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Low Trust, High Art

Nick Elsom

Rolling Stone first published a 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list in 2003. Back then, Sgt Pepper was at number one. Followed by Pet Sounds, then Revolver, then Highway 61 Revisited, then Rubber Soul. Then in 2012 the list was tweaked a little, and the top five were - exactly the same.

Fast forward to 2020, and there’s a change. Marvin Gaye’s 1970 gear-shifting social commentary masterpiece What’s Going On is now at number one. Not only that - Songs In The Key Of Life is at number four. Two black artists whose albums were already recognised as musical milestones are now recognised by a 2020 panel as genuinely genre-crossing works of art.

What changed?

It’s hard not to begin with the events of 2020. Black Lives Matter evolved from a vocal but fringe lobbying organisation into a bona fide movement. The catalyst for that evolution was unquestionably the tragedy and horror of George Floyd’s death, but in the 5 months between May and October 2020 over 950 instances of police brutality were recorded, both catalysing and galvanising BLM into a clear voice with one-message: stop. The response was predictably tone-deaf, brutal, partisan. De-badged militia patrolled streets. A white nationalist named Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed a BLM protester, and has absconded after being - if not applauded - certainly given a ‘good boy’ by then-President Trump. And finally, on January 6th this year, the Capitol building was attacked by a mob, which, had it been grainy footage with a foreign commentary, we would rightly have denounced as the anti-democratic actions of a banana republic.

Trust in institutions, it has to be said, is at a low ebb.

When What’s Going On was conceived and released, the state of the States was remarkably similar in its shifting social tectonics. The Weathermen were actively threatening violence. Soldiers were being charged with the My Lai massacre. The Vietnam conflict spread to Cambodia amid growing domestic opposition. Four students were shot dead by National Guardsmen at Kent University, followed by a second fatal event at Jackson University. By 1971, a Harris poll revealed that 60% of Americans opposed the Vietnam war. What’s Going On indeed.

The roots of the album, in practical terms, was the eponymous track. It was brought to Gaye by Obie Benson of the Four Tops, after the other three rejected it. Initially so did Berry Gordy, the autocratic boss of Motown records, forcing Gaye to produce and record it himself. It was a huge hit, which led to Gordy demanding an album, and quick. Friends who knew Gaye at the time the songs were being created said he claimed he wasn’t responsible, instead it was direct from God. God, zeitgeist, or simply a creative mojo set free for the first time - What’s Going On is the product of something divine. And it is most unlikely to have been created in a time of calm and societal trust.

Back in 2016 I wrote a piece bemoaning the lack of protest songs, stopping well short I hope of grumbling like a dad about ‘young people’s music’. Well, it seems times have changed a lot since then. Trust was then at levels which allowed us all to get along, and significant challenges to our trust in the balance of things were relatively scarce. Now, that delicate balance has changed, and Marvin Gaye’s genuinely beautiful and timeless piece of art has never seemed more important.

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