Kris Allen’s ‘What’s Going On’: The Story Behind The Cover

Allen was able to tap into his emotional side with the Marvin Gaye classic on 'American Idol.'

“American Idol” is not known for having its pulse on the headlines of the day. In fact, short of its on-hiatus “Idol Gives Back” charity franchise, the show has typically been blissfully oblivious to the world at large as it dinosaur-stomps its way through the ratings every spring.

But on Tuesday night’s (May 19) final performance episode , producer Simon Fuller seemed to want to make a statement about the turbulent times we are living in by choosing Marvin Gaye’s landmark protest song “What’s Going On” for Kris Allen to sing. He chose Sam Cooke’s equally heavy “A Change Is Gonna Come” for rival Adam Lambert, creating a powerful moment for the show. The Gaye song was a chance for Allen to tap into his emotional side and switch up the arrangement to suit his strummy, jammy vibe.

The song, which was released as the title track to the Motown icon’s 1971 album, has reached legendary status as Gaye’s breakthrough to socially conscious music. The album was written as an unbroken song cycle chronicling urban, ecological, racial, drug-induced, physical and emotional decay as seen through the eyes of a returning Vietnam War veteran, inspired in part by Gaye’s own brother, a war veteran.

“Mother, mother/ There’s too many of you crying,” Gaye sang. “Brother, brother, brother/ There’s far too many of you dying/ You know we’ve got to find a way/ To bring some lovin’ here today.”

Following a string of landmark hits in the 1960s, “What’s Going On” joined a new wave of early 1970s soul anthems that took a more serious tone, including the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War.”

The song came to Gaye from songwriters Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson at a time when the Motown star was contemplating giving up music following the 1970 death of his longtime singing and romantic partner, Tammi Terrell. Gaye, not known for writing his own songs, helped the duo complete the tune. He was going to give it away to a Motown act named the Originals, but he was persuaded to keep it by Cleveland and Benson.

Initially rejected by Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr. because it didn’t fit with Gaye’s previous style, Gordy eventually relented and the song became Motown’s fastest-selling single to that point, hitting #1 on the R&B charts and #2 on the pop charts.

The song remained on the charts for more than a year and sold 2 million copies and was ranked #4 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2004 and was chosen as one of 50 recordings to be added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2003.

Given its lauded status, the tune has not been covered by many artists, though Aretha Franklin and soul great Donny Hathaway have done versions. It was also recorded as an all-star charity single in 2001 by Bono, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera as an AIDS benefit, and it has more recently been covered by A Perfect Circle, Cyndi Lauper, Coldplay and the Strokes, who included it as a B-side to one of their singles.

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