Marvin Gaye's characterization of his seminal album What's Going On (1971) as a "me against the Man" noncommercial rebellion is a clear example of the fascinating way hype and hermeneutics clash at the site of a pop culture text. Today, we are accustomed to the sights of struggle between performers and management; think of Pearl Jam's quixotic TicketMaster boycott, Prince's facial "slave" tattoo protesting contract negotiations, or Warren Beatty sneaking "Bulworth" by studio executives on the strength of his bankable blockbuster reputation. Popular art does not, cannot, reach us unmediated--it is labeled, packaged, marketed and sold. Although this may seem obvious, what is less so is the significance (and sadness) of a consumer culture learning to appropriate even (and especially) such anti-establishment virtues as humor, self-reference, or rebellion. Desperate to find something to rely on, we root for the underdog, search for signs of non-compliance, ask that our artists "keep it real" and show us that they are "original," "independent," and "alternative." One way to read the story of What's Going On (its artist, producer, and the text itself) is as a precursor to these kinds of recent contemporary arguments over the definitions of "originality" or "rebellion."
Marvin Gaye (re)presents himself in What's Going On as prophet and down-for-the-people rebel. This sort of self presentation, combined with Motown's infamous nickname "The Hit Factory," urges us to believe that What's Going On breaks a mold. And yet this "rebel" characterization becomes questionable because a pure analysis of the text itself is impossible. What we know of What's Going On is necessarily entwined with the stories of Gaye and his father, of Berry Gordy, and the Motown machine. So what is the "true object" of study? Can there be an analysis of these songs without a consideration of the social/historical context in which they are inserted? Is the brilliance of What's Going On dimmed when we read or recognize its constructed fiction, its rhetoric of rebellion? I will argue here that it is this very tension between the myths of freedom, self-expression, originality and a technical (and spiritual) dependence on the past that makes What's Going On great music. As a way of getting at the intersection of personal, professional and religious structures in the album, I will examine how these structures inform and question Gaye's Father/Son relationship.
Any reading of the structures of influence must necessarily be deeply indebted to Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, especially one which situates its critical method in the perspective of Bloom's notions of precursors, swerves, and (mis)readings. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is a text rich in associations to Bloom's theory that a poet is always already belated, that his work as "originator" can only come after he has (mis)read his predecessors. What's Going On under pressure of analysis shows--in some of its greatest anthems to freedom and self-expression--an uneasy dependence on Gaye's prior established Motown moments. Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence, described his theory through readings primarily of Romantic poets, and his theory is here appropriated for analysis of musical texts. His notion of stance most clearly demonstrates the essential conflict at the heart of an artist's originality:
Yet a poet's stance, his Word, his imaginative identity, his whole being, must be unique to him, and remain unique, or he will perish, as a poet, if ever even he has managed his re-birth into poetic incarnation. But his fundamental stance is as much also his precursor's as any man's fundamental nature is also his father's, however transformed, however turned about. (Bloom 71)This passage presents an artist's position, or stance, as one that simultaneously craves uniqueness and has been previously determined. An artist is inserted into a lineage of precursors, and the notions of temporality and a never-escapable "before me" structure each poet's determination to be what he is. Bloom here also touches on a key concept in the rhetoric of Marvin Gaye, that of fathers and sons. Gaye's stance, we will see, is a product of the way he struggles with and misreads a variety of "fathers" in his life.
Bloom derives his understanding of fathers and sons partly from Freud's "family romance." This theory describes the essential competition between father and son as the sons fight to possess their fathers, and to possess what their fathers possess. Yet Bloom also notes that this family romance model "needs to be transformed [if it is appropriated for poets], so as to place the emphasis less upon phallic fatherhood, and more upon priority, for the commodity in which poets deal, their authority, their property, turns upon priority. They own, they are, what they become first in naming" (64). This concept of priority is especially relevant to Marvin Gaye's life and work. As he struggled to avoid and yet reconcile the influence of his father(s), Gaye produced music of incredible tension that at once strives for originality and demonstrates a knowledge of the past. This essay will present Gaye's anxiety of influence as a function of these father figures (figured fathers), and less so to the previous Motown musical artists who influenced Gaye as well.
