In a conflicting era for the world, Motown Records, and Marvin Gaye, the latter had the artistic breakthrough of his career, one that would leave a permanent, visible mark on American pop music. His 1971 “What’s Going On” was the product of a long period of depression and stagnation, where Gaye attempted suicide following the dissolution of his marriage, an addiction to cocaine, and financial pressure. He recorded the album as a response to the numerous societal ills of the day, including the Vietnam War, a burgeoning environmental crisis, and the continued oppression of black people. Despite vehement protest from Motown founder and executive Berry Gordy Jr, Gaye was able to produce and release the album, which would go on to achieve massive commercial and critical acclaim.
The album’s cover stands apart from many of Motown’s traditional, formulaic album covers. Jim Hendin shot a series of photos of Gaye on an early Spring day in the singer’s Detroit backyard, including one up-close shot of Gaye gazing into the distance with snowflakes gracing the top of his hair. Art director Curtis McNair lobbied for the photo to a resistant Gordy, eventually succeeding when Gaye himself greeted McNair’s choice with enthusiasm. Thematically it joins “What’s Going On” in capturing both the optimism and struggle of not only the singer, but also the entire country in tumultuous times.