On in 1971, Marvin Gaye fit the “Motown niche” – Clean-shaven and “image-conscious fashion” (Edmond, 2001). He already had a few hits, including “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Marvin gaye, n.d.). His songs were hardly controversial or involved social issues.

After his brother returned from the Vietnam War, and along with the social unrest throughout United States during the 1960s and into the 1970s, Gaye turned his attention to social matters (Edmonds, 2001). There were riots on college campuses, reports of police brutality were all too common, and the war was clearly taking a toll on the country’s confidence. These issues were the background under which What’s Going On was produced.

Obstacles were numerous regarding the production and pre-release of What’s Going On. One of Gaye’s collaborators was attacked by the IRS, Gaye had difficulties within his marriage to Anna, and he suffered from depression as well (Edmonds, 2001). And there were skeptics against the production, feeling that Gaye was becoming a protest artist (Edmonds, 2001).

One of the significant differences with What’s Going On and other Motown albums at that time was the lyrical content. While far from a militaristic protest album, the subject matter did raise awareness on a lot of the issues that were at fault in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, the album was released without Berry Gordy’s blessings (Edmonds, 2001).

Sadly, I am not as familiar with the history of Motown as I would like to be. I do know of many of the hits that were released during the 1960s and 1970s, but I never had the opportunity to listen to a full-length album until What’s Going On. However, I must say I was thoroughly impressed with Gaye’s work. I was especially impressed with the reverb and recording techniques employed throughout. I can see why it is considered an influential album.

On a side-note, I was born the year What’s Going On was released. I recall the use of brass and strings in contemporary music of my early childhood. It is easy to assume that music had always sounded that way as a child. It is only upon researching and listening to different eras of music that one can sense the shift in arrangements and recording arts that transpire over time. I am thankful that Gaye’s work is one of the requirements for Music History II. I feel as if I discovered a new artist in the process.

Shannon McDowell


Edmonds, B. (December 2001). “What’s going on.” The guardian. Retrieved on September 8, 2012, from

Edmonds, B. (December 2001). “What’s going on part 2.” The guardian. Retrieved on September 8, 2012, from

Marvin gaye. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 8, 2012, from

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