Group members in ‘Popular Music’ class gathered together to analysis Marvin Gaye. Our members focused on some historical backgrounds analyzing lyrics and how he tried to convey messages by means of his music. I’m going to explain the lyrics of his two songs by comparing to each other.
The first song is What’s Going on which was released in 1971. In the early 1970s, the American society was full of confusion, conflicts between social classes, continuous racism, and different political ideas on sending troops overseas, especially to Vietnam war.
As you can read the lyrics, brother brother brother there are too many of you dying, Marvin Gaye persuades audience to recognize harsh realities as it is, and to think of other methods than fighting at the war. His brother and his cousin participated in the Vietnam war and it probably stimulated and influenced Marvin Gaye to produce this song.
He also mentions long hair. To grow long hair was a kind of symbol of hippies as a rejection to convention. Peaceful message in this song have something common with hippie’s idea of world peace. Marvin Gaye expanded his point of view from black rights movement to more broad meaning of world peace.
The second song is Let’s Get it on. It was released two years later than What’s Going on. The biggest difference is in its lyrics. While What’s Going on deals with social and political issues at that era, this song is rather personal and sensual. Do you remember Marvin Gaye calling audience such as father, mother, brother, sister in What’s Going on? His word choice, I mean, diction changed somewhat dramatically, for example, baby, sugar, girl, my sweet, love in Let’s Get it on. We thought that there was a shift in his subject of music during this time. He started to focus on expressing sexuality and his own feelings.
Now, let’s see his sound and music style. First, the vocal part. His dominant characteristic is to use a lot of Falsetto which means an assumed voice. And comparing to other musicians, call and response pattern is not that obvious. There is back chorus instead. Therefore, his singing style could be sound more sweet and soft that many enjoyed his music easily.
Then, for instruments. Percussion like conga composes the basic rhythm line. It keeps on beating from the beginning to the end, but not stronger than that of drum in the previous songs by other musicians. Its role is to keep up with the flow of vocal.
He also used wind instruments like saxophone and trumpet. They often fill up between Marvin’s singing and the rhythm section. With these instruments, his performance sounds like a jazz band in a bar. He, himself, could play the piano while singing simultaneously. All the instruments were played in harmony. There’s no conspicuous improvisation leaded by solo musical instrument.
In conclusion, his sound and music style is smoother and more rhythmical than previous American pop music. Think about other soul musicians and compare his music to them. You will easily recognize that Marvin Gaye’s soul became much softer and smoother. Before we read the lyrics of What’s Going on, we didn’t even think that it would be the song about social issues. The melody of the song seems to be a love song’s! This kind of music style enabled even white people to listen to his music. And this was what exactly Motown wanted. Motown, the recording company succeeded in making Marvin Gaye the good-selling musician in this way.