The first time I heard Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” I would have been 13 and riding with one mom and four or five similarly-aged boys in carpool on the way to school in the eighth grade. And I remember thinking, “Can they say that on the radio???” There were, in my brain, at least three question marks at the end of the sentence.
But what a song. It stayed at number one for ten weeks before getting knocked off by the best-forgotten Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney duet, “The Girl Is Mine.” What dreck.
Gaye never had a chance to top that run. The album it came from, Midnight Love, had barely left the charts before Gaye was shot and killed by his own father during an argument over business disagreements. Without Gaye’s example, the Soul artists who followed have been in kind of a confused funk.
There are plenty of artists who can copy Gaye’s phrasing, but none I’ve found has captured his ability to tell a story, to perform a song. Robin Thicke, who I didn’t even know was a person until a couple weeks ago, has a monster hit with “Blurred Lines,” which is little more than a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” The video is completely NSFW and totally worth watching with the sound off, because of the topless dancing brunette. I coined the word “acheworthy” just for her.
But the song itself, although ostensibly Soul, is utterly without a soul of its own.
Worse are those performers — I’m looking at you, Mariah Houston Dion — who mistake vocal exercises for a performance.
Maybe it’s the younger artists, maybe it’s the times we live in. Maybe Soul has yet to recover from losing one of its founders so young.
For a while it looked like Soul might be saved by a couple of Englishwomen, as unlikely as that seems. Amy Winehouse had a pure Motown sound that could have been right out of Gaye’s golden days in the ’60s and ’70s. Corinne Bailey Rae still has that big Philadelphia sound. Both ladies seem to understand that the key to soul is knowing when to lay it low. But we all know what happened to Winehouse, and Rae hasn’t released anything longer than an EP in the last three years. I hope she’s spent the time making something as smooth as her self-titled album from 2007. Check out “I’d Like To” from that one to hear something I think Gaye would have been proud to call his own.
But before you do that, spend a few minutes with Marvin Gaye’s second-to-last hit — one of Soul’s timeless classics.
Oh, and it turned out you could say that on the radio in 1982. And by today’s standards it seems almost tame.