Rhetorical Analysis of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

Research Questions:

  1. How does Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” reflect the past and present socio-political injustices of African-Americans from the 1970’s to now?
  2. What does the success of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” achieve for a 1970’s and modern-day African-American society?


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The popular culture perspective analyzes popular culture as an artifact that is reflective of a society’s culture, values, beliefs, attitudes, and identities of a specific time (Hoerl, ch. 17). Operating through the popular culture perspective to rhetorically critique Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” will not only conclude why What’s Going On was successful despite the prohibitions of being a black artist but what the song meant for a mass amount of marginalized people. The relatability of What’s Going On to modern day issues such as police brutality, war, and racism further proves the pop-culture perspective as being a reflection of the psyche of a society at a specific time. Because the popular culture perspective seeks to unify a society on the basis of a cultural identity, the popularity of Gaye’s song answers whether mass media confirms or challenges social hierarchies. The pop-culture perspective’s use of cultural studies further analyzes this relationship. As defined by Hoerl, cultural studies are an “interdisciplinary field concerned with the relationship between culture and power” (Hoerl, ch. 17). Cultural studies’ emphasis on this relationship reveals Gaye’s intent on releasing What’s Going On and explains the audience reaction to the song through the historical events that follow. It could also reveal the reaction of elites addressed within the song and determine whether or not society has changed based on the relatability. Though it wasn’t meant to be a protest song, What’s Going On’s plea for peace and unification with black and white America allows for rhetorical critique of cultural observation in broadness rather than individually composed rhetoric. The widespread analysis that the popular culture perspective provides concludes the ideology that has converged from the 1970’s African-American experience to now.

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