What’s Going On at 50: Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece is still so true to life

The album’s unresolved, discordant elements make this album truly timeless – that, and the fact that too few of its concerns have been addressed since 1971

Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 record What’s Going On turns 50 this month, which means more people than ever will have occasion to note how timely it is. “He could have written What’s Going On yesterday,” poet Nikki Giovanni noted in an interview last autumn, explaining that the cover portrait of her 2020 collection, Make Me Rain, pays homage to Gaye’s album cover, picturing Giovanni in a raincoat, her collar upturned. The record’s endurance – most movingly displayed by Nelson Mandela, who, shortly after his release from prison in 1990, recited lines from the album at Tiger Stadium in Detroit – has practically become a cliche.

There was a lot on his mind: the outrage of Vietnam, strangulation of the natural world, urban poverty and police violence

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