Birthday Post #4: In 1971, when I first loved this song, I actually DIDN’T know what was ‘going on’ in local or national politics. I did not know about the race tensions in my town. I was unaware of the war in Vietnam and that it wouldn’t end for another 4 years. I knew my dad was retired from the Air Force, but he never talked about war, and I never asked. Time stretched forever, so even if someone had told me more about MLK/civil rights, and that King had been assassinated 3 years prior, it would have seemed like events far away and long ago, and definitely not relevant to the more immediate concern of what was for dinner or how long I could play outside. I knew a man named Nixon was president but at 6, he was just a name.
The anti-war/anti-brutality lyrics of “What’s Going On” were over my head, but of course the phrase ‘what’s going on’ was familiar in 1971, and the soul of the music and Gaye’s voice resonated with me. The relevance of the lyrics today would be eery, except for the truth that time is swift, and the passing of 40 years since Gaye first sang the song, has not magically changed the reasons for war in the first place and its continued existence.
Today, when it seems our world is turning in on itself – the terror of Boko Haram, of Isis, of our own domestic terrorism, our denial of our own domestic terrorism – it is easy for me to return to the comfort this song brought my six-year-old self. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, but not really caring – this version of Gaye’s song features artists from around the world, who create something new out of something old, breathing fresh life into what we love and perhaps had not realized could be beautifully rearranged.