What's Going On is the eleventh studio album by Marvin Gaye, released in 1971. It's a socially conscious Concept Album with a lot of songs addressing both political and social issues, as well as more general topics such as love. The album was created as a response to Motown's business practices at the time, in which they only focused on singles sales and completely cut their artists out of the album-creating process; their albums were essentially Greatest Hits after Greatest Hits before Gaye released this album, proving viability of the album format for the label. Berry Gordy was obsessed with quality control; he tried to veto the release of successful songs like "What's Going On" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", because he thought they wouldn't cross over well enough. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder both ended up threatening to stop recording unless their demands were met. This album was also the very first to give official credits to the Motown backing band, the Funk Brothers.
Highly regarded by both the public and critics, it's still ranked high in many lists of the greatest albums ever made. It was included in the National Recording Registry in 2003. Time Magazine included the album in their 2006 list of 100 timeless and essential albums, and was also listed at No. 1 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time 2020, controversially dethroning The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which was ranked at No. 1 on both the 2003 and 2012 editions of the list). With this critical acclaim, Acclaimed Music has ranked it at #7 on their compendium of various critics' greatest albums lists.
- "What's Going On" (3:53)
- "What's Happening Brother" (2:43)
- "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)" (3:49)
- "Save the Children" (4:03)
- "God Is Love" (1:41)
- "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" (3:16)
- "Right On" (7:31)
- "Wholy Holy" (3:08)
- "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" (5:26)
Inner City Tropes
- Accidental Discovery: The famous self-backing vocals were a result of two separate vocal takes of the title track being mixed together by accident. Gaye liked the effect so much he opted to record the album this way.
- Album Filler: Averted. The album was created out of Gaye's frustration that most albums released by Motown were basically hit singles surrounded by filler.
- Alliterative Title: "Mercy Mercy Me".
- Zig-Zagged by "Wholy Holy", which is alliterative as spoken/sung but not as written.
- As the Good Book Says...: "Wholy Holy"Jesus left a long time ago, said he would returnHe left us a book to believe inIn it we've got an awful lot to learn
- Bookends: The album's closing track, "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)", ends with a slower piano rendition of lyrics from the title track. Also applies to the first LP side by itself; "Mercy Mercy Me" ends with a reprise of an instrumental segment of the title track as well.
- Concept Album: The album addresses many social issues, such as poverty, the economy, and social injustice, from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran who has just returned home.
- Drunken Master: Funk Brother James Jamerson played the title track's bass parts on his back on the studio floor after turning up too drunk and tired to sit.
- Epic Rocking: "Right On" runs for seven and a half minutes, although all of the songs after the title track could be considered an example as, apart from the fadeout of "What's Going On" and the vinyl side gap, the entire album is gapless. Gaye seems to have intended the songs as movements of a longer suite rather than as individual songs.
- Face on the Cover: Marvin Gaye in close-up.
- Fading into the Next Song/Siamese Twin Songs: Nearly all of the songs lead into one another. The only song that stands on its own is the title track, which fades out entirely. There's also a gap between "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Right On" due to vinyl side limitations, as well as a more subtle gap that makes "Wholy Holy" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" distinct from each other..
- The Future Will Be Better: Gaye makes a plea to do something and save the future of our children.
- God Is Good: "God Is Love".God is my friend, Jesus is my friendFor when we call Him for mercy, Mercy Father
- God-Is-Love Songs: "God Is Love" and "Wholy Holy". In the latter song Gaye sings:Wholy holy we believe in one anotherWholy holy we believe in JesusJesus left a long time ago, said he would returnHe left us a book to believe inIn it we've got an awful lot to learn
- Green Aesop: "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" is a Protest Song about environmental degradation. It's not at all subtle, but it doesn't need to be so.
- Last Note Nightmare: "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" ends with a long instrumental section concluding with a haunting chorus, a dissonant horn, and some drumming. At least one station actually cuts it short.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Gaye sings about social problems, but he does it with such a smooth voice and wonderful arrangements that you actually find yourself enjoying listening to what he sings.
- Mood Whiplash: The album's two God-Is-Love Songs are followed up by two of the darkest songs on the album, each going into depth about one of the era's most pressing problems (the environment and poverty, respectively, both of which remain major problems today). The juxtaposition can be looked at as Gaye's way of saying that while faith can be a major source of emotional comfort, we shouldn't allow it to blind us to real-world suffering.
- Not Christian Rock: Gaye isn't really a Christian soul artist, but "God Is Love" and "Wholy Holy" have Christian themes.
- Marvin is also quietly singing prayers such as "Mercy, Father" throughout the vocal parts of "Mercy Mercy Me". It's mixed subtly underneath the main lyrics of the song, and not usually included in transcribed lyrics; it's easier to hear on headphones.
- Ode to Intoxication: "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)" takes this form, although it's not hard to suss out the Drugs Are Bad message.
- The Power of Love: A major theme.
- Protest Song: More like a Protest Album: songs such as "What's Going On", "What's Happening Brother", "Save the Children", "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)", and "Inner City Blues" all address issues like war, poverty, racism and pollution.
- Questioning Title?: "What's Going On" and "What's Happening, Brother", although the official versions of the titles don't actually include the question marks.
- Real Life Writes the Plot/Ripped from the Headlines: Many of the songs address contemporary social issues, and the album was in large part inspired by Gaye's brother's military service in Vietnam and difficulty reintegrating into society after returning home.
- Self-Backing Vocalist: Most notably during "Save the Children".
- Shout-Out: The album has had its fair share of shout-outs throughout the years.
- "Future Shock", the title track on "Future Shock" by Herbie Hancock, contains the phrase "What's Going On?"
- The phrase "What's Going On?" in "Fugee-La-La", off The Fugees' The Score, also references the album.
- Janelle Monáe's "Q.U.E.E.N." references the album with the line "I'm tired of Marvin asking me what's going on".
- The Title Track of David Bowie's 1993 album Black Tie White Noise includes the phrase "what's going on?" as a reference to the Gaye album and its themes of social commentary; the Bowie song is a reflection on the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, which were seen as vivid proof of What's Going On's continuing relevancy in the years after its release.
- Something Blues: "Inner City Blues".
- Spoken Word in Music: The album starts with chattering people. "Save the Children" has a parlando where Gaye talks, backed by his own singing voice.
- Think of the Children!: "Save the Children"You see, let's save the childrenLet's save all the childrenSave the babies, save the babiesIf you wanna love, you got to save the babiesAll of the children
- Title Track: "What's Going On".
- War Is Hell: "What's Going On"War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate