Marvin Gaye, the noun, is great. He is one of the most easily recognisable singers of the 1960’s and 70’s, arguably ever. Deservedly so. The man left behind a career of hit songs that not only shaped the sound of Motown but influenced soul and contemporary R&B.
Recently I stumbled upon another noun, the song "Marvin Gaye" by artist Charlie Puth. Initial thoughts would be that it could possibly be a tribute to the man. However. After listening through, it not only isn’t directly about Marvin Gaye, it sets out to utilise his name as a verb. 'Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on'. Making reference to the Gaye classic "Let’s Get It On". A somewhat clever play on words? It’s hard to think that when it feels the song title was perhaps written before the rest of it in that social-app trend of hashtagging titles of songs. It screams of "#LetsMarvinGaye". Frustratingly, as I write this, typing ‘Marvin Gaye’ or ‘let’s get it on’ into YouTube sees Charlie Puth as the top result. But what is it to “Marvin Gaye” and what is the doing word doing here?
Puth has gone on record saying that he wanted to 'evoke the sexual tension kind of thing that [Gaye] would do in his music' and that to do this you must 'take everything that is the musicality of Marvin Gaye’s music.' And here in lies the fundamental issues of this track.
Listen to "Let’s Get It On". From the opening guitar lead to the vocal plead 'I've been really trying baby / Trying to hold back this feeling for so long', not only is it smooth ear butter, but you hear a man who is certainly trying to seduce. Then by the time the chorus hits, with its sauntering lows and euphoric falsetto wails and highs, you are damn sure that this is a man who is indeed Getting It On.
A quick comparison shows what Puth is lacking. Seduction. "Marvin Gaye" (...the song) doesn’t have that classic soul / R&B simmer. Instead it goes for a teeny bop retro aesthetic similar to his American peer, and surprising not one-hit-wonder, Meghan Trainor (who appears as featured artist). Now, to give the song any credit, it replicates a 50’s / 60's doo-wop sound of acts such as The Platters, The Drifters (and many, many other Thes) quite well.
The chord sequence of the verse and chorus are from "Stand By Me" (often called the ‘50’s progression’) which gives the song a comfortable rounded feel, always coming back to the original tonic tone. Comfortable is also definitely the word for the melody which is memorable and repetitious. The bridge shifts gear, in the traditional pop song structure, to a minor sound and even throws in a substitution before leading cadentially back to the chorus – a tasty turnaround of dominants. Throw in a chromatic manoeuvre into this section (missed opportunity) and it could have fit comfortably in a classic like The Shirelles' rendition of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow".
Maybe the song should have been along the lines of "Let's The Crew-Cuts and Sh-Boom”. It would certainly match the more naive tone and innocent teen wonderment of sexual relations a kin to the youth in the era of doo-wop. It doesn't though. It explicitly chooses sex, even mentioning another Gaye hit "Sexual Healing", While managing to talk about having sex with all the desire and sexual tension of a preteen audience of a High School Musical or Glee.
It feels like there is a good song in there. Perhaps take the lyrics and surround them with music that truly seduces, or take the sound and write the lyrics for a happy boyfriend / girlfriend fun singalong that the music calls for. As it is, it’s dumb. Considering the intention of the song and context it is presented, it’s a contradiction. But were it not for this I’d have ignored it with a pfft(a sneer of derision eerily similar in pronunciation to the artists surname) as should be done with most chart fodder. Let's hope that the next time a pop singer wants to “Marvin Gaye” it equates to writing a good song. Something the man himself was more deserving of.
- Dan Rose