May 00

What Went On: How Marvin Gaye Killed Soul

I Hate Music2 comments • 1,721 views

In 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Goin’ On?, an album of unprecedented ambition for soul music, which addressed real issues – poverty, the state of the nation, the economy – and did so with thick, complex arrangements and, of course, smooth, emotional, inspirational singing. It has since been described, often, as the greatest album of all time. It was nothing less than a new birth of soul, the coccoon from which would hatch a wonderful butterfly: a mature, album-based music which would last forever.

By, oh, 1976 or so, soul music was in a bad way: within another five years, soul was creatively dead and commercially wounded, floundering in a quicksand of overcooked bedroom schlock . What had happened? Most critics and commentators blamed the rise of disco, a bastardised kind of black music, production-line funk which had attracted multiracial and polysexual dancers to clubs where they could dance and have fun. They didn’t ask why disco had become necessary in the first place, didn’t ask why people were buying these repetitive, ultra-catchy songs and – relatively speaking – spurning bloated albums like the Temptations’ Masterpiece or the O’Jays’ Ship Ahoy, with its thirteen-minute ‘soul opera’ title track on the subject of slavery. They certainly didn’t look across the way to rock, where the album was King and where monstrously over-extended records were causing an intense critical backlash against overweening ambition and in favour of – yes – simplicity and acceptability. Disco was the black punk, simple as that.

It’s often said that it’s wrong to blame Sgt. Pepper’s for progressive rock: is it wrong to blame Marvin Gaye for the pomposity of album-based soul? No, because What’s Goin’ On is no work of genius – it has all the faults its successors did. A vagueness at its centre, an unwillingness to offer analysis and a reliance instead on vocal technique and empty empathy. Critics ever since have swooned over how ‘brave’ it was of Gaye to tackle social issues – but why was it brave? The message of the title track boils down to “It is bad that bad things happen”, not something anyone could disagree with, but equally not likely to have an effect, to change people’s minds. Disco was attacked for its vacuity, but at least it was an honest vacuity, whereas most social-issue soul, Gaye’s opus included, hid its lack of real commentary under a parade of platitudes and the occasional sob or melismatic howl. The will to comment was there, sure – some singers, like Curtis Mayfield, even had the verbal felicity to do something with it – but it would take hip-hop to open up a space where truly substantive things could be said and thought. Gaye’s brand of soul was just sound and technique and signified nothing: it was no surprise at all that it was this stuff that became the bible for ‘serious’ 80s pop music, with even the horrendous Spandau Ballet crooning smugly about “Lis’nin’ to Maaaaarvin all night long….”.

Motown boss Berry Gordy tried to stop the release of What’s Goin’ On?, and he’s been painted as a cloth-eared villain ever since. But Gordy was not a stupid man, and certainly not a philistine: over ten years before he’d written “Money”, after all, which said more intelligent things in a slyer fashion than anything on Gaye’s hand-wringing epic. That was the problem: the worst thing about What’s Goin’ On? wasn’t what it caused but what it replaced – the old Motown had been a place where songwriters, their skills honed by hectic competition, would turn out three-minute gems with polished (and insightful!) lyrics, brilliant high-impact arrangements and absolutely irresistible beats. By 1971 that version of the company was on the wane anyway, but What’s Goin’ On was one big nail in its coffin. So Marvin Gaye helped destroy the best pop label the world ever saw, and in doing so turned soul music into a gigantic supper club. Greatness indeed, I’m sure you’ll agree.


  1. 1
    Doctor Mod on 16 Sep 2006 #

    I never thought of it that way. But, you know, you’ve raised some good–and thoroughly valid–points here, and I think you might be bloody well right.

  2. 2
    David on 4 Jun 2009 #

    First let me say I understand the subversive nature of the blog.
    Still, writing for the sake of opposition rather than truth seems as disingenuous as you claim Marvin to be. To me, “What’s Goin On” is no less than the standout fusion of orchestra and soul, the european orchestral tradition and the jazz/soul tradition. Lyrically, it doesn’t take a genius to write in a detailed or sweeping way – anyone can micromanage specific issues (see Marvin’s “you’re the man” line about 70’s bussing issues) yet a newspaper-style investigatory report would choke the music. Still, assuming you want vivid, howabout songs about sending boys off to die, trigger happy policemen, and the entire dramatic confessionals of “Flyin High” and “What’s Happenin Brother”. “Right On” is more morally ambiguous than one would think, only rescued by the stark bridge. Musically, the skillful way the orchestra is handled here does not make supper club music, and the electric bass subverts any hint of easy listening. “Wholy Holy” is as “vague” as any hymn (read: universal). Surprisingly, a lot of the record is introverted, an intimacy and melancholy that echews disingenuous spectacle. Finally, there is no way you can speculate on whether his empathy was real – i’ve never heard that perspective in years of reading Gaye criticism, listening to the rest of his music, interviews etc., thus to me your view is invalidated by its very eccentricity. To the contrary, the howls and melisma seem to arise from this empathy and pain.
    …what exactly is so ‘insightful’ about the early Motown catalog? Symbolically perhaps, but musically they remind me of a reworking of the tin pan alley idiom – “gems” in the sense of their inventiveness restrained by economy, yet as most songs are, they’re only a microcosm of a real work – they build to the climax in less than a minute with little reason. It is my experience that this 00’s era, so scared of sincerity, prefers the paltry over the epic, as if an album-length scale (or any grand gestures) should be beyond the reach of pop music (or art in general). “irresistible beats”, “high impact”, OK, but those are sound rather than idea-based concepts, and if anything, the beat-based, hook-conscious pop-catchiness of early Motown presages disco, while “What’s Goin On” seems to be a singularity. To me disco seems totally irrelevant in this article.
    I do share your opinion that the media often kills true expression – as the minute they are praised or talked about outside of the listening experience, works become distorted and lose their direct spirit. It is best to listen as if you never heard anything outside the music itself (classical music has had an ‘extramusical’ vs. ‘absolute music’ debate for 150+ years). Example – critics calling Marvin ‘brave’ seems to reflect back on Marvin as if he said to himself “I’m going to do this so I can appear brave” – yet in reality was he brave? I’d say yes, based on his own creative boundaries at the time, “What’s Goin On” is almost a complete break, taking courage for any artist. Yet he doesn’t need medals for it, the work’s creation and existence are his reward. Now, were they platitudes if they were sincere for him? Isn’t a form of artifice or rhetoric contrived to avoid platitude the more artificial? To me sincerity is the key. In the music itself, of course the way he sings is a form of rhetoric, a direct emotional appeal – but most music is directly emotional. For Stravinsky, “music is essentially powerless to express anything but itself”, therefore belittling the “sound and technique” eliminates the whole of the music itself, leaving nothing but the text.
    Now hypothetically say it was the only work left on earth, an extension of “the work as its own universe” idea. It would probably be one of the more comprehensive works of music/text that could ‘say something’ to a future society about us. Can “Sgt Pepper” say the same, with its irreverence and artifice? “What’s Goin On” is a microcosm/overview of religious, political and emotional views. In this “universe unto itself” context, nothing would be platitude, rather these statements would re-emerge as the universal concepts they are. (athiests would seem to lack represention) Still, even Marvin didn’t like to print lyrics on his albums, disliking divorcing words from the music and masquerading them as stand-alone poetry or worse still, instructional prose.

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