It’s 1972. America is in the middle of one of the biggest cultural movements it has ever experienced. The Civil Rights Movement is still re-shaping the country’s deep-seated racial lines and the Nixon Administration’s Watergate scandal is altering the relationship of the government and the people. In the midst of all of this sits the mastermind of funk — Marvin Gaye.
Hot off the release of his masterpiece album, “What’s Going On,” Gaye returned to the studio. Following the hyper-success of “What’s Going On,” Motown — Gaye’s label — gave the artist complete creative freedom for his next album. What came out of that artistic liberty was “You’re the Man” — a collection of music that exemplifies Gaye’s genius and manages to be culturally relevant almost 50 years later.
“You’re the Man” opens with an eponymously titled first track, “You’re the Man, Pt. I & II.” The song starts with an electric guitar solo — filtered through a Wah-wah pedal to give it that classic ’70s funk sound — that creates a base for Gaye’s politically fueled message. Lyrics such as “Politics and hypocrites / is turning us all into lunatics / Can you take the guns from our sons / right all the wrongs this administration has done,” and “Ooh, people marching on Washington / wanna hear what they have to say / because the tables just might turn against you, brother / said, around election day,” make a powerful statement that’s just as relevant today in the turmoil surrounding the Trump Administration as it was during the Nixon Administration’s Watergate scandal of ’72.
Gaye follows “You’re the Man, Pt. I & II” with the equally powerful anthem, “The World is Rated X.” The intersection of a quickly rising U.S. crime rate and the flower-power peace movement of the ’70s provided a perfect backdrop for Gaye’s protest music. Following “What’s Going On” — the first soul concept album — “You’re the Man” only adds to the funk master’s protest-themed discography, and “The World is Rated X” is no exception.
Anti-violence lyrics like “Take a look outside, I swear the truth is really told / It’s life in living color; fighting, killing, drug-dealing, it’s everywhere,” and “Love is kneelin’, rated X / Hate is overweight, rated X,” clearly define Gaye’s support of the search for peace. The lyrics sit on top of a base of drums, guitar and string instruments that gives the song its stereotypical, yet endlessly enjoyable, funk sound.
Gaye once again addresses a pressing social issue with two anti-misogyny songs, “I’m Gonna Give You Respect” and “Woman of the World.” The musical bases of the songs are a direct tribute to the sound of the iconic funk group, Earth, Wind & Fire. A big band brass section of trombones, saxophones and trumpets, combined with a string quartet and multiple synthesizers, creates a sound heavily reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire tracks such as “September” and “Let’s Groove.”
Gaye’s vocals — and the message within them — fit in perfectly with the musical base. Using lyrics such as “I’m gonna act so naive / when people tell me you gon’ deceive me,” and “Lady, independence is your thing,” Gaye fights the misogynist view that paints women as being part of a self-serving and inferior sex. In an era of male dominance in both the professional and domestic spheres, it’s a progressive message that’s just as pertinent today in America’s current political climate.
Among the catalog of protest music, Gaye takes a moment on “You’re the Man” to include a ballad that captures the popularized Marvin Gaye style and sound. While he may be the genius behind some of the most powerful protest music to come out of the ’70s, he’s also the author of pop culture hits like “What’s Going On” and “Sexual Healing.” Gaye brings that sound back on “You’re the Man” with “Symphony.” Lyrics like “Tellin’ you I’m just a fellow / Said, ‘I’ve got a one-track mind / and when it comes to thinking about anything except my baby / I just don’t have any time,’” layered on top of a musical base made of a string quartet and smooth vocals, bring out the classic “Sexual Healing” sound. It’s soulful, sultry and oh-so Gaye.
While Gaye uses “You’re the Man” to share his stance on several pressing social issues, he also takes a broader look at humanity with the ballad, “Piece of Clay.” The song opens with a 40-second-long, stripped-down electric guitar solo accompanied by nothing but an organ. It’s a compelling moment that’s evocative of Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar rendition of the national anthem, performed on the unplanned fourth day of the Woodstock music festival. The guitar says just as much as an entire chorus of lyrics could. It’s the perfect introduction for Gaye’s plea for kindness among all people.
Lyrics such as “Father, stop criticizing your son / Mother, please leave your daughters alone / Don’t you see that’s what’s wrong with the world today,” and “We all talk about kindness / but it’s only a word / Brother turned on sister / in this cruel, cruel world today,” address the underlying problem that leads to all of the other social issues he discusses — kindness, or the lack thereof. If people were kinder to each other, he argues, the world would be a better place.
With “You’re the Man,” Gaye proved he’s not afraid to be a voice for change amid a cultural climate fraught with violence, corruption and forced silence of dissenters. His position as a popular musician gave him a platform to speak out against racism, sexism, war violence and other social issues — he didn’t waste the opportunity. “You’re the Man” is a perfect follow-up to the culturally and critically acclaimed masterpiece album, “What’s Going On.” Gaye’s so-called lost album is coming out 50 years after it was intended, but his messages still apply today. Gaye cut the record for the ’70s, but it’s entirely timeless.
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture