As a Soul album “What’s Going On” changed the musical palette by being decidedly more influenced by Jazz than any Gospel leaning album topping the charts had been before. As a Pop album it changed the way that massive labels like Motown looked at hitmaking, opening up the world to socially conscious Pop from black musicians at a time where that had rarely been comprehensible. But the most challenging aspect of “What’s Going On” is the manner in which it fails to conform to the template of a protest album, a social commentary or an overtly political album both at the time of its release and to this day.
Completely lacking in the familiar aggression, hyperbole, or discordance of so many albums dealing with societal strife, “What’s Going On” is a rich, smooth and decidedly cool album. Instead it is marked by bold moments of optimism in the face of the stark, blunt and vivid societal disharmony it paints track after track. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the way Gaye pivots from the devastating lament of “who really cares, to save a world in despair” to imploring “Live. Live for life” on “Save The Children”.
Unique and groundbreaking in its day, it’s an album that continues to resonate musically, culturally, and politically to this day. While that can be taken as a sad indictment of social progress given the near 50 years since its release, it’s the buoyant optimism for life, and a desire to build better lives, that has helped establish “What’s Going On” as an eternal classic.