Social Change

In light of the anti-war movement and African Americans’ struggles for civil rights, Marvin Gaye asks Americans to reexamine their priorities and relationships in the album’s title song.

The Issue+

U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was aimed at preventing a takeover of South Vietnam by communist North Vietnam and communist rebels known as the Viet Cong. Early on, almost all Americans agreed with this decision. That began to change in the mid-1960s as more young U.S. soldiers came home in coffins, victory seemed less certain, and even more Americans questioned whether the war was worth the price in lives and money. By the 1968 presidential election, the anti-war movement had become fierce and the country seemed ready to tear itself apart.

In 2001, most Americans backed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, viewing it as self-defense after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. However, many met the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 with doubt and suspicion as links between Iraq and terrorism were not clear-cut.

The current wars have been fought by an all-volunteer military. During Vietnam, the U.S. Army used the draft to fill its ranks, forcing a cross-section of young Americans into uniform, whether they wanted to fight or not. Part of what fueled the anti-war movement was the fact that wealthier families could protect their boys from the draft by sending them to college. Many kids from poor families did not have that option, including Marvin Gaye’s younger brother, Frankie.

Music quickly became an integral element of the anti-war movement in the 1960s. Singers and bands set provocative ideas to catchy melodies, often angering older, more conservative Americans. Anti-war rallies regularly featured artists whose lyrics directly challenged the war. Compared to what came before, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”—both the song and the album—cast doubts about the war and messages about social justice in deeply personal terms. In contrast, little in the way of anti-war music has emerged during the current wars.

What to think about:

  • How did the American public feel about the war in Vietnam, and how did these feelings change over time?
  • How has the American public responded to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? How does its attitudes compare to feelings during the Vietnam War?
  • How was music “used” during the Vietnam era?

The Song+

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What it’s about: A meditation on troubles in the U.S. and elsewhere—including war and police brutality. It also calls for better communication and understanding between the generations.

What inspired it: The original idea for the song came from Renaldo “Obie” Benson. While touring with the Four Tops, he witnessed a disturbing scene in San Francisco. “They had the Haight-Asbury [area] then, all the kids up there with the long hair and everything,” he told an interviewer. “The police were beating on them but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what…was going on?”

What to listen for: The album’s first song begins with the sounds of a party. (Gaye had his friends Lem Barney and Mel Farr, football stars for the Detroit Lions, provide some of the voices.) Some reviewers have speculated the song’s beginning might portray a welcome home bash for a Vietnam veteran. In the song, as well as throughout the album, Gaye used multiple tracks to sing many of his backing vocals.

What to talk about: What are Americans protesting about now? What issues raised by the song remain relevant today?

Veterans Issues

This song describes the struggles of a veteran returning from war, trying to find work and reconnect with the life he left behind in his old neighborhood.

The Issue+

Many Vietnam veterans faced a difficult return to civilian life. Combat troops had witnessed violence and bloodshed that few of their friends at home could comprehend. For some, it seemed absurd to return to “normal life” after what they had endured. News agencies reported stories about atrocities committed by U.S. troops and the suffering of the Vietnamese people because of the war. As a result, some Americans viewed returning veterans as villains and treated them harshly. As the war ended, it seemed much of the country wanted to forget about it as quickly as possible. In general, U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have been treated with more respect and honor.

Technology has also changed the wartime experiences of the two generations. During Vietnam, handwritten letters might take weeks to arrive, while today’s Internet capabilities help soldiers deal with stress by keeping them better connected to family and friends. Improved medical treatment has also meant more veterans survive battlefield wounds today, and veteran organizations know more about how to help them during their reentry into civilian society. Still, many returning veterans struggle with coming back to a world where few people understand what they have been through. To make matters worse, since 2007 an economic recession has made finding a good job more difficult.

Such wartime experiences have always found expression in music. Some war-themed songs have celebrated heroism, as in “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” Others have lamented the squandering of lives for reasons that are not always clear. In the case of “What’s Happening Brother,” Marvin Gaye captures the sense of disconnection his brother experienced after his return from Vietnam.

