I set out to write about the continued relevance of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 concept album What’s Going On in regard to its social commentary. I intended to set it against the controversies around Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, hence the title. Of course, I would have highlighted the musical mastery of Gaye’s album, its innovations and, oh, those lyrics. Inspired!
As I reflected, I became focused on one aspect of the album – the voice. Not, Marvin’s but, rather, the perspective from which he tells his story. Of a soldier coming home from Vietnam. I remember the backlash these men faced as they tried to reintegrate into “normal” life. As if the horrors they encountered in war were not enough, American veterans were seemingly abandoned by their Government and, in large part, by society. They became punching bags to protest an unpopular war. They were neglected and forgotten.
During the Vietnam war we wore POW-MIA bracelets. Engraved on these bracelets was the rank, name and loss date of a soldier captured or missing. The proceeds of sales were used to promote awareness about imprisoned and missing soldiers. This campaign was a campus initiative started by a couple of young women who recognized a grave injustice and chose to do something about it.
Speaking of injustice, the last track on the original album, Inner City Blues sums it up. What’s Going On reflects Gaye’s religious upbringing, and he embodies Soul. From beginning to end, he reveals the Gospel. This album is a prayer for humanity and it speaks of all that is good, true and beautiful. So, what is its relevance today?
On November 10, Algonquin College is hosting a Songwriters’ Circle featuring some great Canadian talent, including Sarah Harmer and Joel Plaskett. Tickets cost $100 and proceeds go to Guitars for Vets, a program sponsored by Vets Canada. This program offers guitars and lessons for those suffering PTSD, disability or injury. It recognizes the healing power of music. Now, this is social commentary!
Vets Canada is a non-profit charity providing emergency transition services to marginalized Canadian veterans, including current members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP. Boots on the Ground is their motto, and volunteers across the country hit the pavement daily to help the homeless and invisible. Much like the ones who returned from the Vietnam War about which Marvin Gaye sang.
The power of music lies in its ability to tell meaningful stories, make people feel, engage them, and effect change. Gaye’s album did this. I am not convinced much has changed in the almost 50 years since his album was released. Yet, the spirit of Gaye’s lyrics remains true – may we have faith and hope. Perhaps, here at Algonquin, we can get some traction and make a difference.
I believe prayer is protest and, to paraphrase Saint Augustine, when we sing, we pray twice. I think Marvin knew this.