In her second entry that questions the legitimacy of icon status when taking into account their flaws, Anna Prendergast visits The Prince of Soul in Motown, whose contribution to music was unparalleled. However, she argues that his public sensuality gave way to private brutality that rightfully threatens his role as a sex symbol in 2021.
Despite dying tragically young at just 44-years-old, Marvin Gaye’s legacy is long-standing and far-reaching. As a trailblazing Black musician, Gaye positioned himself not only as a chart-topper but as a change-maker, too, particularly with his seminal album What’s Going On (1971). Breaking away from his label’s typical Motown motifs, it addressed economic inequality, racism, police brutality and environmental issues, with the title track becoming an anthem against the Vietnam War and cementing itself as a protest song among the “picket lines and picket signs”. Last year, Jay Z included it in a playlist titled Songs for Survival in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of resulting Black Lives Matter protests.
Gaye used his honeyed, heartfelt voice to push his agenda, using pop culture as a platform to campaign against the unsettling events around him. On stage, his tailoring was rooted in traditional Motown style with expressive collars and punchy suits cut in fabrics silkier than his harmonies. In the studio, his take on streetwear was decades ahead of its time with monogrammed Adidas track tops, Detroit Tigers soccer shirts and a sweater from Howard University (which the Washington Post describes as “a prestigious historically black institution of higher education”). Between his two-tone aviator shades and radical silver platform boots, many of his style choices came to define an era, cementing his status as a style icon and providing inspiration across the menswear canon. Vocally and visually, he could do high and low, smart and street, traditional and subversive.
But out of the spotlight, the musician was deeply flawed. His soulful sound and sex appeal belied cruel, paranoid and possessive tendencies, ones that were embedded in ‘romantic’ lyrics and ‘passionate’ relationships. "I'm the last of the great chauvinists," Marvin Gaye once told his biographer, David Ritz. “I like to see women serve me – and that’s that.”
Despite writing seductive soundtracks such as Let’s Get It On and Sexual Healing, Gaye described his own fantasies as “evil” and in a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone pondered that “society makes people creep and crawl about [perversity]... I suppose that makes it more fun for the pervert though”, concluding that “we’re all too uptight about sex”. His first wife, Anna Gordy, was 17 years older than him, and he impregnated her niece, Denise, who was just 15 years old at the time. She would go on to have his child, which Anna adopted as her own. Later, he cheated on Anna with another teenager, 17-year-old Janis Hunter, who later reported his behaviour behind closed doors was sadistic and degrading, encouraging her to perform sexual acts with other people whilst he watched and then flying into a rage when she did.
It’s not the voyeurism or the orgies that makes Gaye’s legacy an uncomfortable one – we’re not here to kink-shame. It’s the multiple reports of abuse and the implication that he didn’t always fully grasp consent; the idea that he used violence to get his way, and the coercive behaviour he even outlines in his own lyrics. In hit single I Heard It Through The Grapevine, he sings, “I know that a man ain't supposed to cry/ But these tears I can't hold inside/ Losin' you would end my life you see/ Cause you mean that much to me”. Woman of the World half-heartedly celebrates women’s liberation, but slips into the singer lamenting losing “my girl” as a result. It seems the irony was lost on him that women being free from misogyny directly correlated to their desire to be free from him, too.
As a child, Gaye was abused by his father, a minister – and eventually died at the hands of his dad’s revolver in 1984. It’s perhaps inevitable, then, that a traumatic childhood fraught with violence and strict religious practices influenced Gaye’s own abusive behaviour, but it would be painfully reductive to excuse it as ‘of it’s time’ and would neglect all the work being done that decade to counter rape culture (a term coined in the Seventies) and domestic violence (in the US, more than 170 ‘battered women’s shelters’ opened across the country between 1975 and 1978 as a direct result of international uprisings).
For a sex symbol, Marvin Gaye’s fundamental mistreatment of the opposite sex begs the question: can’t we do better? Do a few sexy songs excuse a lot of unsexy actions? Are we really destined to get it on to Let’s Get It On until someone hits pause on not only the album but the adoration, too? Singing about sex isn’t the same as being good at it. Like McQueen, Gaye should be applauded for his unparalleled cultural archive that spans music, fashion, politics and even sport – his sound has infiltrated genres across the board from R’n’B to jazz, and his style immortalised in his low-buttoned button-downs, watch-cap beanies and dexterity with denim. Like McQueen, the problem is not just that Gaye is still celebrated as a style icon: it’s that he’s also still celebrated as a sex symbol. In this day and age, to borrow Gaye’s words: what’s going on?
– By Anna Prendergast
Here at Kirk Originals, we’re constantly updating vintage styles of eyewear and reimagining them so that they’re suitable for today. A lot of the time, that means stripping them back to their very essence, this being the frame’s architecture and nothing else.
The 20th century nurtured many iconic frame styles of which some have been given the Kirk Originals treatment. Anthony and our S.A.D frame are two aviator and navigator styles with that 70s and early 80s aesthetic that would have been redolent of Gaye’s sense of style.