What’s Going On?

During this COVID-19 crisis, I spent a lot of time working, and a lot of time alone and isolated away from family and friends.  For a long time I could not find a way to quiet my thoughts and my mind.  I battled insomnia and an inability to concentrate.  Reading was impossible.  Eventually I was able to find comfort and solace in music.  Particularly in the music of Marvin Gaye’s album ‘What’s Going On?’ As I really listened to the lyrics I thought about its relevance and how those lyrics written so long ago still apply today.

The album was released fifty years ago this year, but the things Gaye is singing about are still happening–and have been more obvious in these last four years.  In this short project,  I will utilize books about Gaye’s life and the process that he used when writing the lyrics.  But also old concert footage and liner notes from the original album as well as videos and podcasts containing  interviews both with Marvin himself and others who knew him to get a sense of what was going on with him creatively at the time he made the album.

What I also plan to do is look at significant events that were happening  at the time the album was written and compare those incidents and events to things happening in our society now.  The lyrics written for this album still apply.  How is it that an album made fifty years ago can still be important and relevant?  I want to explore this question and speculate about why.  This piece will reflect not just the talent and creativity behind Gaye’s album, but also about bigger issues like race, poverty, and police brutality.

I was, and still am, a huge Marvin Gaye fan and share the experience of seeing him multiple times.  I was lucky enough to also have met him very briefly at one of the many concerts I attended.  But more than that, I have been able to connect with his music when I have tried to make sense of the world when often the world doesn’t make much sense.  At the time that this album was released, there was a lot going on in the country the same way it is today.  For me this album is more than just about the music.  It is also about the state of our country and our race as humans regardless of our ethnicity or color.



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7 thoughts on “What’s Going On?

  1. L

    Kathy, I would love to see where this goes! As society is shifting into accountability culture, closely exploring the very complicated/complex racial and socioeconomic relationships that exist in American (and global) consciousness is so important. And with Marvin Gaye as a musical backdrop!

  2. Paloma Thoen


    I think you mentioned Marvin Gaye’s impact on you when we had a breakout room chat on the first day—I think you said that Marvin Gaye is to you what Tribe is to Hanif Abdurraqib. I’m glad that you decided to stay with that thought because I love reading about the love of art and specifically music. I listen to Marvin Gaye frequently. I have a “Best Songs” playlist and “Mercy, Mercy Me” made the cut. The life of Marvin Gaye, however, is foreign to me. What I know of Marvin Gaye is his legacy during the era of cancel culture and #MeToo. He is a man who created beautiful music and had relations with minors—that was my introduction. I want to learn about both the good parts of him and the bad. I know that people are complicated. I want to learn about what his music meant to you in your life but I also want to know how you make sense of this other side of him.

  3. Jason Tougaw

    You met Marvin Gaye?! I had to lead with that.

    This could be a book, like Go Ahead in the Rain. I love the idea of writing about liner note and concert footage. This line stands out to me as a motivating impulse for the writing: “I have been able to connect with his music when I have tried to make sense of the world when often the world doesn’t make much sense.”

    Keep that! I’d say for the sake of the semester, you should think about one angle you can take that unites the album, your experience of it, its time, and our time. I think Pal’s point about Gaye’s complicated legacy is also really worth addressing.

  4. Catherine LaSota

    Kathy, please, please, please include descriptions of the performances you attended + the TIME YOU MET HIM in this piece somehow. (I mean, do what you want, of course, and no need to make these things the focal point, but wow they could provide such an interesting way to structure the piece and also to see Marvin Gaye specifically through your eyes in that context, and then complicate that with the fuller picture of Marvin Gaye as you gather it via research.

  5. Rebecca Suzuki


    I think it’s huge that the music of Marvin Gaye was your only solace during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis. That fact alone shows me how much you value his music and what kind of influence he’s had in your life.

    Your project definitely calls to mind “Go Ahead in the Rain,” but the difference for me is the fact that you had an opportunity to meet him. I think oftentimes, we idolize and idealize artists and musicians, and are really disappointed when we actually meet them. Clearly, you were not disappointed because you still love Marvin Gaye. I am so curious to read about how the experience of listening to his music and the experience of actually meeting him, observing him in person came together for you and solidified your love for him.

    So looking forward to this!

  6. Katie Machen

    Hi Kathy,
    I’m also so excited about this project! It’s interesting to note what we’re drawn to during times of turmoil, what forms of art we can return to again and again like an old friend. I agree that this project is reminiscent of Abdurraqib’s, and he might serve as a guide for how you might structure your piece, balancing memoir with information about Marvin Gaye, showing us when and where you’ve listened to him, how you and the world have changed around you while the music has stayed the same and also how in some ways it hasn’t. I also love how sometimes you can come to a song you’ve heard a hundred times and suddenly discover something new in it, a chord progression that strikes you in a new way, a lyric that means something more when your own life circumstances have shifted, and I wonder if these ideas will come into play as your piece evolves, too.

  7. Michelle

    What a complex launch-pad, and therefore potentially beautiful. I still remember when Marvin Gaye was shot, how up-ending that news was to any sense of certainty about family and love and relationships, how it suddenly underscored his own writing, the choices in his subject matter. And the movement between past and present carries so much power, what it means to be young and traveling down the steps of a theater to tiptoe backstage, what it means to be now, not doing things like that any more…


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