Music has also proven effective therapy to help veterans deal with their more painful wartime memories. Some groups hold workshops where former soldiers learn to turn their experiences into songs.

What to think about:

  • In what ways is the experience of returning veterans different between the Vietnam Era and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? How is it similar?
  • Why might some veterans find it difficult to return to “normal life” after experiencing warfare?
  • What role does music play in telling the stories of war and the people who fight them?

The Song+

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What inspired it: “What’s Happening Brother” is based on the experiences of Frankie, Marvin’s younger brother. Frankie had been drafted into the U.S. Army and served three years in Vietnam. “War is hell, believe me,” Frankie told an interviewer. “The value of life is unbelievably low. Nothing you’ve ever experienced can prepare you for the terror.” Frankie found it hard to find work and fit in when he returned from service. His stories made a powerful impression on Marvin.

What to listen for: How “What’s Going On” flows directly into this song. This reinforces the idea of the record being a “concept album”—the songs tying together to express a larger theme, rather than just a collection of singles. The virtuoso bass playing of James Jamerson helps power the song.

What to talk about: What roles do soldiers and other military personnel play in American society? How should society treat returning war veterans?

Addiction

In “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky),” Gaye portrays how drug addiction ruins lives, making “slaves out of men” by hooking them on heroin and other drugs.

The Issue+

The 1960s saw a sharp rise in drug use by youth, including soldiers in Vietnam and among poor, urban African-American communities. Alarming news reports about widespread use of marijuana, hashish, and LSD, as well as the addictive power of heroin and cocaine, frightened many Americans, especially older generations. For them, it seemed like a threat to American youth that was eroding American values. In response to those fears and concerns, President Richard Nixon launched the “War on Drugs” in 1971, the same year the album What’s Going On was released.

For some youth, the disapproval of their elders enhanced the temptation of illegal drugs. Drugs became common in the counterculture, including the antiwar movement and the music scene. Some musicians celebrated drug use as exciting or amusing, while a few sang of its dangers. At the same time, the drug-overdose deaths of such rock stars as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison of The Doors were mortal reminders of the very real dangers of drug use. “Flyin’ High” and the What’s Going On album were released the year after Joplin and Hendrix’s deaths, and shortly before Morrison’s.

Many of those attitudes and issues are still current, as well as usage of many of the same drugs. Newer drugs like methamphetamine, ecstasy, and other synthetic drugs became more available in the 1990s. The addiction to and abuse of prescription drugs has also received greater attention.

Since the 1970s, laws have increased punishments for using and selling illegal drugs. By 2009, more than half of the people in U.S. prisons were there for drug offenses. Recently, more Americans have called for changes in drug policies that would place more emphasis on treatment for addiction and less on punishment.

What to think about:

  • What were examples of American attitudes toward drugs in the 1960s and 1970s? In what ways did attitudes differ between different generations? How have attitudes changed since then?
  • Do you think addiction is a personal choice or more like an illness? How do you think communities should deal with drug abuse?
  • There are various ways that popular music has commented on drugs and addiction. What are examples of popular songs with drug-related themes, and what are their attitudes towards drug use?

The Song+

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What inspired it: Many U.S. war veterans returned from Vietnam with substance abuse problems. Also, awareness was growing in the U.S. that “getting high” and drug addiction threatened people’s health and posed a social problem in many communities. The title of Gaye’s song was a play on an advertising slogan of a major airline: “Fly the friendly skies.”

What to listen for: “What’s Happenin’ Brother” immediately feeds into this song, reinforcing the connection between them as part of the album’s overall concept. Listen for the quick transition from the lyric, “Cause I’m slightly behind the time,” in Gaye’s falsetto voice that creates a moody and ominous tone. Also listen for how Gaye used voices and instrumentation to reinforce the sense of being high on drugs. Motown’s David Van DePitte arranged the music, including string parts heard here and elsewhere on the album played by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

What to talk about: What feelings does the singer/narrator express about his addiction? How is drug abuse and addiction perceived today, and what strategies are communities using to address it? Some genres of popular music have been accused of promoting the use of drugs. Listening to this song, what do you think Marvin’s message about drugs is?

