By William Neubauer
What’s Going On, the Marvin Gaye masterpiece, turns 50 this year. Motown, its hand fishing down the back of the sofa for loose change, has canonised it in inevitable fashion: a 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, replete with demos, instrumentals, single versions, and new mixes. Except, of course, that they did this all already for the 40th anniversary Super Deluxe Edition back in 2011. And for the 30th anniversary Deluxe Edition before that. This time, out goes the rather flat 1972 live version and in comes the ‘Detroit Instrumentals’ (‘these cats sure are funky!’), the album’s full ‘Detroit Mix’, and a few more single mixes where stripped-back renditions of the title track make up the most worthwhile.
To celebrate the happy occasion, the Motown Museum in Detroit is planning a series of (virtual) celebrations, while Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer declared 20th January to be ‘What’s Going On Day’. Meanwhile, over at Rolling Stone magazine, What’s Going On moved to first place on their famous ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ list. All quite an achievement for an album about which Motown initially had grave reservations. Rolling Stone’s original review was certainly positive, though it also noted that the sound was initially ‘boring’ and the lyrics ‘hardly brilliant’, at times simply ‘inoffensive’. Unduly influential Village Voice critic Robert Christgau gave it a ‘B’ (later generously upgraded to a ‘B+’), deeming it ‘pretty murky’ and ‘skimpy’, with one or two ‘suitably shapeless’ religious numbers, and strings that were ‘the lowest kind of movie-background dreck’.
In other words: “Look kids, we made it!” What’s Going On has now reached Pet Sounds, or White Album famous. One wonders what Marvin would say: he might well ask what such hagiography is worth in comparison to the depressing continuation of those themes the album outlined — police brutality, racism, warfare, drug abuse, environmental catastrophe. It is no coincidence then, that in the year of George Floyd’s murder, Rolling Stone turned to redress the balance of their previously monolithically white canon; the cultural residue of white supremacy has been squirming beneath the microscope in many places. Nor is it any surprise that they put What’s Going On at the top: isn’t it obvious why this album is still relevant?
Yes and no. While the themes certainly have not changed, many of the political sentiments of What’s Going On now seem almost quaint and antiquated: ‘war is not the answer’, ‘save the children’, a chorus of ‘right on brother’, and, of course, ‘what’s going on’. The title itself shifts ambiguously: are we to read a question mark? Partly, Gaye is telling us ‘what’s happening’, but most of this we already know. Really, he is asking, ‘what’s going on?’, and refreshingly, he doesn’t know the answer, reminding us that it is not a problem to be lost and confused. The last and most affecting track, ‘Inner City Blues’, ends the album on a deeply uncertain and unsettled note that may strike a chord with contemporary listeners: ‘Panic is spreading / God knows where we’re heading…’
Gaye’s prescription, however, is straight from the 1960s, an injunction for peace and love that has now fallen from favour with protestors and activists. ‘Only love can conquer hate’, he sings, ‘You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some loving here today’. ‘Let’s, let’s save all the children,’ he exhorts us, thereby implying that it is sheerly a matter of will.
Even in 1971, some execs at Motown worried that this kind of thinking was out-of-date. In reality, What’s Going On is a 1971 album par excellence, ‘60s positivity colliding with the unhappy realism of the Nixon era. It recalls, in a strange sort of way, the passage in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (also 1971) where, looking west, ‘you can almost see the higher-water mark’ of that ‘high and beautiful wave’ that was the ‘60s’ cultural revolution. Alongside Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron and others were, in their own ways, grappling with the same questions. The bitter culmination was reached in Scott-Heron’s excoriating Winter in America (1974).
It is important to remember, then, that this is a quintessential soul album: its politics are soul politics. What’s Going On calls to us from a time, place, and artistic idiom that our not our own, and do not benefit from bland assimilation with contemporary perspectives. Take ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ – in Rolling Stone’s words, a ‘taut ode’ to the environment. ‘Taut’ perhaps in its lyrical brevity, but not so much in its generalised refrain: ‘Mercy, mercy me, / Things ain’t what they u-used to be…’.
