Hobbes, Locke & Rousseau: An Animated Introduction to Their Political Theories

The phrase “state of nature” doesn’t get much use in philosophy these days, but every political philosopher must grapple with the history of the idea — a foundational conceit of modern Euro-American thought in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These three “contractualist” philosophers, often grouped together in syllabi and selected introductory texts, relied on the notion that humans once existed in an anarchic state predating civil society, and that this state might be re-discoverable in indigenous ways of life in the Americas. In the three School of Life videos here, you can learn the basics about each of these philosophers and their political theories.

Unlike the Biblical garden of Eden, the state of nature was hardly perfect, at least for Hobbes and Locke, who saw government as a necessary mediator for competing self-interests. The kinds of governments they theorized were vastly different from each other — one an absolute monarchy and the other a capitalist republic. But in each theorist’s pseudo-prehistory, early humans gave up their independence by making social contracts for protection and mutual interest. These “contracts,” claimed both Hobbes and Locke, were the origin of governments.




Hobbes was the first major thinker to elaborate a version of this story, and his description of life before government is well-known: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of their painful existence, humans would have sought out a powerful ruler to protect them. They were right to do so, Hobbes believed, because only a king, as he argued in Leviathan, could provide the protection people need. It was perhaps no coincidence that Hobbes worked for a king, his former student, Charles II, restored to the throne after the English Civil War that drove Hobbes to his authoritarian views, supposedly.

Despite his defense of divine power, Hobbes stood accused of atheism and blasphemy for, among other things, writing a secular justification for monarchy that was not based on revelation or the divine right of kings. Likewise, the first part of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government was a forceful refutation of divine right. But Locke’s ideas of toleration were far more threatening to the state, which is why he published anonymously. In his Second Treatise, he laid out his version of the state of nature and the social contract — ideas drawn in part from travelogues written by early colonial adventurers.

Locke’s theory of government is also a theory of private property — the rightful source of political power, he believed — and who should own it. Decades later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his most salient works, including a book titled The Social Contract, in opposition to the inequality of Hobbesian and Lockean states. Rousseau believed in human perfectibility and claimed that governments imposed a “general will” on individuals, repressing an essentially benevolent state of nature in which resources were shared.

Rousseau’s rejoinder to the myth of vicious savagery gave rise to another: that of the noble savage, an appealing image for the revolutionaries of late-18th century France and later utopian socialists tasked with the difficult project of imagining an alternative to political hierarchy. In social contract theory, the imagined way forward derives from an imagined precolonial past, more “moral fiction” than “historical fact,” as scholar Richard Ashcraft argues. Learn more about the mythical state of nature and the primary theorists of the social contract above.

Related Content: 

Leo Strauss: 15 Political Philosophy Courses Online

Social and Political Philosophy: A Free Online Course 

Introduction to Political Philosophy: A Free Online Course from Yale University 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chinese Youth Announce That They’re “Lying Flat” and Resisting the Pressures of Modern Life

The “Lying Flat” movement taking hold among young people in China involves doing exactly what it suggests: working little, resting a lot, and cultivating the most minimalist lifestyle possible. Unlike Timothy Leary’s 1960’s mantra, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” lying flat, or tang ping (躺平), takes no stance on a countercultural ethos or the consumption of mind-altering drugs. But it has caused the authorities alarm, even among English-language observers. Consider the Brookings Institute headline, “The ‘lying flat’ movement standing in the way of China’s innovation drive.” Standing in the way of innovation is a cardinal sin of capitalism, one reason the “niche Chinese Gen Z meme” of tang ping, Jane Li writes, “is ringing alarm bells for Beijing.”

The phenomenon began — where else — on social media, when 31-year-old former factory worker Luo Huazhong “drew the curtains and crawled into bed,” Cassady Rosenblum writes at The New York Times. Luo then “posted a picture of himself [in bed] to the Chinese website Baidu along with a message: ‘Lying Flat is Justice.’”




His manifesto (above) claimed the “right to choose a slow lifestyle” by doing little work to get by, reading, gardening, exercising, and, yes, lying supine as often as he liked. To further elaborate, Luo wrote, “lying flat is my sophistic movement,” with a reference to Diogenes the Cynic, the Greek philosopher “said to have lived inside a barrel to criticize the excesses of Athenian aristocrats.”

Diogenes did more than that. He and his followers rejected everything about Athenian society, from work and marriage to the abstract reasoning of Plato. Luo might have turned to a more traditional source for “lying flat” — the Daoist principle of wu-wei, or non-doing. But lying flat is not so much about living in harmony with nature as it is a state of exhaustion, a full-body admission that the promises of capitalism — work hard now, rest hard later — have not and will not materialize. They are phantoms, mirages, precisely the kind of fictions that made Diogenes bark with laughter. The truth, Rosenblum writes, is that for “essential” workers at the bottom all the way up to the “inner sanctums” of Goldman Sachs, “work has become intolerable. Rest is resistance.”

In a work culture that celebrates “996” — 12-hour days, six days a week– rest may be the only form of resistance. Political repression and lack of upward mobility have fostered “an almost monastic outlook” in China, writes Li, “including not getting married, not having children, not having a job, not owning property, and consuming as little as possible.” Since picking up tens of thousands of followers online, the lying flat movement has become the target of a censorship campaign aimed at stopping young Chinese workers from checking out. One government-backed newspaper called the movement “shameful,” and news agency Xinhua unfavorably compared “lying flattists” to front-line medical workers. The original manifesto, Lying Flat groups, and message boards where users posted photos of seals, cats, and themselves lying flat have been taken down.

Zijia Song writes of tang ping as partly a response to a traditional Chinese culture of competitiveness and overwork, but notes that there are similar movements in Japan, Korea, and the U.S., where “Black activists, writers and thinkers are among the clearest voices articulating this spiritual malaise and its solutions,” writes Rosenblum, “perhaps because they’ve borne the brunt of capitalism more than other groups of Americans.” Whatever their national origin, each of these statements defiantly claims the right to rest, posing a threat not only to the Party but to an ideal of human life as endless overwork for shiny trinkets and empty promises, during a global pandemic and climate crisis that have revealed to us like nothing else the need to slow down, rest, and completely reimagine the way we live.

Related Content: 

Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Will You Really Achieve Happiness If You Finally Win the Rat Race? Don’t Answer the Question Until You’ve Watched Steve Cutts’ New Animation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Vincent Price Star in a Classic Radio Adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984

Here are some things you may not know about Vincent Price:

He was once a young man.

Before becoming a horror icon in the 1950s, he was a successful character actor. “Only a third of his movies that he made were actually horror films,” says his daughter, Victoria Price. “He made 105 films. People don’t realize he had an extensive career in theater and radio.”

He came from a wealthy St. Louis family and harbored early anti-semitic views and a misguided admiration for Hitler in the 1930s.

He completely changed his views after moving to New York and was placed on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Premature Anti-Nazi Sympathizer list” in the 1950s, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, notes Susan King at the L.A. Times, a list that “raised questions about those who had been against the Nazis before the U.S. went to war with Germany.”




He was a gourmet cook, had a degree in art history, and worked for nine years in the sixties as an art consultant for Sears….

He was blacklisted for being anti-Nazi too early….

After being denied work for almost a year, as Price’s daughter writes in her 1999 memoir, Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, he chose to sign a “secret oath” offered by the FBI to salvage his career. Perhaps not coincidentally, he took a radio part soon afterward in Australia, as a split narrator/Winston Smith in a 1955 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, perhaps fearful of a future in which secret oaths became the norm.

Orwell himself had made it perfectly clear what he feared. “Radical in his politics and in his artistic tastes,” Lionel Trilling wrote in a New Yorker review the year the book came out, “Orwell is wholly free of the cant of radicalism”; his talent as a writer of fiction is to make “common sense” political observations serve plot and character. Perhaps the most chilling of these arrives in the first few paragraphs of 1984:

In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered. 

We may be reminded of the distinctions between what “Orwellian” means and what it does not, as Noah Tavlin describes in a recent explainer: if someone’s “talking about mass surveillance and intrusive government, they’re describing something authoritarian, but not necessarily Orwellian.” Authoritarianism is pure brute force. The Orwellian requires a constant misuse of language, a violent twisting of conscience, a perpetual shouting of lies as truth until the two are indistinguishable. No one is served by this but nihilistic oligarchs, Trilling writes:

The rulers of Orwell’s State know that power in its pure form has for its true end nothing but itself, and they know that the nature of power is defined by the pain it can inflict on others. They know, too, that just as wealth exists only in relation to the poverty of others, so power in its pure aspect exists only in relation to the weakness of others, and that any power of the ruled, even the power to experience happiness, is by that much a diminution of the power of the rulers.

