Saturday, December 23, 2023

Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (1971)

Though released in 1971, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is his effort to take the temperature of the late sixties. But the overall message of the music, struggling to overcome corrupt systems in desperate times, possesses a thematic resonance that we can still feel.

Some tracks on What's Going On clearly mark the epoch. "Inner City Blues" complains of how authority "judges us simply 'cause we wear our hair long," a clear allusion to the flower children and hippie counterculture. The "picket lines and picket signs" in the titular "What's Going On" are clear references to protests against the Vietnam war.

And yet there's an obvious sense in which the lyrics of the album are broader and speak to people everywhere at any time. The apotheosis of the bigger message is "Save the Children," which contains a refrain, repeated later in the album as a leitmotif, "Who's willing to try / to save a world / that's destined to die?" Gaye is saying that the future of humanity is at stake in the decisions we make now, not only the now of 1969 or 1971 or 1975 but of 2023 and 2024 and beyond.

Every day we rely on systems that protect us as well as harm us, and not only us but the prospects for any future humanity. We use electricity that is powered by coal, a finite resource that must be extracted from the earth, and we know this extraction harms the human bodies who must remove the coal as well as the surrounding environments. We know our abundance of cheap goods is sourced from an international supply chain dependent on the cheap labor-power of people who are barely surviving. We know all this. An album isn't going to change any of it. But good art like Gaye's can nevertheless serve as a reminder of the problem. And we do need constant reminding, since forgetfulness is the norm.

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