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Oct 01

VARIOUS ARTISTS – “What’s Going On?”

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I should make it clear I’m no fan of “What’s Going On?” in its original form – a heartfelt and well-sung cry of anguish for the woes of humanity, but it says less to me than anything I’ve heard that Marvin Gaye did before it. Berry Gordy’s wish to scotch Gaye’s album says plenty about his insensitivity to his artists and his decline as a pop weathervane, but aesthetically I’ve got a sneaking sympathy for him. Anyway the album came out and the rest is history. All of which is just to say that I’m not one of these people who would slate the new “What’s Going On” for ‘butchering’ the original in charity’s name.

That established, it’s a really awful record. Images of Band Aid and USA For Africa come flooding back – the celebrities gathered round mics, swaying slightly, their eyes a bit scrunched up so as to look more soulful. “What’s Going On” is a backslapping schlep through a record everyone concerned thinks – no, knows – is a stone-carved ‘classic’, and so nobody takes the slightest interest in improving the song, making it their own, pushing it into places it didn’t normally go.

Until, of course, Fred Durst comes rampaging in. Now, Fred Durst is not a good rapper, is not a good songwriter, and is never a man to let a subtle thought pass when a thumpingly obvious one will do. This makes him perfect for injecting some kind of clumsy life into “What’s Going On?”. Yes, your reaction to his rap – “humans using human beings for BOMBS!” is most likely dangle-jawed horror – but it’s a reaction, at least, in amongst the usual charity autoglide.

And what’s more, his contribution isn’t just startling, it’s weirdly appropriate. He’s the only one of the celebrity crew to actually make some kind of acknowledgement of what happened on September 11, an acknowledgement that jolts you out of the song and reminds you in a way that Gaye’s lyrics have long since lost their power to do. And for once, too, Durst’s voice works. That permanent petulant edge of uncomprehending hurt he applies to every rap he tries for once has a theme – and a public mood – that suit it. Baffled, aggressive, pained and a little bit scared – with his “What’s Going On?” contribution, as stupid and trite as it is, Durst becomes the first pop star to get a bead on September 11, and to make a record which sounds like the America the rest of the world is currently, in fear or in sympathy, watching.

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