Orwellian societies exist solely to spread hatred and misery, even to their detriment, a point Price made at the end of another radio broadcast, a 1950 episode of NBC’s The Saint, in which the actor denounced racism and religious prejudice. Not long afterward, his name appeared on McCarthy’s list.

Price learned that the government could deprive him of his happiness unless he swore fealty to an insanely nonsensical political morality. His daughter offers the experience as one reason for his love of playing villains. “Most of the villains that he played had been wronged in some way. There was a reason for their villainy.”

Related Content: 

What “Orwellian” Really Means: An Animated Lesson About the Use & Abuse of the Term

Huxley to Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Steven Van Zandt Organized the Sun City Boycott and Helped Catalyze the Anti-Apartheid Movement (1985)

Actor and musician Steven Van Zandt — known to Springsteen fans as E Street Band guitarist Little Steven — played the steady voice of reason Silvio Dante on The Sopranos. Without his guiding hand and sense of style, Tony would not have made it as far as he did. How much of Steven Van Zandt was in Silvio? Maybe a lot. As Van Zandt told Vice in a 2019 interview, he invented the character and gave it to David Chase, who turned his vision of “big bands, chorus girls, Jewish Catskills comics” into the Bada Bing, a “strip club for the family.”

It’s not hard to imagine Silvio in his shiny suits getting onstage with the Boss, but he would never have played Van Zandt’s role as an anti-racist activist. After leaving the E Street Band in 1984, Van Zandt started organizing musicians against apartheid for what would become an unprecedented action against Sun City, “a ritzy, whites only resort in South Africa,” Josh Haskell writes at ABC News, “that Van Zandt and his group Artists United Against Apartheid decided to boycott.”




Van Zandt and legendary hip hop producer Arthur Baker brought together what rock critic Dave Marsh calls “the most diverse line up of popular musicians ever assembled for a single session” to record “Sun City,” a song that “raised awareness about apartheid,” says Haskell, “during a time in the 1980s when many Americans weren’t aware of what was happening.” It wasn’t difficult to bury the news pre-internet. Since the South African government received tacit support from U.S. corporations and the Reagan administration, there was hardly a rush to characterize the country too negatively in the media.

Van Zandt himself remembered being “shocked to find really slavery going on and this very brilliant but evil strategy called apartheid,” he said in 2013. “At the time, it was quite courageous for the artists to be on this record. We crossed a line from social concerns to political concerns.” The list of famous artists involved in the recording sessions and video is too long to reproduce, but it notably included hip-hop and rock royalty like Bruce Springsteen, DJ Kool Herc, Bob Dylan, Pat Benatar, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Run D.M.C., Peter Gabriel, Kurtis Blow, Bono, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Joey Ramone, Gil Scott-Heron, and Bob Geldof.

As with other occasional supergroups assembled at the time (by Geldof) to raise funds and/or awareness for global causes, there’s a too-many-cooks feel to the results, but the music is secondary to the message. Even so, “Sun City” turned out to be a pioneering crossover track: “too black for white radio and too white for black radio,” says Van Zandt. Instead, it hit its stride on television in the early days of MTV and BET: “They really embraced it and played it a lot. Congressmen and senators’ children were coming up to them and telling them about apartheid and what they saw happening in South Africa. That put us over the edge.”

When pop, punk, rock, and hip-hop artists linked arms, it “re-energized the whole anti-apartheid movement, says Van Zandt, which had kind of hit a wall at that point and was not getting much traction.” Unlike other supergroup protest songs, “Sun City” also gave its listeners an incisive political education, summing up the situation in the lyrics. You can see a 1985 documentary on the making of the song just above. “The refrain of ‘I ain’t gonna play Sun City’ is a simple one,” notes the Zinn Education Project, “but the issues raised in the song and film are not.” See the lyrics (along with the artists who sang the lines) here, and learn more about the history of South African apartheid at the Zinn Ed Project.

Related Content:

When South Africa Banned Pink Floyd’s The Wall After Students Chanted “We Don’t Need No Education” to Protest the Apartheid School System (1980)

Peter Gabriel Re-Records “Biko,” His Anti-Apartheid Protest Song, with Musicians Around the World

Take a Virtual Tour of Robben Island Where Nelson Mandela and Other Apartheid Opponents Were Jailed

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

757 Episodes of the Classic TV Game Show What’s My Line?: Watch Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong, Salvador Dali & More

What would the host and panelists of the classic primetime television game show What’s My Line? have made of The Masked Singera more recent offering in which panelists attempt to identify celebrity contestants who are concealed by elaborate head-to-toe costumes and electronically altered voiceovers.

