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The Searing Lyrics of Marvin Gaye's"What's Going On"

Article written by Ron Alexander

Did Marvin Gaye write lyrics, poetry, or both? Musical songs are often compared to poetry. Lyrics have melodies, while poetry has mood and tone. Songwriters like Bob Dylan incorporate political, social, philosophical, and literary influences into his songs, earning him the 2016 Noble Prize in Literature. Like Dylan, singer, and composer Marvin Gaye infused his music with political and social messages, most notably in his 1971 groundbreaking anthem "What's Going On." Dylan won a Noble Prize, but Gaye's What's Going On was proclaimed the greatest album of all time in 2020 by the prestigious, influential, respected critics at Rolling Stone Magazine. Literally, thousands of analyses have been written about Gaye's multi-platinum-selling classic album, What’s Going On. This paper will take a fresh look at why Gaye's masterpiece is poetry by examining how he incorporated Repetition, Rhetorical Questions, Rhythm, and Rhyme and Metaphors into "What's Going On" and probing "What's Going On" relevance to cultural anthropology.

Gaye grew up in a Pentecostal household where religion and belief in God were important. During the first significant migration of enslaved people from the South to the North in 1910, Black music reflected the urban environments where many African Americans settled. The roots of his music were planted during the migration to northern and mid western cities,including New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and, most significantly, Detroit, where Gaye famously wrote and recorded his album What's Going On in 1971.

Correspondingly, to begin an analysis of poetic devices,Gaye rhetorically asks six times throughout the song, “What’s Going On.” Although rhetorical, in his lyrics, Gaye poetically asks his audience to examine and question why there are conflicts in their environment, why they are failing, and what prevents them from being happy and fulfilled and not having equal citizenship rights in America. Black veterans returning from fighting the Vietnam War come home to a country with discrimination, racism, and segregation. And so, Gaye passionately and poetically asks the question, “What’s Going On.”

Don't punish me with brutality

Talk to me, so you can see

Oh, what's going on

What's going on Ya,

what's going on

Ah, what's going on

Moreover, to make his lyrics snappy, Marvin Gaye uses rhythm, a poetic device that gives his songs flow, pattern,and shape. Rhythm is the repetition of similar sounds at the end of two or more words, usually occurring at the end of lines in a poem. By giving his lyrics rhythmic flow, his vocals bounce from lyric to lyric, stanza to stanza, verse to verse, which can be read and heard with or without music, and justifies the analysis that Marvin is a poet and the What’s Going On album is poetry.

Mother, mother

There's too many of you crying

Brother, brother, brother

There's far too many of you dying.

You know we've got to find a way

To bring some lovin' here today,yea

In addition to rhythm and rhetorical question, Gaye uses rhyme—the repetition of syllables at the end of a verse line--to consistently state and emphasize his theme of a stratified society where people are hierarchically divided and ranked by race and customs.

In addition, Gaye uses repetition—the use of words and phrases—to reverberate that African Americans and other minorities do not live in an egalitarian society where everyone has equal rights and equal access to essential resources, enabling all citizens to have access to education, income, human and civil rights.

Picket lines and picket signs

Don't punish me with brutality

Talk to me, so you can see

Oh, what's going on

What's going on Ya, what's going on

Ah, what's going on

And Finally, using metaphors--a comparison between two familiar but unrelated or unalike things to suggest a likeness between them--Gaye implores, Father, Father, Mother,Mother, which defines the fundamental theme of “What’s Going On,” that social stratification amounts to institutional racism, where people are born into low social rankings in the societies where they live. Gaye is also asking his parents tough questions and seeking guidance on how to live and cope with racism, segregation, and discrimination under the banner of the American flag and Constitution. Brother, Brother is a metaphor for the 7,243 young Black men who died fighting the war in Vietnam. Many white southern communities refused to bury African American soldiers in unsegregated cemeteries.

Marvin Gaye was a songwriter but also a poet. Rolling Stone Magazine proclaimed Gaye's What's Going On the greatest album ever. And rightfully so. The cultural anthropology relevance is that the social, political, and economic commentaries are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s. Gaye's departure from love ballads to penning lyrics about social, political, and economic injustices sets him apart from his contemporaries now and forever. His use of Repetition, Rhetorical Questions, Rhythm, and Rhyme and Metaphors solidifies “What’s Going On” as the most culturally and poetically relevant song of the past one hundred years and the soundtrack of future generations.

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