Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Going On turns 40 on Saturday. Click the link above to hear Gaye biographer David Ritz evaluate the album and its legacy on Weekend Edition Saturday.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was an instant classic, as well as one of the most influential records from a passionate and enduring icon. Released on May 21, 1971, the album is an introspective, politically charged nine-piece song cycle that addresses the ravages of the Vietnam War, urban decay, drug abuse, civil unrest and injustice. Gaye was singing to his generation in an effort to wake people up to the struggles no one was willing to discuss at that time. But these songs are universal; they’ve transcended their time and place. Listen carefully and you’ll notice how much they still resonate.
While What’s Going On ranks among the best R&B records to so openly and artfully reflect such social consciousness, it was not the last of its kind. What’s Going On has become a template for how to marry a strong message with a pop sensibility in order to reach as large an audience as possible. Gaye’s songs are filled with sophisticated yet instantly recognizable hooks and languid, jazz-inflected funk grooves that would keep anyone dancing and singing along. If it weren’t for Gaye’s skillful songcraft, his message might have been lost. Thankfully, 40 years later, this music lives on.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of What’s Going On, Motown is reissuing a new “Super Deluxe Edition” of the record, complete with unreleased tracks and rarities. Most of these songs will be immediately familiar, so NPR Music has assembled a panel of Marvin Gaye fans to reflect on the album and its legacy.