Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On
Forty years ago today
by Travis Atria
Forty years ago today, Marvin Gaye’s seminal Let’s Get It On became, for all intents and purposes, the national anthem of sex. So huge was the album’s impact that even now, the first four guitar notes of the title track can only signify one thing—the getting of it on. Like most truly great songs, however, “Let’s Get It On” has been overplayed nearly to death, which makes the rest of the album easy to overlook.
Even so, the true Marvin Gaye fan will recognize that there isn’t a bad song in the bunch, and that standout cuts like “Distant Lover” and “Please Stay (Once You Go Away)” make a pretty solid case for Gaye being the greatest soul singer of his generation. He had the raw power of Otis Redding, the velour smoothness of Sam Cook, the vocal acrobatics of Jackie Wilson, the cooing sexuality of Al Green, and an unmatched vocal range, often all showcased within the same song.
It seems also important to point out that according to Gaye’s biography, Divided Soul, he was a deeply conflicted man who struggled mightily with the hyper-sexualized role he was forced (or forced himself) to play. The massive success of Let’s Get It On did nothing to help that.
What truly makes the album stand the test of time, though, is how much of himself Gaye put into the songs. They are rarely about sex in and of itself. Rather, they encompass the full range of emotions—from joy to fear to uncertainty to bliss—that accompany the most human of activities.
And, the echoes of Let’s Get It On are still being heard today. Recently, Divided Soul author David Ritz wrote an editorial for Rolling Stone taking blue-eyed soul singer Robin Thicke to task for repeatedly ripping off the master, especially in Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” a song that cribs Gaye’s sensuality while discarding every trace of subtlety and emotion that make Let’s Get It On still simmer. “Great artists like Marvin Gaye understand that irony and emotional complexity are necessary tools for making deep, enduring art,” Ritz wrote. “It was a lot more than a sexy groove; it was riding that groove to search within for a truth that’s as confusing as it elusive.”
Gaye might never have found that truth—he died tragically in 1984, shot to death by his own father. But his work endures, which is why Ritz was guilty of no overstatement when he wrote in his editorial, “Marvin has become to soul singers what John Coltrane became to saxophonists: the undisputed master.”