Yet, although we see a basic struggle for Marvin Gaye's own stance in the lineage of his prior father(s), the text of What's Going On presents an even more interesting conflict at the site of Gaye's anxiety about the influence of his prior singing self. Bloom writes that "all quest-romances of the post-Enlightenment, meaning all Romanticisms whatsoever, are quests to re-beget one's own self, to become one's own Great Original" (64). One of the richest (but also saddest) ways of reading What's Going On is as Marvin Gaye's quest to re-beget his own self in the techniques of voice and the production of the album. In a career that spanned 27 years and hundreds of songs, it is possible to think of Gaye's discography as a long ribbon that can be folded back on itself; in examining What's Going On, we can read through the album to see the earlier music it is indebted to-- the Motown of Marvin Gaye.
Marvin Gaye's What's Going On was released as an album May 21, 1971, although a number of its tracks had been released previously as singles. Between February and October of 1971 three songs ("What's Going On," "Mercy, Mercy Me," and "Inner City Blues") reached the top ten lists for soul and pop (Ritz 152). Considered Gaye's most unusual (and most successful) album by critics, the work is generally thought of as Marvin Gaye's much-vaunted "rebellion" from Motown. The first artist-produced album to come out of Motown, this album generated as much criticism for its social and religious positions as it did praise for its innovation. The songs are meandering and loosely connected, with none of the short, innuendo-laden, pop-single sound people expected from the Motown Gaye, who had initiated major commercial success with "Heard It Through The Grapevine" in October, 1968 (Davis 273). Instead, listeners hear in What's Going On direct, forceful criticism of social and political issues: the title song searches for "understanding" in a world of "picket lines and picket signs" and too many brothers dying; "What's Happening Brother" is a monologue by a man (boy?) who has just come back from Vietnam; "Flyin' High" plays on the United Airlines slogan to evoke a hallucinatory drug trip; "Save The Children" repeats a mantra against nuclear weapons; "God Is Love" is a wandering, gospel-like call to Jesus; "Mercy, Mercy Me" has verses filled with disgust at environmental destruction; "Right On" is a Lennon-esque song with "love" repeated over and over; "Wholy Holy" is a quiet hymn; and finally "Inner City Blues," a devastating, incessant, brilliant construction of life on the street. Not one song contains lyrics about sexual or romantic love; this is perhaps why many people considered What's Going On to be an aberration in Gaye's normative music world of duets with Tammi Terrell, mid-Motown-career songs like "How Sweet It Is," and the later (post-What's Going On), empty triteness of "Sexual Healing" and "Let's Get It On." David Ritz, in Gaye's biography, quotes Marvin Gaye on the reception of the album by Motown:
From Jump Street, Motown fought What's Going On. They didn't like it, didn't understand it, and didn't trust it. Management said the songs were too long, too formless, and would get lost on a public looking for easy three-minute stories. For months they wouldn't release it. My attitude had to be firm. Basically I said, 'Put it out or I'll never record for you again.' That was my ace in the hole, and I had to play it. (147-8)This hyped mutiny against "management" is one that had roots even in Gaye's earliest singing experiences: in a number of biographical texts, it is clear that Marvin Gaye had a strong and paradoxical desire to simultaneously be a part of and yet be apart from the establishment.