One expects such shenanigans might have struck them as a bit uncouth.

Host John Charles Daly was willing to keep the ball up in the air by answering the panel’s initial questions for a Mystery Guest with a widely recognizable voice, but it’s hard to imagine anyone stuffing former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt into the full body steampunk bee suit the (SPOILER) Empress of Soul wore on The Masked Singer’s first season.




Mrs. Roosevelt’s Oct 18, 1953 appearance is a delight, especially her pantomimed disgust at the 17:29 mark, above, when blindfolded panelist Arlene Francis asks if she’s associated with politics, and Daly jumps in to reply yes on her behalf.

Later on, you get a sense of what playing a jolly parlor game with Mrs. Roosevelt would have been like. She’s not above fudging her answers a bit, and very nearly wriggles with anticipation as another panelist, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, begins to home in on the truth.

While the roster of Mystery Guests over the show’s original 17-year broadcast is impressive — Cab CallowayJudy Garland, and Edward R. Murrow to name a few — every episode also boasted two or three civilians hoping to stump the sophisticated panel with their profession.

Mrs. Roosevelt was preceded by a bathtub salesman and a fellow involved in the manufacture of Bloodhound Chewing Tobacco, after which there was just enough time for a woman who wrote television commercials.

Non-celebrity guests stood to earn up to $50 (over $500 today) by prolonging the revelation of their professions, as compared to the Mystery Guests who received an appearance fee of ten times that, win or lose. (Presumably, Mrs. Roosevelt was one of those to donate her honorarium.)

The regular panelists were paid “scandalous amounts of money” as per publisher Bennett Cerf, whose “reputation as a nimble-witted gentleman-about-town was reinforced by his tenure on What’s My Line?”, according to Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office.

The unscripted urbane banter kept viewers tuning in. Broadway actor Francis recalled: “I got so much pleasure out of ‘What’s My Line?’ There were no rehearsals. You’d just sit there and be yourself and do the best you could.”

Panelist Steve Allen is credited with spontaneously alighting on a breadbox as a unit of comparative measurement while questioning a manhole cover salesman in an episode that featured June Havoc, legend of stage and screen as the Mystery Guest (at at 23:57, below).

“Want to show us your breadbox, Steve?” one of the female panelists fires back off-camera.

The phrase “is it bigger than a breadbox” went on to become a running joke, further contributing to the illusion that viewers had been invited to a fashionable cocktail party where glamorous New York scenemakers dressed up to play 21 Professional Questions with ordinary mortals and a celebrity guest.

Jazz great Louis Armstrong appeared on the show twice, in 1954 and then again in 1964, when he employed a successful technique of light monosyllabic responses to trick the same panelists who had identified him quickly on his initial outing.

“Are you related to anybody that has anything to do with What’s My Line?” Cerf asks, causing Armstrong, host Daly, and the studio audience to dissolve with laughter.

“What happened?” Arlene Francis cries from under her pearl-trimmed mask, not wanting to miss the joke.

Television — and America itself — was a long way off from acknowledging the existence of interracial families.

“It’s not Van Clyburn, is it?” Francis ventures a couple of minutes later….

Expect the usual gender-based assumptions of the period, but also appearances by Mary G. Ross, a Cherokee aerospace engineer, and physicist Helen P. Mann, a data analyst at Cape Canaveral.

If you find the convivial atmosphere of this seminal Goodson-Todman game show absorbing, there are 757 episodes available for viewing on What’s My Line?’YouTube channel.

Allow us to kick things off on a Surreal Note with Mystery Guest Salvador Dali, after which you can browse chronological playlists as you see fit:

1950-54

1955-57

1958-60

1961 -63

1964-65

Related Content: 

Salvador Dalí Gets Surreal with 1950s America: Watch His Appearances on What’s My Line? (1952) and The Mike Wallace Interview (1958)

How American Bandstand Changed American Culture: Revisit Scenes from the Iconic Music Show

How Dick Cavett Brought Sophistication to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Classic Interviews Online

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Rage Against the Machine Interviewed Noam Chomsky (1999)

“The first great [economic] experiment was a ‘bad idea’ for the subjects, but not for the designers and local elites associated with them. This pattern continues until the present: placing profit over people.” — Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People

