Decoding the Social Messages in Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’: a Look through Popular Music

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Updated: Feb 20, 2024
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Decoding the Social Messages in Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’: a Look through Popular Music

This essay about Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” explores the song’s lyrical depth and its significance as a piece of social commentary within popular music. Released in 1971, it is highlighted as more than just a melody; it’s an introspective look into the issues plaguing the era, such as war, poverty, and racial injustice. Marvin Gaye is commended for his ability to blend complex social messages with the soulful rhythms of R&B, jazz, and soul, using his music as a platform for advocating peace and empathy. The essay underscores the song’s call to action for listeners to be aware and engaged with societal issues. It also discusses the song’s lasting relevance and its role in showcasing music’s power to inspire change and bring people together across generations. PapersOwl showcases more free essays that are examples of Popular Music.

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In 1971, Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On,” an album that not only transformed his career but also left a lasting impact on music and social commentary. The title track, with its hauntingly beautiful melody and poignant lyrics, stands out as a powerful reflection on the turbulence and upheavals of the time. This essay delves into the lyrical content of “What’s Going On” and explores how Marvin Gaye used his music as a platform to address social issues, advocate for peace, and provoke thought and discussion.

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At its core, “What’s Going On” is more than just a song; it’s a reflection on the social climate of the early 1970s, touching on war, poverty, and racial injustice. Gaye’s lyrics, “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying,” immediately immerse the listener in the pain and suffering experienced by families across the United States, particularly due to the Vietnam War and racial violence. The song’s opening lines set the stage for a heartfelt plea for empathy, understanding, and change.

Gaye’s genius lies not only in his vocal delivery but also in his ability to weave complex social issues into the fabric of his music. The recurring question, “What’s going on?” serves as a call to action, urging listeners to pay attention to the world around them and to question the status quo. The song’s bridge, “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality / Talk to me, so you can see / Oh, what’s going on,” highlights the civil unrest and calls for a dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding. Gaye’s message is clear: meaningful change requires communication and empathy.

The significance of “What’s Going On” extends beyond its immediate political and social context. It marked a departure from the Motown sound that had defined Gaye’s earlier career, showcasing his artistic evolution and willingness to tackle complex themes. The song’s smooth blend of soul, R&B, and jazz elements, coupled with its layered vocals and sophisticated arrangements, created a soundscape that was both innovative and timeless. This musical backdrop amplified the impact of Gaye’s lyrics, making the song’s message even more compelling.

Today, “What’s Going On” remains relevant, resonating with new generations who face their own challenges and social issues. Its timeless appeal lies in its universal message of love, peace, and understanding, and in its call to reflect on the human condition. Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece serves as a reminder of music’s power to inspire change, to heal, and to bring people together. By exploring the depths of human emotion and societal problems through his lyrics, Gaye has left an indelible mark on the landscape of music and social commentary.

In conclusion, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a poignant exploration of the social issues of its time, offering a message of hope and a plea for understanding that transcends decades. Through his masterful lyrics and soul-stirring music, Gaye invites us to consider our role in addressing the problems facing society. The song’s enduring legacy is a testament to its profound impact, reminding us of the power of music to reflect, to challenge, and to unite.

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Decoding the Social Messages in Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On': A Look Through Popular Music. (2024, Feb 20). Retrieved from