Marvin Gaye began singing in church at the age of three, in his minister father's fundamentalist Pentecostal congregation (Fong-Torres/Loder 14). Pentecostalism is an unusual mix of Christian and Jewish beliefs, and is strict in terms of social prohibitions:
...the congregants follow Old Testament dietary laws, celebrate the Jewish Day of atonement by remaining in prayer for twenty-four hours, and eat unleavened bread on Passover. The women were dressed in white, the male hierarchy evident, the dogma stern--no dancing, no movies, no secular music. (Ritz, liner notes 4)The sect is also known for its dedication to "tarrying," or a form of speaking in tongues, in which believers chant a mantra over and over until divine inspiration breaks through (Davis 14-5). Marvin grew up watching his father take control over a crowd at church and bring them to a state of frenzied emotion through the power of his sermons. But the early church relationship between father and son turned into violence at home: Davis notes that Gay, Sr. (Marvin added the "e" to the name) beat his son regularly throughout his childhood and early teenage years (15-6). When Marvin's father lost his preaching job and began drinking, he became more and more reclusive and eccentric; refusing to find work, he allowed his wife, Marvin's mother, to clean houses to support the family.
"My father was a minister and he wanted me in church most of the time" (George 57). The connection between these two structures of family and religion leads to a way of reading them as a system with a hierarchy of Father and Son. The ambiguity of Pentecostalism's stance on Jesus--it is a Christian sect but follows many traditions of Judaism--adds to our confusion about how to interpret Marvin Gaye as a son:
From an early age, Marvin had been well aware that his musical contribution could also be of historical significance. He was blessed with an understanding of music's limitless potential to do good. He often wondered what kind of singing voice Jesus himself might have had. (Ritz 51)Most of Marvin Gaye's life has been described by various critics as a rebellion from a Father; but looking closer we see that this easy equation doesn't always hold up. After Marvin Gaye left the Air Force in 1957 (with an honorable discharge that noted "Gaye cannot adjust to regimentation and authority"), he returned to Washington, D.C. to sing in various doo-wop groups. He was taken in as a part-time member of Harvey Fuqua's Moonglows, "a classic close-harmony R&B group" (Fong-Torres/Loder 14). This secular singing enraged Gaye's father. But in 1961, Berry Gordy heard the Moonglows in Detroit and signed up the first tenor who only sung one lead song per show. Marvin Gaye became a member of Motown (originally called Tamla) but only in a supporting role; "Everybody helped everybody. I played drums on all the Marvelettes' recordings, several of the Miracles', several of my own--and I sang background" (Fong-Torres/Loder 14). This notion of company collaboration was essential to Gordy's empire:
Berry Gordy kept a tight rein on all his employees; this was typified by his introduction of a general fines system for absenteeism, below-standard work and so on. He introduced a punch clock and card system similar to that used at Ford when he worked on the assembly line there...His determination to achieve high standards included him rejecting one hundred Smokey Robinson compositions...Gordy's policy was simple. Every tune recorded had to be a potential number one single, therefore in-house competition between writers and producers was intense, particularly as Gordy had more personnel than he really needed. Gordy: "The people at Motown had a choice of sitting in a studio creating something that would make them feel good and proud, or they could be out robbing somebody's house or taking dope or doing some of the things that people do when they're bored." All his creative staff worked in the cramped conditions at number 2648, a situation considered ideal by Gordy for his family of music. (Davis 31-2)What we note in this passage is the introduction of yet another authority figure constructed as Marvin Gaye's father. Both biological and musical fathers kept strict control with a kind of rhetoric derived from describing what could go wrong if there was no control: drugs, robbery, the evils of secular music.