Gaye treats humankind, the world, the environment, much like a lover: ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ is about a relationship, between man and Earth, which has gone horribly wrong. With no apparent sense of incongruity, Gaye followed What’s Going On with Let’s Get It On (1973), a similar critical and commercial success. The former, more “political” album, draws on the soulful positivity exemplified by Kool & the Gang’s ‘Heaven at Once’ (1973): ‘“Kool, you know, I’ve been thinking: What do we need to make things better in the world today?”’ // ‘“You know, that’s a beautiful thought: We need peace, we need unity.”’ It also recalls the interrelation of personal and political exemplified by Otis Redding’s rendition of the Sam Cooke civil rights classic, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. It seems as though Redding sometimes sings for racial equality, and sometimes for himself; in reality, he always sings for both.
There are moments in What’s Going On where Gaye gives up on lyrics altogether. His voice becomes the instrument in the pick-up to the titular phrase (‘talk to me, / so you can see, / ooah what’s going on…’), or in the mournful cries of ‘Mercy Mercy Me’: ‘wa-oh, mercy, mercy me / oh-aoh, things ain’t what they used to be…’. This sound will be familiar to soul listeners. You might hear it on an Al Green record as something like this: ‘ooah-ah-oh, ooh-ah-ooh’, or, in the bridge to Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’, a cascade of screams and shouts to the roll of the drums and the stabs of the horns. And you can hear it in almost every note Redding sings ‘In Person at the Whisky a Go Go’, or in the way he pleads on ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’: ‘I lo-ve you with all my heart / And I can’t stop now / Ple-ase, please, please please don’t make me stop now…’ It is a scream or shout, a temporary abandonment of verbal logic for a simple and utterly powerful manifestation of raw emotion.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that some deemed Gaye’s lyrics ‘hardly brilliant’, ‘skimpy’ or ‘inoffensive’. Soul politics rarely engages in the kind of essayistic diagnoses of hip-hop. Nevertheless, the soulful shout is infused with meaning: first it invokes blues, the pain of slavery, as we might hear it in the funeral dirges of New Orleans, where musicians and mourners break spontaneously into clamours of grief. Then, there is gospel, an integral part of Gaye’s work, often wrongly dismissed. Whereas blues manifests creative resignation to deadly socioeconomic conditions, gospel offers spiritual redemption through an emotion — God’s love. And the step from divine to human love was a short one for ‘The Reverend’ Al Green: ‘Take me to the river, / And wash me down / Won’t you cleanse my soul?’. So too for Gaye, for whom God’s love demands equality of human love: ‘He loves us, whether or not we know it… / And all-all-all He asks of us…is we give each other love…’ Though soul inherited much from gospel — 6/8 feel, organs, dominant harmony, backing choruses, melodic simplicity — this emphasis on vocal spirituality stands above the rest. To express the inexpressible, soul turns to the timbre, the squeal, the terrible emotion of the human voice.
If soul politics is about love, it’s worth exploring the wider and less explicitly “political” depiction of this theme across the soul idiom. The Spinners present us with an exemplary soul topos: ‘He won’t love you, he can’t love you, / He’ll never love you, baby, like I do.’ No evidence is required to support this claim: instead, the lyrics and the music constitute the emotional fact itself. Latimore, meanwhile, epitomises the soulful call for reconciliation on ‘Let’s Straighten It Out’: ‘everybody’s gotta straighten something out sometime…’, he sermonises, recalling how he found ‘his woman’, ‘going all around the house, not having very much to say’. Overcome by emotion, he bursts suddenly into song: ‘So I looked her straight in the eye and I said: [singing] sit yourself do-wn girl and talk to me!’. Latimore’s solution to disharmony is simple but elegant – ‘Let’s Straighten It Out’ – and, moreover, essential to understanding Gaye’s hopes to foster equality in society: ‘talk to me, / so you can see…’
This soulful construction of love merits caution, however, at least in how we apply it. For starters, there are the strongly traditional and hard-set gender roles which support such emotional set-pieces. ‘Most of the time’, Latimore explains, ‘it’s a man who makes it crooked in the first place — ahh, we don’t mean no harm, that’s just the way we are’ (a woman, meanwhile, ‘fe-els things deeper than a man’). Mike James Kirkland, in ‘Doin’ It Right’, dances either side of irony as he begs ‘his woman’ (presented as hysterical in the extreme) to take him back. Kirkland humbles himself (‘I’ve been alone ever since you left’), yet informs us that ‘I done a number or two – but it just didn’t feel like it feels with you’. Thus, his promiscuity only supports the claim to forgiveness, set within a wider demonstration of his soulful love: ‘I want you to know how I feel inside me, baby’.
We are teetering, here, on the edge between love as a weapon and as a balm. Redding understood this dynamic better than anyone, his first album entitled Pain In My Heart, and his lyrics endlessly shot-through with suffering. In the sumptuously beautiful ‘I’ve Got Dreams to Remember’, the problem is betrayal: ‘Honey, I saw you there last night / Another man’s arms holding you tight.’ Confronted with the fact — ‘These eyes of mine, they don’t fool me’ — Redding is pressed to abandon his love. But, as the song’s focal point gathers through the bridge, Redding once more reaffirms his love, honest and undiminished, steadily overpowering him in a crescendo of swirling organ and circling horns: ‘I sti-ll want you to stay, / I still lo-ve you any-way-ay-ay / I don’t want you to ever leave! / Girl! You just sat-is-fy me!’
Redding refuses — or is unable — to disown his love and save himself. Soul rarely admits resignation; it has no counterpart to the equally beautiful sentiment of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ And soul never admits apathy, treated as the worst of all qualities and associated with fickle lovers and fleeting materiality; apathy can only be feigned to accentuate the reality of emotion. Again, as Marvin asked: ‘Who really cares? Who’s willing to try?’
Apparently, Rolling Stone is. So too is Motown, now inevitably subsumed within the Universal empire, though its current roster does not include much that could be described as ‘soul’ in its classic sense. So, despite the critical acclaim now showered on certain soul icons, it seems that soul music itself has largely disappeared. While hip-hop has seized the soul canon for its samples, it has established new lyrical and artistic directions; its proponents have always recognised that love competes with the realities of money, power, and violence. Then, there is ‘neo-soul’, the genre which most obviously stakes a claim as soul’s successor. Certainly, the swirling backing vocals of Maxwell or D’Angelo (‘You’re, my, ba-by – you’re my ba-by’) recall those that supported Gaye, but then, somehow, they drift away, circling the emotional content rather than seizing it through vocal timbre.
Put simply, artists have moved on. Erykah Badu, herself at Motown, exemplifies how neo-soul can push new boundaries. Her music communicates great emotional reflection (‘Window Seat’) alongside an ironic playfulness (‘Get MuNNY’), but she is somehow too savvy for the soul classics; it is hard to imagine her swooning like the Spinners or the Supremes did. Or we might think of a singer like Amy Winehouse, with a voice to match the exceptional emotional texture of Redding’s, yet more willing to acknowledge that love is just a ‘game’, and to take shelter in self-defensive apathy.
Undoubtedly, then, What’s Going On, and indeed the wider idiom of soul, remain deeply relevant. Canonisation, however, suggests that this relevance is obvious, and does not require elucidation, resting on a simplistic and idealised image of what Gaye was doing in his work. As listeners, we should not separate Gaye’s love of earth and humankind, his urgent call for equality and his resentment of political apathy, from his love of God, his seemingly naive positivity, and, most especially, his understanding of love as a human emotion. For all soul music rests fundamentally on a construction of love that is both damaging and empowering. As What’s Going On turns 50, the crowd of critical acclaim threatens to erode its subtleties.
WILLIAM NEUBAUER is studying for a master's in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies. He really ought to get out of Oxford more.
Art by Isabella Lill