Marvin (Penze) Gaye Essay - Critical Essays

Gaye, Marvin (Penze)


Marvin (Penze) Gaye 1939–

Black American songwriter.

Gaye is one of many songwriters credited with expanding the scope of contemporary black music, which had become dormant during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a member of Motown Records's huge company of performers, Gaye was Motown's top male vocalist and teenage heartthrob. His collaborations with Tammi Terrell were especially praised. Their success as a duo ended when Terrell died after a long illness. Shaken by her death, Gaye went into seclusion, surfacing in 1971 with the album What's Going On.

What's Going On is recognized as the first rhythm and blues "concept album," a collection of songs that center on one theme. Many reviewers considered What's Going On a milestone for Gaye as well as for the black popular music industry, which previously had produced mostly superficial love songs. Gaye wrote of the powerlessness of urban blacks in "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," the threat of nuclear war in "Save the Children," and environmental concerns in "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)." He acknowledges the seriousness of this work, citing Terrell's death as an inspiration and stating that he "felt moved to [write songs] … that dealt with real issues and true feelings."

Let's Get It On and I Want You contain songs that are sexually oriented. On both albums, Gaye's lyrics are passionate, yet subtle, reminiscent of those of Smokey Robinson. Here, My Dear, Gaye's most controversial album, generated the most critical attention. It tells the story of Gaye's marriage and divorce from Anna Gordy. Many reviewers believed that this album was an incoherent effort on Gaye's part, while others voiced their disapproval and disappointment over his candidness. In 1982 Gaye emerged from another self-imposed retreat with Midnight Love, whose single "Sexual Healing" won the Grammy Award in 1983 for best rhythm and blues single.

Vince Aletti

[Marvin Gaye has designed What's Going On] as one many-faceted statement on conditions in the world today, made nearly seamless by careful transitions between the cuts. A simple, subdued tone is held throughout, pillowed by a densely-textured instrumental and vocal backing.

At first this sameness in sound persisting from one song to the next is boring, but gradually the concept of the album takes shape and its wholeness becomes very affecting. The style is set in the first cut, "What's Going On."… As they are throughout, the lyrics here are hardly brilliant, but without overreaching they capture a certain aching dissatisfaction that is part of the album's mood.

"What's Happening Brother" picks up from "What's Going On," strengthening its impact by making its situation more specific: a brother returning from Vietnam and trying to get his bearings on the block again, shifting between questions about old hang-outs and fears that there's no work anywhere…. "Mercy, Mercy Me" is one of the most bearable ecology songs, a genre that doesn't seem to inspire especially subtle or intelligent lyrics; Gaye's are inoffensive and the song itself is lovely. Considerably changed from the version that had backed the 45 of "What's Going On," "God Is Love" still has a strange attraction. It begins, "Don't go and talk about my father / God is my friend," and kinda grows on you.

"Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" ends the album and is one of its finest cuts. Again, an effective combination of latin drumming and strings with multi-tracked vocals make the most of direct lyrics…. Taking the album full circle, "Inner City Blues" blends back into "What's Going On," confirming itself nicely.

One or two other cuts don't hold together quite as well ("Right On," the longest number, misses) but the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I've always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn't expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won't happen again. (pp. 43-4)

Vince Aletti, in his review of "What's Going On," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 88, August 5, 1971, pp. 43-4.


After listening to the Motown album What's Going On, the Rev. Jesse Jackson informed its creator. Soul Crooner Marvin Gaye, that he was as much a minister as any man in any pulpit. Gaye does not see himself in quite that way, though he does admit to a certain "in" with the Almighty…. While such words would sound intolerably conceited from any other pop star, they come inoffensively from Gaye. Part mystic, part pentecostal fundamentalist, part socially aware ghetto graduate, this particular Motown superstar simply happens to believe that he speaks to God and vice versa.

The most prominant musical result these days is black beatitudes of sorts called What's Going On. The LP laments war, pollution, heroin and the miseries of ghetto life. It also praises God and Jesus, blesses peace, love, children and the poor. Musically it is a far cry from the gospel or blues styles a black singer-composer might normally apply to such subjects. Instead Gaye weaves a vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite in which Latin beats, soft soul and white pop, and occasionally scat and Hollywood schmalz, yield effortlessly to each other. The overall style of the album is so lush and becalming that the words—which in themselves are often merely simplistic—come at the listener like dots from a Seurat landscape. They are innocent individually but meaningful on masse.

"Motown Beatitudes," in Time (copyright 1971 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 98, No. 15, October 11, 1971, p. 69.