“A global decomposition is taking place. We call it the Fourth World War: neoliberalism’s globalization attempt to eliminate that multitude of people who are not useful to the powerful — the groups called ‘minorities’ in the mathematics of power, but who happen to be the majority population in the world.” — Subcomandante Marcos

Whether we think of global neoliberalism — to the extent that we think about it — as the inertia of centuries-old economic theory or as deliberate genocide, the effects are the same. The majority of the world’s population suffers under massive inequality, including, now, vaccine inequality, leading to raging COVID epidemics in some parts of the world as other places emerge from lockdowns and resume “normal” operations. The “Capitalist Hydra,” as Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos once called it, always seems to grow more heads.

Indeed, most plans to alleviate global poverty and disease seem to further enrich the architects and immiserate the targets of their purported care. Noam Chomsky has pointed out repeatedly that neoliberal economic rules are only applied to subject populations, since the wealthy ignore the strict conditions they impose by force and coercion on others, calling the outcomes a natural sorting of “winners and losers.” Ongoing global economic practices have accelerated a climate crisis that impacts the majority of the world’s (poor) population, sending millions on a collision course with brutality at the borders as they flee to other parts of the world for bare survival.




The multiple crises we now face were clearly evident at the turn of the millennium, when Rage Against the Machine played Mexico City for the first time in 1999. They released the concert footage in a video titled The Battle of Mexico City in 2001, the same year the indigenous guerrilla force EZLN — popularly known as the Zapatistas — marched on Mexico City. (Concert audio was released on vinyl this past June.) The video release included interviews with Chomsky and then-EZLN military leader Marcos, and you can see them both here.

At the top, Chomsky responds to a question about NAFTA, a “free-trade” agreement that proved his point about how such policies do the opposite of what they propose, benefitting the very few instead of the many. Chomsky, who analyzed the ways that the government and corporate media manufactured consent for their policies during the Vietnam War, wasn’t taken in by the hype. The agreement never had anything to do with free trade, he says, but with locking Mexico into programs of “structural adjustment” that kept people in poverty and the country dependent on economic terms dictated from outside its borders.

From the perspective of the indigenous people in Mexico fighting for an autonomous region in Chiapas, the struggle is not only against the Mexican government, but also an international economic order that imposes its will on the country and its citizens, who then turn on the poorest and most dispossessed among them in conditions of manufactured scarcity. Indigenous Mexicans, like other internally subjected people around the world, are deemed expendable, figured as a “problem” to be solved or eliminated. What is so striking about these perspectives, twenty years after the release of The Battle of Mexico City, is just how prescient, even prophetic, they sound today.

Related Content: 

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and How the Media Creates the Illusion of Democracy

Requiem for the American Dream: Noam Chomsky on the 10 Principles That Have Led to Unprecedented Inequality in the US 

Noam Chomsky Explains the Best Way for Ordinary People to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunting

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Groundbreaking Linguistic Theories

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Never-Aired TV Profile of James Baldwin (1979)

In 1979, just a couple of months into his stint with 20/20, ABC’s fledgling television news magazine, producer and documentarian Joseph Lovett was “beyond thrilled” to be assigned an interview with author James Baldwin, whose work he had discovered as a teen.

Knowing that Baldwin liked to break out the bourbon in the afternoon, Lovett arranged for his crew to arrive early in the morning to set up lighting and have breakfast waiting before Baldwin awakened:

He hadn’t had a drop to drink and he was brilliant, utterly brilliant. We couldn’t have been happier.

Pioneering journalist Sylvia Chase conducted the interview. The segment also included stops at Lincoln Center for a rehearsal of Baldwin’s play, The Amen Corner, and the Police Athletic League’s Harlem Center where Baldwin (and perhaps the camera) seems to unnerve a teen reporter, cupping his chin at length while answering his question about a Black writer’s chances:

There never was a chance for a Black writer.  Listen, a writer, Black or white, doesn’t have much of a chance. Right? Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead. But to answer your question, there’s a greater chance for a Black writer today than there ever has been.

In the Manhattan building Baldwin bought to house a number of his close-knit family, Chase corners his mother in the kitchen to ask if she’d had any inkling her son would become such a success.




“No, I didn’t think that,” Mrs. Baldwin cuts her off. “But I knew he had to write.”