Yet what did Marvin Gaye do to rebel against these authority figures? Biographers describe both his entrance into secular singing and his creative originality in What's Going On as "breakouts" to "freedom" from the tyranny of Gay, Sr. and the assembly-line boss of Gordy. But as it turns out, Gaye's originality lies more in the way he altered and appropriated these structures of control, both in his life and in his music. Contrary to his father's diatribes against his "devil music," Gaye never wanted to sing sexual songs:
He resisted attempts to turn him into a rhythm-and-blues artist. He thought little of his dancing ability. "I never wanted to shake my ass on stage," he said. His models, instead, were cool crooners like Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. He wanted to sing while seated on a stool. He yearned to be his generation's Nat King Cole. (Ritz, liner notes 5).This sounds somewhat anti-anti-Establishment, and not what we would expect from a singer constantly pegged as a rebel sex symbol by the press. Gaye's rebellion seems somewhat undercut by his love for this lush, over-produced sound. In his life, as well, a determination to get away from his father led to numerous examples of Gaye's life ironically echoing his father's: after leaving his first wife Anna Gordy (a woman 17 years older and often described as a "surrogate mother" figure to Gaye), Gaye married Jan Hunter and had two children, Frankie and Nona. After his death, having left no will or legal documents, "a search through the singer's four personal bank accounts showed he had no more than $30,000 when he died, a fleck in comparison with the $4,245,614.69, plus mounting interest and penalties, he owed the IRS... Back in the good days, it was not unusual for Gaye to earn $3 million or $4 million a year..." (Fischer 88). This inability to support or provide for his family echoes Gay, Sr.'s neglect of Marvin and his mother. Today, Gaye's widow and his children live in low to middle-income housing outside L.A., where Jan Hunter Gaye cleans houses and receives social security to support herself and her children. Marvin's rebelling against his father's strictness (the drugs, parties, immense amounts of money spent) seems ironically to have led him to a stance that oddly echoes his father's irresponsibility in failing his family. Finally, despite escape to sex, drugs and rock and roll, Marvin Gaye reverts to becoming a preacher--just like his father.
The systems of family, religion and art come together in What's Going On, a text designed as a swerve from authority which reads as a repression of the Father's influence. For a man called "the Prince of Motown" (Hirshey 216)--Marvin has been quoted on his relationship with Anna Gordy as saying "Marrying a queen might not make me a king, but at least I'd have a shot at being a prince" (Davis 37)--an "insurrection" seems straightforward and easily attained. Yet an examination of What's Going On (Gaye's most "original" work) shows cracks in the easy hype of rebellion. The album's title is a question that answers itself: the title song asks and then immediately replies, "what's going on? I'll tell you what's going on." The opening is a soft rumble of bass that merges with a high-pitched horn, and then with recorded voices of Gaye's friends talking over the music. In a song whose lyrics include "war is not the answer," the background music is not the loud or strident sound one might expect. Instead, it is an insinuating, gentle, grooving rhythm that undercuts notions or expectations of what a "rebellion" might sound like. Throughout the album, at times it is hard to distinguish Gaye's own voice from the multitude of sounds that percolate through the songs: the liner notes credit an "orchestra conducted and arranged by David Van dePitte" and musicians playing not only guitars, drums, percussion, sax and piano but also celeste, tenor, bongos and conga, two flutes, two trumpets, a trombone, nine violins, four violas, three cellos, a string bass, and a harp (liner notes 21). What are the connotations of a "protest album" using string instruments in an orchestra as background music? Gaye subverts the conventions of rebelling and demonstrates his tutelage to Berry Gordy, master producer. His experiences as a back-up singer and Motown collaborator are distinctly recognizable (but not overtly acknowledged by critics) even--and especially--in his "own" album. Every song on What's Going On (except "Mercy, Mercy Me") has a writer's credit of Marvin Gaye plus another writer, yet David Ritz writes that "the narrative and thematic backbone of the piece belongs to Marvin. He just needed help getting started" (liner notes 10). Gaye is quoted as saying "I was struggling for the right of the Motown artist to express himself" (Ritz 153) and yet this "self-expression" is rooted in What's Going On as collaboration, extensive production, lush, layered background sound, and orchestral organization.
Another subversion of rebellion occurs in the album in Gaye's construction of his own voice(s). Stanley Crouch notes that
His is a talent for which the studio must have been invented. Through over-dubbing, Gaye imparted lyric, rhythmic, and emotional counterpoint to his material. The result was a swirling stream-of-consciousness that enabled him to protest, show allegiance, love, hate, dismiss, and desire in one proverbial fell swoop...The upshot of his genius was the ease and power with which he could pivot from a superficially simple but virtuosic use of rests and accents to a multilinear layered density (George 57).The emphasis in Crouch's analysis is on studio production, dubbing, and an emotional "counterpoint." The "stream-of-consciousness" Crouch finds in What's Going On is not derived from any essential originality, but rather a construction of voices, production and emotion. David Ritz writes that
What's Going On was also the thrilling technical moment when all of Marvin's voices were unleashed at once--his high natural tenor, his angelic falsetto, his gruff middle--by overdubbing, thus creating rich layers of sensuous sound, a trio and sometimes a quartet of Marvin Gayes, the chilling beauty of which fires the soul. (Ritz, "Voice" 61)The notion of "dubbing" (recording one voice over another) problematizes the notion of an essential, original voice. We see this especially in Gaye's text where it is his voices which call to and answer each other. In a way, this compound voice of What's Going On also addresses, interrogates, and answers the previous voice of Marvin Gaye's biggest Motown songs. When in "What's Going On" Gaye cries "talk to me, so you can see, Oh what's going on" the phrase echoes his phenomenal success in Motown duets. In songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" Gaye and Tammi Terrell trade phrases back and forth, calling to one another to answer and "talk to me." Here in his "own" album Gaye asks his old self to "talk to me" and in effect creates a duet between his voices, splitting the singing subject into a conversation between influence and influenced. The emotion of "What's Going On" is a "counterpoint," as Crouch points out--not a totality of origin and voice but a fractured construction of the self by other (self). Gaye is quoted in Ritz's book on his Motown duet success: "I knew I needed something different. That's why I threw myself into the duets. It was acting. It was an escape for me" (110). We can almost read "it was an escape from me" as an example of the anxiety of influence Gaye suffered in his strong misreading of his own previous music.
The album's construction of its creator as a subject is perhaps most prominent in "Inner City Blues," a belligerent song calling for an end to the war and constant oppression by "them"--the government, the state, the IRS. The song's insistent refrain is "make you wanna holler, the way they do my life / make me wanna holler, the way they do my life." This notion of "hollering" is perhaps inspired by the many hours Gaye spent in church watching his father lead a gospel choir and congregation to shouting and calling out to God, "throwing up their hands." But what does it mean to "holler a life?" In Louis Althusser's "Ideology and the State" (a text that was probably constructed during the writing of What's Going On) he posits a theory of "interpellation" or "hailing:"
I shall suggest that ideology "acts" or "functions" in such a way that it "recruits" subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or "transforms" the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: "Hey, you there!" (174)The subject of a state is called into being by the function of state apparatuses such as the police. In this way, the narrator of "Inner City Blues" is created as a function of the way "they holler my life." To holler a life is to appropriate the ability to name a subject's worth; in the inner city, the power hierarchy of "they" over "me" creates a structure in which a subject's only recourse is to turn around the terms of oppressive discourse. The narrator wants to throw up his hands and holler, in "the way they" hail and subject him. To turn this discourse around, street slang in What's Going On appropriates the very terms and gestures of police rule in order to subvert them. For example, in the first chords of "What's Going On," there is a layering or dubbing of recorded talk between Gaye's friends as they "hail" each other in the street to ask: what's going on, brother. And in "What's Happening Brother" the narrator, who is just back from Vietnam, begins his monologue by addressing a friend: "hey, baby, what'cha know good." We can read this phrase as "what do you know that's good" or perhaps as a play on "no-good" as an epithet attributed to black men in the streets. In stealing language designed to oppress, those who are hailed into being (as) a subject are able to reverse the force of these terms by rearranging their context.
