Marvin Gaye - What’s Going on - 1971 - Kult-Spiel

Introduction to "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic "What's Going On" is more than just a song; it's a powerful reflection of social issues, human emotions, and the call for change that resonated in the early 1970s and continues to be relevant today. This course will take you through the background, impact, lyrics, and legacy of this timeless piece.

Background of the Song

Marvin Gaye, a prominent figure in the Motown movement, released "What's Going On" at a time when the United States was grappling with the Vietnam War, civil rights movements, and environmental concerns. This song marked a significant shift in Gaye's career, moving away from romantic themes to more socially conscious subject matter.

  1. Marvin Gaye's Biography
  2. The Motown Era
  3. 1970s America's Social Climate

Musical Composition

The musical structure of "What's Going On" is notable for its blend of gospel, jazz, and classical influences, which create a unique sound that supports its poignant message. The song's arrangement, including the layers of vocals and use of saxophone, contributes to its emotional depth.

  1. Understanding Music Composition
  2. Gospel Music Influence
  3. Jazz Music Elements

Lyrics and Themes

The lyrics of "What's Going On" speak to various themes, such as peace, understanding, and compassion. The song is a plea for empathy amidst a world of turmoil, touching on issues such as war, poverty, and environmental degradation.

  1. Analyzing Song Lyrics
  2. Peace Movements in the 1970s
  3. Environmentalism in Music

Quiz: Questions on the song

What year was "What's Going On" released? (1971) (!1969) (!1975) (!1980)

Which record label released "What's Going On"? (Motown) (!Atlantic Records) (!Capitol Records) (!Columbia Records)

What genre best describes "What's Going On"? (Soul) (!Rock) (!Pop) (!Disco)

What social issue is NOT directly addressed in "What's Going On"? (!War) (!Poverty) (!Environmental concerns) (Romantic relationships)

"What's Going On" was a shift in Marvin Gaye's musical themes. What was his focus before this song? (Romantic themes) (!Political activism) (!Religious music) (!Instrumental compositions)

Quiz: Questions on the Performer

In which city was Marvin Gaye born? (Washington D.C.) (!Detroit) (!Los Angeles) (!New York City)

Before his solo career, Marvin Gaye was part of which group? (The Moonglows) (!The Temptations) (!The Miracles) (!The Four Tops)

Which album did "What's Going On" title track open? (What's Going On) (!Let's Get It On) (!I Want You) (!Here, My Dear)

What is Marvin Gaye's real surname? (Gaye) (!Smith) (!Johnson) (!Wright)

Which instrument did Marvin Gaye famously play? (Drums) (!Guitar) (!Piano) (!Saxophone)

Quiz: Questions on the lyrics

The line "Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying" reflects on what issue? (Social unrest) (!Family disputes) (!Economic struggle) (!Environmental issues)

Which of these phrases is NOT in the lyrics of "What's Going On"? (!"Love and happiness") ("Brother, brother, brother") ("War is not the answer") ("We don't need to escalate")

"What's Going On" includes a reference to which environmental issue? (Pollution) (!Global warming) (!Deforestation) (!Endangered species)

The lyric "You know we've got to find a way, To bring some understanding here today" conveys a message of what? (Peace and understanding) (!Romantic love) (!Personal success) (!Historical reflection)

What is the underlying theme of the song's lyrics? (Social commentary) (!Personal struggle) (!Celebration) (!Religious devotion)


Marvin Gaye Washington D.C.
1971 Year "What's Going On" was released
Motown Record Label
Social unrest Theme in lyrics
Soul Genre

Open Tasks


  1. Research Marvin Gaye's Early Life: Research and write a short biography of Marvin Gaye, focusing on his early life and career.
  2. Explore 1970s America: Create a timeline of key social and political events in 1970s America.
  3. Musical Genres Influence: Identify other songs from the 1970s that blend different musical genres like "What's Going On."


  1. Analyze "What's Going On" Lyrics: Write an essay analyzing the themes and messages in the lyrics of "What's Going On."
  2. Compare and Contrast: Compare "What's Going On" to another protest song from the same era, discussing similarities and differences in themes and musical style.
  3. Create a Podcast: Produce a podcast episode discussing the impact of "What's Going On" on modern music and social movements.


  1. Compose a Response Song: Compose and record a song that responds to the themes of "What's Going On," reflecting on current social issues.
  2. Organize a Virtual Discussion: Host a virtual discussion with music experts on the significance of Marvin Gaye's shift to socially conscious music.
  3. Develop a Music Workshop: Develop a workshop for high school students on the history of social activism in music, using "What's Going On" as a case study.

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Oral Exam

  1. Discuss the Cultural Impact: Discuss how "What's Going On" impacted American culture and the music industry in the 1970s.
  2. Explain the Shift in Marvin Gaye's Music: Explain the significance of the shift in Marvin Gaye's music from romantic themes to social commentary with "What's Going On."
  3. Interpret the Lyrics: Provide your interpretation of a specific verse from "What's Going On" and explain how it relates to the social issues of the time.
  4. Compare Generational Music: Compare the musical and thematic approaches of "What's Going On" to a modern protest song. Discuss the evolution of social activism through music.
  5. Analyze Motown's Influence: Analyze the role of Motown in shaping the music of the 1960s and 1970s, with specific reference to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

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