Marvin (Penze) Gaye Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.