Social Responsibility

Marvin Gaye produced this heartfelt call to do more to protect and improve the world for the sake of future generations.

The Issue+

The Vietnam Era saw a rise in people’s consciousness about the state of the world. Governments, charitable organizations, and individuals called for greater efforts to address crises like hunger, poverty, pollution, and war. Much of the focus was on how to make the world better for future generations.

During this period, the fear of nuclear war haunted the dreams of children as well as adults. The United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet many times over. (In October 1963, a confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.) This dread did not fade until the early 1990s when the Soviet Union broke apart. Since then, the U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpiles.

Today, economic fears are posing a different kind of threat to the well-being of kids in the U.S. and around the world. The loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas factories has changed the U.S. economy a great deal since the 1960s, leaving many working families anxious about jobs and income. Compared to other age groups in the U.S., kids have had the toughest time when it comes to poverty: Twenty percent of youth under age 18 live in families struggling below the poverty line. Budget cuts to education, healthcare, and childcare have created an unsure path to the future for many of today’s young people, especially those who live in poorer communities.

Many performing artists have been moved to support and address these issues in their music, including Marvin Gaye and his song “Save the Children.” More recently, stars like Bob Geldof, Willie Nelson, and Bono have organized benefit concerts and recordings to raise awareness and funds to help struggling U.S. farmers (Farm Aid), victims of famine (Live Aid), survivors of natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and other causes.

What to think about:

  • Who carries the most responsibility for protecting the future? What do you think are the proper roles of government, communities, and individual people such as yourself, in making the world a better place?
  • Does living in a civil society require that we care for others? What are the limits to that responsibility?
  • What ways can music bring people together around an idea or issue?

The Song+

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What inspired it: In the 1960s and 1970s, people were growing more aware of threats to society and even the planet itself. Environmental damage and the possibility of all-out nuclear war left many wondering if humanity was capable of avoiding self-destruction.

What to listen for: The song begins with spoken lines, and then turns into a call-response with Gaye’s tenor voice echoing the spoken words. This is a common arrangement in African-American spirituals and is also incorporated in hip-hop. The background vocals were sung by The Andantes, a female studio group that performed on many Motown hits. Near the end, the song settles into a flowing funk groove.

What to talk about: Who is responsible for caring for kids and trying to help them have a better future? How would you answer the question posed by the lyrics: “Who’s willing to try to save a world/That’s destined to die”?

The Environment

One of the three hits from the What’s Going On album, “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)” describes how pollution poisons the air and water, and kills wildlife.

The Issue+

On April 22, 1970, some 20 million Americans observed the first Earth Day. It was a celebration of nature and an expression of concern about pollution, threatened wildlife, and other environmental damage caused by humans. In 1967, for example, the bald eagle—a symbol of American bravery and strength—had been named an endangered species. Two years later, pollution in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. Tuna and other fish were found to contain high levels of mercury, a heavy metal dangerous to human health.

These events alerted many Americans that more had to be done to protect the natural world from destructive human activities. In 1970, President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This government watchdog was meant to develop and enforce regulations to safeguard clean air and water, and protect human health.

Pollution remains a global concern, but since the late 1970s, environmental scientists have been growing more alarmed by the dangers of climate change. They have found evidence that people-produced carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” from factories, power plants, and cars trapped heat within the Earth’s atmosphere. They predict this will lead to a steady rise in average temperatures, higher sea levels, and major shifts in weather patterns. About 97 percent of top climate researchers believe these changes are happening now, though many Americans refuse to believe that climate change is real or that anything can be done about it.

Like antiwar protestors, environmental activists found natural allies among performing artists. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” with its lyrics, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot,” was a big hit in 1970, and like Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)” became one of the anthems of the early environmental movement.

