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Daily Record 2/11/11: What’s Going On-Marvin Gaye (1971)

In 1970s, 1971, Marvin Gaye, Motown, soul on February 11, 2011 at 5:35 pm

One week ago, I talked about the idea of “Friday music”–fun, goofy music that epitomizes the “Working for the Weekend” spirit of the day–in my entry on the Fratellis’ Costello Music album.

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterwork, What’s Going On, presents a much different, but equally valid brand of “Friday music.”

What’s Going On is Friday music for those Friday mornings when you wake up with your nerves so raw and jaggedy that you feel them cutting into your soul. When a week filled with loss, frustration and worry can’t end soon enough. When just staying in bed, or turning the car around to go back home to bed, seems like a much more sensible alternative to slogging through another day of work.

Things weren’t quite that bad for me this morning, though just after I got out of bed, I felt like they were going to be. I recovered though, and What’s Going On is probably why.

What’s Going On manages the interesting trick of being very topical and yet introspective at the same time. Gaye was thinking about the Vietnam War, urban poverty and environmental concerns, among other topics, on What’s Going On, but he paradoxically seems to turn these thoughts both inward and outward, resulting in an album that is extremely thoughtful but not navel-gazing; seriously engaged in discussing important ideas, but not preachy (at least not too preachy); and an album that invokes God but is also deeply humanistic.

Gaye helped put these heavy ideas across by placing them in a musical context that is probably one of the most gorgeous things you’ll ever going to hear: swirling orchestration, astonishing vocals, a central melodic theme (that of the title track) that serves as the music touchstone for the entire album.

And, while people (including me sometimes) will occasionally place What’s Going On in the “classic pop albums that people appreciate but  hardly ever listen to” (I’m looking straight at you Pet Sounds), it seems to me that ultimately What’s Going On exists in a realm of its own, an artwork that addresses events of its time in a timeless fashion and, by its very existence, proves that even in the midst of inward and outward turmoil, men and women are capable of creating works of great beauty and insight.

And if you possibly think What’s Going On isn’t still relevant nearly 40 years after its release, consider this: the millions of people protesting for a better way of life in the streets and squares Egypt right at this moment might be asking Mr. Murbarak and company many questions, but, in the end, all of these questions can be distilled into one three word query that appears to be leading toward Murbarak’s ultimate retreat from power:

‘What’s going on?”

Hopefully, there will always be people in this world willing to ask that question.

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