Baldwin speaks frankly about outing himself to the general public with his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room and about what it means to live as a Black man in a nation that has always favored its white citizens:

The American sense of reality is dictated by what Americans are trying to avoid. And if you’re trying to avoid reality, how can you face it?

Nearly 35 years before Black Lives Matter’s formation, he tackles the issue of white fragility by telling Chase, “Look, I don’t mean it to you personally. I don’t even know you. I have nothing against you. I don’t know you personally, but I know you historically. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t swear to the freedom of all mankind and put me in chains.”

The finished piece is a superb, 60 Minutes-style profile that covers a lot of ground, and yet, 20/20 chose not to air it.

After the show ran Chase’s interview with Michael Jackson, producer Lovett inquired as to the delay and was told that no one would be interested in a “queer, Black has-been”:

I was stunned, I was absolutely stunned, because in my mind James Baldwin was no has-been. He was a classic American writer, translated into every language in the world, and would live on forever, and indeed he has. His courage and his eloquence continue to inspire us today.

On June 24, Joseph Lovett will moderate James Baldwin: Race, Media, and Psychoanalysis, a free virtual panel discussion centering on his 20/20 profile of James Baldwin, with psychoanalysts Victor P. Bonfilio and Annie Lee Jones, and Baldwin’s niece, author Aisha Karefa-Smart. Register here.

H/T to author Sarah Schulman

Related Content: 

Why James Baldwin’s Writing Stays Powerful: An Artfully Animated Introduction to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

Watch the Famous James Baldwin-William F. Buckley Debate in Full, With Restored Audio (1965)

James Baldwin’s One & Only, Delightfully-Illustrated Children’s Book, Little Man Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1976)

Listen to James Baldwin’s Record Collection in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spotify Playlist

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Revisiting Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” and the Album That Opened R&B to Resistance: Revisited 50 Years Later

I just want to be heard and that’s all that matters. — Marvin Gaye

R&B superstar Marvin Gaye was more than willing to risk his career on a record.

His polished public persona was a false front behind which lurked some serious demons — depression and addiction, exacerbated by the illness and death of his close friend and duet mate, Tammi Terrell.

His downward spiral was also fueled by his distress over events of the late 60s.

How else to respond to the Vietnam War, the murder of civil rights leaders, police brutality, the Watts Riots, a dire environmental situation, and the disenfranchisement and abandonment of lower income Black communities?




Perhaps by refusing to adhere to producer Barry Gordy‘s mandate that all Motown artists were to steer clear of overt political stances….

He controlled their careers, but art is a powerful outlet.

Obie Benson also came under Gordy’s thumb as a member of the R&B quartet, the Four Tops. The shocking violence he witnessed in Berkeley’s People’s Park on Bloody Thursday while on tour with his band provided the lyrical inspiration for “What’s Goin’ On.”

When the other members of the group refused to touch it, not wanting to rock the boat with a protest song, he took it to Gaye, who had lost all enthusiasm for the “bullshit” love songs that had made him a star

Benson recalled that Gaye added some “things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song… we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.”

Gordy was not pleased with the song’s message, nor his loosey goosey approach to laying down the track. Eli Fontaine’s famous saxophone intro was improvised and “Motown’s secret weapon,” bassist James Jamerson was so plastered on Metaxa, he was recorded sprawling on the floor.

Jamerson told his wife they’d been working on a “masterpiece,” but Gordy dubbed “What’s Going On” “the worst thing I ever heard in my life,” pooh-poohing the “Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting.” He refused to release it.

Gaye stonewalled by going on strike, refusing to record any music whatsoever.

Eight months in, Motown’s A&R Head Harry Balk, desperate for another release from one of the label’s most popular acts, directed sales vice president Barney Ales to drop the new single behind Gordy’s back.

It immediately shot to the top of the charts, selling 70,000 copies in its first week.

Gordy, warming to the idea of more sales, abruptly reversed course, directing Gaye to come up with an entire album of protest songs. It ushered in a new era in which Black recording artists were not only free, but encouraged to use their voices to bring about social change.

The album, What’s Going On, recently claimed top honors when Rolling Stone updated its  500 Greatest Albums list. Now, it is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and as Polyphonic, producers of the mini-doc above note, its sentiments couldn’t be more timely.

Related Content: 

Hear Marvin Gaye Sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” A Capella: The Haunting Isolated Vocal Track

Nina Simone’s Live Performances of Her Poignant Civil Rights Protest Songs

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg & More

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.