Similarly, What's Going On as a text provides a site where the systems of oppression (the Father) of Marvin Gaye are appropriated and constructed to form a rebellion which has its roots in the oppressive structures themselves. Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this is in Marvin Gaye's musical struggle to get around his preacher father. What's Going On is an album full of the rhetoric of preaching: the calls for peace and love in Jesus' name, the repetition of a phrase over and over, a gospel singer's "testimony" to faith. In "God is Love" the first line of the song is "Oh, don't go and talk about my father / God is my friend." Which "father" does the song refer to? We can perhaps read "don't talk about my father" as a statement made by one of Gaye's voices to another (of his voices), in a way of urging a suppression or repression of the distasteful influence on which the album draws. In a song that merges and confuses the boundaries between Gaye's biological father and God the father, lines like "he loves us whether or not we know it" and "when we call on Him for mercy, Mercy Father, / He'll be merciful, my friend" take on ambiguity and sadness in light of Gaye's death. Yet in calling for mercy from a Father, Gaye uses the very means and forms of rhetoric that his father used in preaching. The religious language in What's Going On is fervent, repetitive, urgent and apocalyptic. It brings to mind nothing so much as a preacher in the pulpit. Yet if this preacher's overt message is rebellion, what can it mean that his technique is derived from the establishment? Gaye is quoted as saying "I could see the truth, not in Father's example, but in the words he preached" (Ritz 151). Yet in What's Going On, this statement is reversed; through different words, Gaye follows his father's influence and example.
As a context to the religious system, the way What's Going On constructs family describes the similar conventions in structures of Marvin Gaye's artistic struggle. In "Mercy, Mercy Me" the narrator first calls for "mercy" from a "father" and then tropes the earth as maternal, asking "how much more abuse from man can she stand?" In personifying God and the earth as Gaye's father and mother, he universalizes the strife in his family. Bloom writes: "What justifies this radical analogue between human and poetic birth, between biological and creative anxiety?" (58). As a son caught between defending his mother and asking for his father's approval, What's Going On enacts the very themes it constructs, telling of a son who wanted to rebel but ultimately failed. In his liner notes, Marvin Gaye introduces the orchestral credits with this unfortunate but eerily apt phrase: "and about this job of putting this son-of-a-gun together..." (liner notes 21). As we read the text of What's Going On as a trace of Gaye's earlier constructions of voice, so too can we read his life's end through the systems of creative and familial struggle.
As Marvin Gaye's creative powers degenerated through his increased drug use, paranoia, and loss of confidence, he went to live at the house he had bought for his parents in Los Angeles. Of the events that occurred there on April 1, 1984, David Ritz writes:
In Marvin's mind, he had long ago taken over as head of the household. He, not Father, was providing for Mother. But Gay Sr. had never accepted the fact...[Gay Sr.] shouted to his wife, his voice carrying up the staircase of the enormous home. In one section of the second story were three bedrooms: Mother's room was flanked by her husband's and son's, a perfect symbol of the position she had long tried to maintain--keeping them from each other's throats. Marvin was in his bed, wearing a maroon robe, Mother by his side. Both whisper-quiet speakers, they spoke in sweet delicate voices...The voice of his screaming father cut Marvin like a knife. He shouted back downstairs, telling Father that if he had something to say to Mother, he'd better do so in person...Gay Sr. walked up the staircase in a fury. He entered his son's bedroom where he scolded his wife. Marvin leaped to his mother's defense...[shoving Gay Sr.] out of the room...Minutes later, Father appeared at the door...[holding] a .38 caliber revolver which Mother remembered Marvin having given her husband four months earlier...Father aimed, then squeezed the trigger. (331-3)Freud's construction of the super-ego combines two structures of anxiety: "You ought to be like this (like your father)" with the prohibition "You may not be like this (like your father)--that is, you may not do all that he does; some things are his prerogative" (Freud 30). The conflict in Marvin Gaye between his desire to be like his father (a preacher, a believer, the family's provider, the mother's defender) and his struggle to avoid being influenced by the man erupted into a tableau of violence in which Marvin Gay, Sr. shot and killed his son. Freud's Oedipal "family romance" is eerily present in the sad, strange scene of Marvin Gaye's death: Gaye in the bedroom with his mother, his challenge to his father, the agonistic struggle and a death caused by a gun. Yet if this scene were Freudian, we would of course expect the son to triumph over the father. The fact that it was Marvin Gay Sr. who killed Gaye must necessarily cause us to rethink the way we read and depend on Father/Son systems to structure our interpretations of texts. This analysis, finally, does not intend to trivialize the violent tragedy of a man's death by playing with semiotics. Rather, I wish to point out how we can think of Marvin Gaye's murder by his father as a system of its own, which can be known through our analysis of how the comparable semiotic systems of music, family, and religion work.
Why does the murder of Marvin Gaye by his father seem so jarring in light of an analysis of the structures of influence in his work? Are we so attuned to the Oedipal notion that it must be the prince (son) who kills the king (father)? Are we to read the end of Gaye's life story in terms of its sacrificial Christ tropes? The structures of Father/Son systems seem skewed, even as we try to construct a fiction of Gaye's life (and death) by appropriating the anxiety of influence demonstrated in his art. In conclusion, I would suggest that perhaps the myth of What's Going On's originality or rebellion (from Fathers God, Gordy and Gay Sr.) serves in the end only as a starting point from which we as critics are called on to re-evaluate the semiotic systems which (de)construct our own analysis of Marvin Gaye's music.
It seems crucial that we use theory not only as a lens through which we might read a text like What's Going On, but as a mirror against which we can consider what a structure like the Father/Son system can tell us about our own readings and interpretations. One thing What's Going On does is to make us realize that we are also always already belated--as readers, critics, interpreters, listeners, and consumers of Marvin Gaye. We read What's Going On backwards through our belated knowledge of the circumstances of Gaye's death; it is largely in light of this that the Father/Son structure, and the eerie, even macabre references in the lyrics or liner notes, take on so much resonance. We can think of ourselves as inserted into the lineage of precursors in the same way Marvin Gaye was, and our determination to forge a critical stance comes under the same pressures of influence even as we try to interpret "a new reading" of What's Going On.
And yet, considering the structure of Father/Son in itself forces us to rethink our dependence on
this notion of temporality. Roland Barthes' call for an end to the "myth of filiation" (60) uses our very
expectations of what it means to "father" a work in order to subvert them and provide a different
understanding of interpretation and text. He writes that "the Text can be read without its father's guarantee;
the restoration of the intertext paradoxically abolishes inheritance" (61). Here, through Barthes' reading,
temporal structures of Father and (then) Son are reversed. Could we imagine then that Gaye gives birth to
his own father (Gay Sr.) by writing him into What's Going On? Or that Gaye's too-short life
prevented him from fully attaining this reversal? Perhaps What's Going On is also worth reading as
the son which produces its own father (Marvin Gaye). In this case, then, the dynamic of reading and
working backwards seems appropriate to a series of relationships within and without this brilliant album: as
Marvin Gaye sought to reconcile the influence of his previous Motown singing self, so did he struggle
against the precursors and fathers before him, so does What's Going On produce a version of
Marvin Gaye, and so do we encounter What's Going On always already belatedly.
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Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. California: University of California Press, 1986.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence, 2nd Ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Davis, Sharon. I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Marvin Gaye, The Biography. Great Britain: Mainstream Publishers, 1991.
Fischer, Mary. "What's Going On?: The Sad Legacy of Marvin Gaye." Rolling Stone. October 9, 1986: 85+.
Fong-Torres, Ben and Kurt Loder. "From Singer to Superstar: The Story of Motown's Sexiest Singer." Rolling Stone. May 10, 1984: 57+.
Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Rev. Ed. James Strachey. Trans. Joan Riviere. New York: Norton, 1960.
Gaye, Marvin. What's Going On. Motown, 1971.
- - - . Liner Notes. What's Going On. Motown, 1971.
George, Nelson. "The Power and the Glory." Village Voice. May 8, 1984: 57+.
Hirshey, Gerri. Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music. New York: Times Books, 1984.
Ritz, David. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. New York: McGraw Hill, 1985.
- - - . "Marvin's Miracle." Liner Notes. What's Going On. Motown, Rpt. 1994.
- - - . "A Voice Set Free." Rolling Stone. May 10, 1984: 59+.