What to think about:

  • Most people believe that polluting the air, water, and land is bad. What economic needs compete with the desire for a healthy and clean environment?
  • In what ways do scientific and technological advancements both protect and threaten the planet?
  • How has music presented themes of environmental justice since the 1960s?

The Song+

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What inspired it: Air and water pollution were growing concerns in the U.S. and other parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. government responded by creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing laws to monitor and regulate pollution and other threats to the environment. Air and water quality improved a great deal in the years that followed, and some species of animals were saved from extinction. Not only was “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)” a hit single, it became an anthem for the environmental movement.

What to listen for: How the gentle beat and smooth musical phrasing contrast with the painful images described in the lyrics. Gaye played piano on this track, as well as sang lead and harmony. Wild Bill Moore provided the growling, crying tenor saxophone solo. The song ends with the haunting, otherworldly tones of the Mellotron, an electronic instrument.

What to talk about: Why does this song still have meaning today? How would you describe the state of the environment now?

Solidarity

What ties us together as a society—living a happy, helpful, love-filled life, no matter who you are or what your situation is in life.

The Issue+

Civil rights and the antiwar protestors were matched against powerful forces in the 1960s. These movements made up for the imbalance of power through solidarity—sticking together to support each other and fight for what they believed was right.

African Americans had faced generations of racial discrimination in the United States, especially in the South. During the Civil Rights era, they began to organize to challenge discriminatory laws and policies through nonviolent civil disobedience, sometimes at the risk of their lives. The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was a historic example of this strategy. Blacks in Montgomery and other southern cities were required by law to sit in the rear of city buses and give up their seats to whites. On December 1, 1955, a woman named Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused the bus driver’s order to surrender her seat to a white man. In response, the city’s blacks banded together and refused to ride the buses. They walked or caught rides with friends instead. The boycott hit the bus company’s finances hard. After 381 days, the company finally gave in and the laws were soon changed.

Antiwar protestors used similar nonviolent protests to challenge the Vietnam War. They organized large marches and rallies to disrupt normal life and draw attention to their cause. They were often arrested and sometimes attacked by police. In May 1970, four college students were killed and nine wounded when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on protestors at Kent State University. Through determination and solidarity, antiwar activists were able to affect public opinion about the war and help speed the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Marvin Gaye’s ideas about joining together in solidarity were influenced by these movements. At the same time, he saw unity in a broader sense: that love can link all people, whatever their situation or differences—rich or poor, selfish or selfless, successful or struggling.

What to think about:

  • What are examples of people from different backgrounds and beliefs coming together in solidarity?

The Song+

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What inspired it: The term “right on” was a popular, positive phrase of agreement and solidarity that meant “Yeah! I totally agree!”

What to listen for: The tinny honky-tonk piano, Latin/soul beat, and jazz flute featured at the beginning and the end. In these sections, Gaye’s vocals and piano playing share many features with the style of Ray Charles. The song downshifts into a dreamy meditation on love about two-thirds through, before returning to the opening rhythm. The song—very long at seven-and-a-half minutes—slows down at the end before sliding directly into the next song, “Wholy Holy.”

What to talk about: What are some differences that divide groups of people from one another? Who are some people in your community who have tried to bridge those differences? Do you believe Gaye’s sentiment, “Love can conquer hate every time”?

Faith

Gaye’s slow, sweet musical meditation on the power of faith that gives people strength and hope.

The Issue+

In the 1960s and 1970s, media and international travel exposed more Americans to other cultures and religions. Some began exploring the teachings and ideas of belief systems different from the ones they had been raised in. Some even questioned their faiths or felt disillusionment about American culture. Many young people felt a passion to find something to believe in and devote themselves to as a path to creating a better world.

