"War is not the answer, because only love can conquer hate."
Marvin Gaye was an African American singer and composer in the mid to late 1900s, known mainly for his influence on Motown, a popular style of music in the 1960s. Released on May 21st, 1971, What's Going On would help to make him a stand-alone singer, growing out of singing duets with more prominent figures, such as Diana Ross and Mary Wells. He would also become among the first to break from his producers and "go their own way." Other songs he became famous for include Let's Get It On, How Sweet It Is, and I Heard It Through the Grape Vine.
Album Cover for What's Going On
"Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying." These lines are slightly ambiguous. They could either refer to the Vietnam War, with mothers crying over their sons dying, or the rampant police brutality plaguing the race riots. It could also reference the campus protest shootings, such as with Kent State.
"You know we've got to find a way, to bring some lovin' here today - Ya." The line is fairly self explanatory. Marvin is advocating that some way is found to live peacefully. Note that he says "here" specifically, indicating that he means the treatment of Americans in the US.
"Father, father, we don't need to escalate. You see, war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate." Marvin addresses the government, declaring that Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and other advances aren't the answer.
"You know we've got to find a way, to bring some lovin' here today." Marvin repeats this line, indicating that bringing back love is the solution.
"Picket lines and picket signs, don't punish me with brutality" Speaking for peaceful protesters, Marvin asks that they not be met with force given their harmless nature, like the Kent Campus protestors.
"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." Marvin asks the establishment to reason with the protesters and come to a compromise.
"In the mean time, right on, baby, right on, right on." Since no compromise has been reached yet, Marvin says to keep protesting.
"Mother, mother, everybody thinks we're wrong. Oh, but who are they to judge us, simply because our hair is long." Marvin addresses the negative stigma towards the counter-culture "hippie" movement and the push-back from a mainly conservative government.
"Oh, you know we've got to find a way, to bring some understanding here today, oh." Marvin again asks that some kind of middle ground can be found between the protests and "the man."
"Picket lines and picket signs, don't punish me with brutality. Talk to me, so you can see What's going on Ya, what's going on." The refrain hits again, protesting the violence that peaceful protesters were meeting, asking again to bring both sides together to understand each other, the government and the hippies.
"Tell me what's going on I'll tell you what's going on - Uh Right on baby Right on baby." Marvin says that, if the government learns to cooperate with the people, then the people will cooperate with the government.
What's Going On is a product of its time. From the race riots of Chicago and Detroit, to the invasion of Cambodia, to the rampant counter-culture and hippie movements, there was plenty of bases touched in the song. Overall, the song preaches that violence isn't the answer to hatred and war, but that love and understanding is.