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the Music of the era
Many styles of popular music cross-pollinated during the Vietnam Era (1961–1975). No hybrid of musical genre, instrumentation, or culture seemed beyond the musical imagination of songwriters and musicians.
As the 1960s began, most adults preferred the swing styles and romantic ballads familiar from the World War II era and the 1950s. Singers like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole— Ella Fitzgerald and Patti Page—were the kings and queens of croon. These were the stars Marvin Gaye styled himself after in his early career. All in all, the music was smooth and soothing.
In the 1960s, politics and controversy increasingly seeped into popular music, often through folk singers. Singer-songwriter Joan Baez emerged and became very involved in the civil rights movement. In 1963, folk-rocker Bob Dylan strolled onto the music scene with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” His voice was rough and nasal, his melodies basic, but his messages often struck the country’s nerves. His songs became staples of civil rights and anti-war protests as did the “message music” of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
In time, psychedelic rock grew out of the sounds of folk, blues, and rock. This hybrid style expressed a dreamlike state in music, and often featured songs that were significantly longer than the standard three-minute, ready-for-radio tune. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, and Jefferson Airplane, among others, gravitated toward this sound. The late 1960s also saw the birth of hard rock and heavy metal, led by such bands as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath. Musically, nothing seemed off limits.
In Detroit, Motown and its artists were also pushing into new musical territory. Soul music was morphing into funk—music with a heavy backbeat and mellow groove. Thematically, though, the company’s owner and leader Berry Gordy, Jr., was playing it safe. Even as African Americans struggled against racism, poverty, and inequality, Motown mostly steered clear of these harsh realities in its music.
By 1971, however, Marvin Gaye wanted more freedom to make music with a stronger message. He knew he was flying in the face of Gordy and Motown, but his long string of hits had given him the leverage to fight for what he felt truly mattered. His vision and determination became the album What’s Going On.
The album built on the instrumental artistry of Motown’s outstanding musicians and miracle-making sound engineers. But Gaye also wove in the political, environmental, and social commentary of folk rockers. He harnessed the driving energy of gospel, jazz, soul, and other styles rooted in African American musical traditions. He also added psychedelic modes that pushed the album’s musical style beyond anything he or Motown had tried before. At the same time, Gaye’s smooth-as-silk vocals and phrasing were often remindful of past crooners he admired. The album was immediately recognized as a unique and daring work in its own right.
It’s been 40 years. It’s time to read about our times, “our Now”…next.