Alan Lewis

Mercy, mercy, me … if only one could be sure. Is ["What's Going On"] a heartfelt personal statement by a brilliant singer who has at last been given the chance to express his true self? Or is it that Motown are determined not to be caught with their social consciences down when people like Curtis Mayfield have done so well out of displaying theirs? Like the other black labels, Motown have realised that in order to sell albums by black artists to the general (i.e., young, white) audience, it is necessary to present them as being "important," "serious" and "relevant." Out goes Funk, in comes Ecology. Thus this album contains printed lyrics (about war, pollution, poverty, drugs, God, inequality, etc), an earnest sleevenote and pictures of Gaye standing against a slum background in the rain, looking suitably concerned. About all that's missing is a lapel badge saying "I CARE." And yet, despite such cynical doubts, it has to be said that this is an impressive album, and that Gaye does emerge as a man of integrity with a deep love of life and God. Politically, the lyrics aren't going to scare anybody, but coming from a man who has spent the past ten years singing other people's songs, they are surprisingly sharp…. [The] album improves with every hearing. Gaye produced and cowrote all the songs, and plays piano. So here's a whole new dimension to a man, who, perhaps more than any other (remembering his beautifully spare and precise vocal lines on songs like "Grapevine" and "I'll Be Doggone") has always avoided excess and indulgence in his work.

Alan Lewis, "Gaye Liberation: 'What's Going On'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), October 16, 1971, p. 54.

Vince Aletti

Even when a movie soundtrack isn't so awful you'd just as soon throw it down the stairs, it very rarely achieves anything beyond a sort of banal, predictable mood music; a little suspense, a little drama, an ooze of romance, maybe a brisk driving-in-the-car-to-possible danger track counterpointed with a lighter, romantic-leads-take-a-walk sequence—all compressed, like a week's worth of garbage, for one tight, bright under-the credits Main Theme. Altogether, it's about as creative as an hour of elevator muzak and only slightly more bearable….

Marvin Gaye's work for Trouble Man (yet another Shaft-style black film, this one dropped from sight soon after its release) falls somewhere between that of [Isaac Hayes for Shaft and Curtis Mayfield for Superfly]. He lacks the Hayes double-punch but avoids his heavy-handedness. While there's no attempt to make a song-score like that of Superfly—"Trouble Man," the title song, is practically the only cut with lyrics and even these are spare—Gaye, like Mayfield, has created a score strong enough to be completely independent of the film. It's not a lot of fluff wrapped around some slick images and obvious themes; mostly, it's sweet and churning jazz that abstracts the action rather than decorating or interpreting it.

Gaye's first album since his surprising and innovative What's Goin' On more than a year ago, Trouble Man doesn't...

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Jon Landau

[On Let's Get It On] Gaye uses his voice (in both lead and background) to create a dreamlike quality only slightly less surreal than he did on What's Goin' On, his very best record to date. But while on the earlier work he sang of the difference between his vision of God's will and man's life, he is currently preoccupied with matters purely secular—love and sex.

And yet he continues to transmit that same degree of intensity, sending out near cosmic overtones while eloquently phrasing the sometimes simplistic lyrics. But then that should come as no surprise from the man who sang "She makes my day a little brighter / My load a little bit lighter / She's a wonderful one," in a way that...

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Joel Vance

Marvin Gaye was one of the original Motown stable of artists. Like Stevie Wonder, he has declared his artistic independence, and his recordings avoid the shrewd, assembly-line "Motown Sound."… A few years ago he cut an album, "What's Goin' On," which seemed to be entirely made up of one ethereal melody to which he set different lyrics dealing with the conditions of life on the planet. Out of this album came Inner City Blues, which said more in five minutes about the black experience than Curtis Mayfield has been able to say in three years.

Gaye has never been sanctimonious or preachy (though he can preach); his recent efforts have shown him to be a fellow of good will and common sense, as...

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Geoff Brown

Three points. First, if you liked "Let's Get It On," Marvin Gaye's last studio album, you'll love "I Want You." Second, it will not convert the unbelievers. Third, it is the sort of album that Barry White and his grunt 'n' groan cronies would dearly love to produce, but can't…. Marvin still looks to sex for direct inspiration. If anything, he's now even more explicit. The title "I Want You" need absolutely no explanation. And much of the remaining music here is likewise straight down the middle: "Come Live With Me Angel," "Feel All My Love Inside," "Since I Had You" and "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again" say most, if not all, in their titles. The important consideration, however, is that "I Want You" is not a series of...

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Vince Aletti

With Barry White on the wane, Marvin Gaye seems determined to take over as soul's master philosopher in the bedroom, a position that requires little but an affectation of constant, rather jaded horniness. The pose has already been established in Let's Get It On …, on which Gaye was hot, tender, aggressive, soothing and casually raunchy—the modern lover with all his contradictions.

I Want You continues in the same vein but with only the faintest traces of the robust passion that shot through and sustained the earlier album…. As pillow talk this is entirely too limp, and in spite of the presence on several tracks of a woman's delighted sighs and moans (such a common effect these...

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Bill Adler

Marvin's latest attempts to scale new heights in sexual immediacy unfortunately fail, since they are delivered in the bogus, overblown manner of Barry White. Like the epochal What's Goin' On and Let's Get It On, [I Want You] has a dreamy, watery feel that is sustained throughout. However, what was unified before sounds homogenized now.

Marvin continues to multi-track his voice, each track in constant call-and-response counterpoint to the others, the arrangements swamped by a veritable ocean of strings, horns, and percussion. Things are rhythmically kept in a tight, if gentle, groove (especially on the title cut and All The Way), but there isn't a distinctive composition...

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Richard Mortifoglio

If you didn't know about Marvin Gaye's divorce, one look at the cover of Here, My Dear would be enough to guess the plot of this home-movie soap. Fake Rodin love sculptures litter a Greco-Roman courtyard bounded by two plaques, one inscribed "Love and Marriage," the other "Pain and Divorce." In front stands Marvin himself, a bogus Socrates gone toga party, inviting us to drink from his own very bitter cup. Pretentious is too good a word for this clutter. What happened to the sharp eye responsible for the exhilarating blur—Gaye's red knit cap as soul icon—of the Let's Get It On cover?

Gaye is no stranger to bad taste—remember the "sex voices" in "You Sure Love To Ball" or the...

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Stephen Holden

A two-record concept album about conjugal love, "Here, My Dear" is a fascinating failure, as flawed as it is ambitious. In some respects it seems almost designed to be off-putting. (p. 122)

In the scope of its ambition and the lavishness of its production, "Here, My Dear" bears many resemblances to Gaye's 1971 masterpiece, "What's Goin' On," possibly the most eloquent evocation of social upheaval to come out of the Motown era. In that album, Gaye introduced a moody aural collage in which the brooding inner voices threatened to burst out of the production; the result was ominous, tense, exhilarating. "Here, My Dear" struts the same sort of echoy melange, thick with strings, horns, and chorus. The...

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Lars Gabel

While most soul music already relies on a very direct relationship between life and artistic expression, Marvin Gaye may well be the first singer to subscribe to the current trend of confessional art. Presumably, inspiration is where you find it, and out of something as prosaic and antithetical to the creative process as his recent divorce case. Marvin Gaye has produced the proverbial silk purse: Here, My Dear is an exciting and personal work—his best since the towering What's Going On….

Starting on a bitter you asked-for-it note to Anna "… I guess I'll have to say this album is dedicated to you … although it may not make you happy, this is what you wanted …", Gaye gives the...

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Stanley Crouch

Since What's Going On in 1971, Marvin Gaye has proven himself the most brilliant and complex thinker in contemporary black popular music. He's succeeded at bringing ideas beyond the novel to a form from which we expect wonderfully sung but simple passions, and the successes have expanded the music itself. The result has been the development of a personal language at ease with gospel quartet crooning, despairing gutteral moans that slide back into the delta, the purple-hearted street-corner falsetto, and the silken sound of elegant erotic ambition.

His is a talent for which the studio must have been invented. Through overdubbing, Gaye imparted lyric, rhythmic, and emotional counterpoint to his...

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Dave Marsh

As a comeback album, Marvin Gaye's Midnight Love is remarkably arrogant: it simply picks up from 1973's Let's Get It On as if only ten minutes, and not a confusing ten years, had elapsed since Gaye hit his commercial peak. But make no mistake: this record, which has become the biggest crossover hit of the singer's career, is a comeback for Gaye, whose last couple of albums, despite their funkster defenders, committed the unpardonable sin of tedium.

Midnight Love is anything but boring. It has the rhythmic tension, melodic delicacy and erotic resilience of Gaye's greatest music, and it extends those attributes by applying contemporary synthesizer gimmickry judiciously and...

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Phyl Garland

[On "Midnight Love"] Gaye concentrates on music that, he admits, is intended to be superficial and commercial. The lyrics are obviously trite and at times downright abominable; all of the worn-out sexual references are expressed in the unimaginative terms that have branded commercial funk as an aggressively anti-intellectual medium. But Gaye as an artist could not fail to produce an album that tingles with musical excitement. Sexual Healing, the first single released from this set, engagingly fuses reggae rhythms with soul references. Midnight Lady has contrived, campy lyrics yet reverberates to offbeat rhythm patterns and unexpected chord changes. Some tracks have no redeeming qualities—Rockin'...

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