The central theme of What’s Going On and the album of the same name had the inspiration of Marvin Gaye’s life. When his brother had returned from Vietnam, Gaye had put himself in his brother’s shoes and wrote a song in pursuit of raising the societal consciousness in American music.
What’s Going On focuses on the aspects shaping American culture at the beginning of the 1970’s. Hippie idealism conflicted with a raging war, with the looming of common drug abuse and racial differences. In 1970, Gaye’s marriage to Anna Gordy was falling apart, along with the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell pushed Gaye off the stage and into seclusion. He soon produced himself, which was seen as a radical move at the time. His album a gallery of songs reflecting the state of the union as Gaye saw it, from the neglected ghettos to the churches, to the abused environment around them. It wasn’t jazz or pop. The album was not seen as a protest, but rather a reflection of the world around them.
The label, Mowtown Records, sat on his album it for months until Gaye threatened he’d never record there again. As they were hesitant to release an album with an entire record based around protest songs, they finally gave in to his demands. When the single and album finally did release, both exploded with the masses. What’s Going On was seen as an American social anthem that was able to carry on for many years after its release.
What’s Going On was released at the time of the Vietnam, War and three years after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. What’s Going On was a response to a war that claimed the millions of lives and not only called for an end to the war but served as a critique of 1970s America. Drugs, racism and poverty were crippling most inner cities.