‘What’s going on’ still the big question

Fifty years ago, in January of 1971, the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Going On” was released as a single. In May of that year, the album with the same name came out.

I was a high school freshman back in 1971 and was pretty uncertain about the world around me. I worried about my place on the freshman basketball team and what the cute girl in math class thought about me. I spent time counting down the days until I could get my driver’s license. Oh, no! Is that another zit? I guess you could say my worries were on a slightly smaller scale than the things mentioned in Gaye’s song.

I listened to “What’s Going On” on the radio a lot that year. Most songs that made the radio those days were about a girl or a guy or maybe a drug-induced experience. The top Billboard songs that year were “Joy to the World” (Three Dog Night) and “Maggie May” (Rod Stewart). “What’s Going On” tackled war, racism and violence. It was unlike anything most of us had heard before.

The thing is, if Marvin Gaye were here today, he could sing the same song and it, unfortunately, would be very relevant.

Way back when the song came out, even in Troy, Ohio, there was racial tension, division caused by the Vietnam War, a drug crisis and violence. Jump forward 50 years and while the war has moved from Vietnam to somewhere else, everything else sounds the same.

I’m not saying we haven’t made progress in many areas — when I was growing up, anyone of color in Troy pretty much had to live in one of two neighborhoods. When high school teacher Stan Simpson moved to Westbrook, it was a big deal. The conflict over this country’s recent military involvement in foreign countries is nothing compared to the battle over Vietnam.

Gaye later recorded a song (“Mercy, Mercy Me”) about the environment. I can remember a Troy with trash in the river and roadsides that looked like landfills. We have come a long way from that, but now are facing giant-sized ecological issues with potentially much more disturbing consequences.

But while we have made some improvement, for the most part we are facing the same old issues. Drugs? Still a big problem, only a few more drugs have been added to the list. Violence? Worse than ever, including questions about police violence, which was one of the inspirations for Gaye’s song. And back when I was in high school and college, we talked about how someday our society would be “color blind” — that a person’s race or beliefs wouldn’t make any difference. We would be able to disagree about some things but still be civil about it.

Well, we’re still a long way from that happening.

I bring this up not because I’m a big Marvin Gaye fan — my musical tastes at the time (such as they were) went in a different direction. But I bring it up because it appears he wrote a song with a universal theme for all time.

Here I am 65 years old and I’m still uncertain about the world around me. Yes, I solved the problems about the basketball team and the cute girl and the driver’s license. It’s funny to look back and remember how big those things were to me 50 years ago.

But we haven’t solved any of those bigger issues. My only insight on the subject after 50 years is that we all want to change the world, but few of us are willing to change ourselves. I think one has to come before the other.

So, Marvin, what’s going on? The answer seems to be, pretty much the same things that were going on 50 years ago. I guess we’ll just have to keep trying.