Certain Songs #1097: Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On”

Album: What’s Going On
Year: 1971

While I personally don’t find What’s Going On as much of an early 1970s R&B landmark as, say, Stand! or Innervisions or even Maggot Brain, the rest of the world completely disagrees.

So I’m going to figure it’s a blind spot to me the same way that Pet Sounds or Transformer is: a couple of great singles, but it’s never quite worked for me as an album.

But man, this single. Even on a tinny A.M. radio, you could hear that it had a sound all of its own, especially the percussion that echoed on every other snare beat, going off at regular intervals like a series of utterly dependable shooting stars. It’s the first thing I hear in “What’s Going On,” the thing I always listen to the hardest, and yet also an eternal mystery.

Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye is singing serious shit over a party atmosphere, adding a bit of cognitive dissonance to the proceedings, especially as he sings lyrics that still resonate today:

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
(What’s going on)
Yeah, what’s going on
(Ah, what’s going on)

As the song progresses, the party atmosphere intensifies, the percussion amplifies and moans and laughs and chants until the whole thing fades into the ether.

“What’s Going On”

“What’s Going On” performed live in 1972

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