Marvin Gaye grew up in a devoted Pentecostal Christian family and remained deeply spiritual throughout his life. He often sang of a loving God in his music, and was also interested in the beliefs and practices of religions in addition to Christianity. At the heart of his beliefs was the desire to find strength and resilience through faith, and the possibility of peace and harmony for all people through love. Gaye also returns to the idea that faith leads to solidarity among people in the line, “People we all got to come together/’Cause we need the strength, power and all the feeling.”

What to think about:

  • What are some ideas or objects that people consider holy?
  • How does the idea of “holiness” vary between people, cultures, or religions?

The Song+

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What inspired it: The song returns to the theme of love and strength through spiritual faith—a touchstone of Marvin Gaye’s most personal music.

What to listen for: The rich chords put down by the string players from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Again, Gaye sings duets with himself while Eli Fountain weaves in and out with a solo on alto saxophone.

What to talk about: Gaye sings: “We can conquer hate forever, yes we can....” What are historical instances when hate has been overcome? How have people pursued that goal?

Poverty

The album’s final song describes how poverty, crime, police brutality, and other social problems contribute to a sense of hopelessness in the inner city.

The Issue+

In 1971, the United States was the world’s industrial and economic powerhouse with high productivity and low unemployment. Even workers with limited educations could earn a living wage in factory and service jobs. Nationwide, anti-poverty programs and economic growth had helped reduce poverty rates from 33 percent in 1945, to 22 percent in 1959, to about 11 percent in 1971. Today, 14.3 percent of people in America live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The rates are significantly higher for Hispanics and African Americans.

Pockets of poverty have plagued rural areas as well as the inner cities, and the recent recession has now brought greater hardship to the suburbs, too. Crime, drug abuse, and other social ills have often been blamed on poverty; and poverty in turn has often been linked to economic injustices, such as bad schools and the lack of opportunity in poor communities. In addition, most U.S. companies have shifted their factories overseas. Many major manufacturers—including steel plants, clothing companies, and product assembly lines—left the U.S. to take advantage of cheaper labor elsewhere. Countless urban industrial areas have been abandoned and good-paying jobs have become harder to find.

The distance between economic classes in the country has been widening since What’s Going On was released. The most recent data reports that the richest 10 percent of Americans now control 73.1 percent of the country’s wealth. This and other issues of economic fairness have sparked the Occupy Movement in cities and towns around the world in 2011.

Hard times and living broke have long been common subjects for blues and folk artists. But Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” put the topic at the top of the popular music charts in 1971. American society has never been comfortable dealing with the causes and consequences of poverty. But occasionally recording artists like B.B. King (“Why I Sing the Blues”), Bruce Springsteen (“The Ghost of Tom Joad”), Tracy Chapman (“Fast Car”), and Grandmaster Flash (“The Message”), and others, remind us that not all Americans are living the American Dream.

What to think about:

  • Where are people living in poverty? Is being poor in the city different from poverty in rural and suburban areas?
  • How are today’s economic conditions the same or different from those 40 years ago?
  • Is poverty a significant contributor to crime, drug abuse, homelessness, and other social problems?
  • How are issues of poverty portrayed in popular culture and the media?

The Song+

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What inspired it: In poor urban areas, multiple social problems—poverty, crime, racism, among them—often contributed to a sense of powerlessness. And while national achievements like the landing on the moon excited people’s imaginations, some critics complained the billions of dollars spent on “moon shots” and war might be better spent battling hunger and poverty.

What to listen for: The opening “heartbeat” giving way to a Latin beat. Eddie “Bongo” Brown provides the steady thwok-thwok THWOK on the bongos here and elsewhere on the album. He had been Gaye’s personal assistant before his percussion skills earned him a spot among the Funk Brothers. Throughout the song, Gaye inserts jazz vocals, or scat singing, creating instrument-like sounds with his voice. The song and album ends by returning to a refrain from the first song “What’s Going On,” tying the album together.

What to talk about: What do you think are effective ways to deal with poverty? How much is a community responsible for helping people in need and how much is the responsibility of the people themselves? How are today’s difficult economic conditions the same or different from those 40 years ago?