Meaning of “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
“What’s Going On” is a very powerful political song performed by the late American singer Marvin Gaye. The lyrics of the song are inspired by violence and police brutality in America. One of the song’s writers, singer and songwriter Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops was inspired to come up with this song when he witnessed violence and police brutality while in Berkeley, California. On May 15, 1969, Benson had just arrived with the tour bus of the Four Tops in Berkeley and saw a group of anti-war activists protesting against the Vietnam War. Benson was shocked to his core to witness the sheer amount of violence and police brutality marring the protest, which was later known as “Bloody Thursday”.
Absolutely saddened by the shocking things he was witnessing at the protest, Benson said he asked himself a number of questions, one of which was “What’s happening here?”
Later, during a meeting Benson had with his songwriter friend Al Cleveland, he brought up the topic of “Bloody Thursday”. Cleveland later went on to compose a song based on the concerns of Benson about “Bloody Thursday”.
After the completion of the song, Benson approached the members of his group (the Four Tops) and discussed recording the song with them, but they told him they were not interested in recording it because it was a “protest song”. Benson tried defending the song by telling the other members of the group that it wasn’t a protest song but rather one that was about “love and understanding” and that he wasn’t trying to protest but just wanted to know “what’s going on”.
After the Four Tops refused recording the song, Benson gave it to singer Marvin Gaye, who went to modify the song in the following two major ways:
- Add some new lyrics to the song.
- Write an entirely new melody.
Since the song was untitled when it was given to Gaye, he also gave it the title, “What’s Going On”. While Gaye was working on the song, he was inspired by the numerous social problems that were then going on in the United States. One such social ills was the Watts riots of 1965, which took place in Los Angeles and left as many as 34 people dead and 1,032 others injured. In addition to that, Gaye was inspired to write the lyrics of the song by conversations he had with his brother Frankie Gaye regarding Frankie’s tenure in the Vietnam War as well as the tragic death of his cousin in that same war.
According to Gaye, he just couldn’t go on singing love songs when the world was exploding around him.
Facts about “What’s Going On”
- “What’s Going On” was written by songwriters Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland.
- “What’s Going On” was produced by Marvin Gaye.
- The song was released on January 21, 1971 as the first single from Gaye’s eleventh studio album of the same name (What’s Going On). In 2003, Rolling Stone placed the album at number six on their list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
- The song is one of the most famous protest songs of all time.
- No official music video was ever produced for the song.
- Gaye initially wanted the song to be recorded by the Motown R&B The Originals, but Benson suggested that Gaye sing the song.
- The song’s background vocals were sung by Gaye along with American football players Mel Farr and Lem Barney.
- “What’s Going On” peaked at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the U.S. Billboard R&B/Soul Singles.
- In 2004, Rolling Stone placed the song at number 4 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. In 2010, the song was placed at the same position on the same list.
Did “What’s Going On” win a Grammy Award?
Till date, the song is yet to be the recipient of a Grammy. However, in 1972, it was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist but lost to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” by Paul & Linda McCartney.
Which singers have covered “What’s Going On”?
Since “What’s Going On” came out in the early 1970s, it has been covered by the following musicians:
- Cyndi Lauper in 1987. Lauper’s version of the song peaked at number 57 in the U.K. Singles Chart and number 12 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
- Artists Against AIDS Worldwide (made up of such artists as Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Nelly Furtado, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez and Marvin Gaye’s daughter Nona). The song peaked at number 6 on the U.K. Singles Chart and number 27 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Below is Cyndi Lauper’s official music video for “What’s Going On”: