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What’s Going On? The Day Motown Got Woke

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Free Press

When Marvin Gaye’s brother, Frankie, returned from Vietnam with stories about the war, Marvin knew the direction of his music had to change. Among the brightest stars in the Motown firmament, Gaye had nevertheless grown restless with singing “three minute songs about the ‘moon and June,’” pop songs designed to give Motown artists crossover appeal to a white audience. Gaye had recorded many of these with duet partner, Tammi Turrell (Ain’t Nothin Like the Real Thing Baby, Ain’t no Mountain High Enough, You’re All I Need to Get By). Gaye’s own 1968 hit, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, sent his popularity soaring, and Motown chief, Barry Gordy, was anxious for a follow up.

Gaye, however, had other ideas. “My phone would ring, and it’d be Motown wanting me to start working and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?’ The murders at Kent State made me sick. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me. Neither did instant-message songs.”[1]

He had seen too much, heard too many stories, to keep singing pop songs. His partner, Tammi Turrell, had died of cancer, his brother Frankie returned from Vietnam with harrowing stories, Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, and race riots like the one in Detroit in 1967 had erupted in city after city. His perceptions of the world had been altered. He pleaded with Gordy to let him sing about these things, but Gordy refused, believing songs of social protest would weaken Motown’s crossover appeal.

But Gaye persisted. He had been startled into a new perceptual reality. He viewed the world in a new way that simply wouldn’t permit the pop music Gordy wanted. He was determined to make a different kind of album.

Gaye had advantages that gave him a little leeway. He was a big star, and he was married to Gordy’s sister, Anna. Still, Gaye had to make his protest album apart from the Motown “factory,” the assembly-line-inspired-way Gordy employed to churn out hit after hit. Instead, Gaye wrote songs with Odibe Benson in his living room, brought in outside musicians and used others that weren’t the “factory” regulars. He produced the album himself, and worked around the marketing team to get the album pressed at unheard of numbers. None of this would likely have been possible had Gordy not been in LA with Diana Ross working on Lady Sings the Blues.[2]

The result of all of this was the 1971 epic album, What’s Going On? Gaye managed to get the title song released as a single without Gordy’s knowledge, and it sold 100,000 immediately, and another 100,000 before the album was released. The album would sell over two million copies and was critically acclaimed. In both 2010 and 2014, Rolling Stone would rank What’s Going On? as the fourth greatest rock song of all time. Gaye was more than vindicated.

Beyond it’s commercial success, the social consciousness in songs like What’s Going On, Mercy, Mercy Me, and Inner City Blues, opened up new space for artists like Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder to explore issues of race, crime, and poverty, and they soon followed with albums of their own.

But Gaye’s album is also deeply spiritual. He sings openly about God’s love in songs like Save the Children, God is Love, and Wholly Holy. Gaye’s father, who would later murder Marvin, was a pentecostal preacher, but also an abusive father and husband, leaving Gaye a deeply troubled soul. Still, Gaye had deep within him the Christian themes of forgiveness and mercy. His social awakening was accompanied by a spiritual awakening, and all of it was on display on What’s Going On.

“Jesus said forgive,” he would say in reference to the album, “and I needed to forgive, and be forgiven. Love should be unconditional. To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return. I had myself in that frame of mind. People were confused and needed reassurance. God was offering that reassurance through his music. I was privileged to be the instrument.”[3]

As is the case for most of us, Gaye’s spiritual walk was not one of continuous progress. But in this moment, for this album, social and spiritual awakening came hand in hand.

Soon after What’s Going On?, Motown records would move to LA and slowly lose its cultural significance. While there are many reasons for this, one was surely Gaye’s awakening which opened the artistic canvas beyond the pop formulas of the Motown hit factory. Motown got woke and nothing could remain the same.

I’m impressed by the occurrences of the word “gospel” that are accompanied by a new perceptual awareness (cf. Isaiah 52-53, Mark 1:15, 8:31-33, 1 Cor 1:18-2:6). The gospel is not just “good” news, but “startling” news that changes the way we view everything. As Paul puts it in relation to the new creation, “From now on, we regard nothing from a human point of view...everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:16-17). Part of the saving work of the gospel, then, is that it startles us into a new perceptual awareness, reordering our priorities and changing the way we live. Once we’ve believed the announcement that the humiliated servant is God’s anointed, that the cross is the location of God’s power, that a Galilean peasant born in a barn and crucified outside the city gates is Lord of all, and that all of this represents the in-breaking of a new social order--the kingdom of God--then nothing can stay the same. We can’t sing “moon and June” songs any longer. And like Marvin Gaye, we may find ourselves simultaneously in a social and spiritual awakening.

[1] David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, p. 140
[2] All of this is chronicled brilliantly in Ben Edmonds’ book, What’s Going On?, Mojo books, 2001.
[3] Ritz, 150.

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Cover Image: Detroit Free Press archive, via

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