The Song: “I Heard it Through The Grapevine.”
1966 song by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, who had a number of Motown hits which avoided the entropic mayhem they unleashed with this number, sung most memorably by Marvin Gaye in 1968.
“People say believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.”
Marvin’s got a problem.
His girl is seeing someone else behind his back—an old flame, possibly with a longer burn. In fact, it seems that her sordid soiree has progressed to the stage where she’s set to shack up with his successor.
Troubling stuff indeed, but Marvin’s got an even bigger problem; he has unwittingly stumbled into a conundrum of infinite regression, an aural feedback loop if you will, which has the potential to unravel the universe as we know it, and dooming us all in the bargain.
Marvin croons the offending lyric at the start of the third verse. It is advice regarding what he should do about the rumour of his partner’s infidelity, which he’s heard through the Grapevine—that marvelous telegraph of innuendo and gossip that is all too often true.
Or is it?
Gaye is admonished by “People” to disregard half of what he sees and all of what he hears. But, presumably, if They are dispensing wisdom, Marvin is hearing Them—shouldn’t he disbelieve Them, too?
If he’s just been told to disbelieve everything he hears—believe the opposite, effectively—then he should disbelieve Their advice. Ergo, he should believe the Grapevine.
Let’s pause for a moment, get our bearings.
Marvin hears through the Grapevine that his woman is cheating, but is told not to believe such a thing because everything you hear is a lie. But if that is true, then the advice-givers are lying too, by uttering advice that can be heard. So Marvin should believe the rumours, because it is the opposite of what They are telling him to do, and They have tacitly admitted to being liars.
But if he then believes the Grapevine, isn’t he flouting the very belief that drove him from Their advice—which can’t be believed—in the first place? Why is he acting on a belief founded on a lie about a lie?
Small wonder that in the following line, Marvin admits himself, “I can’t help bein’ confused.” You’re not the only one, Marv, old buddy.
So, Marvin must not believe anything he hears, but by acknowledging the original auditory advice advising him it is advisable to disbelieve everything he hears, he immediately contradicts the very edict he’s meant to adhere to—the only way he can counteract this contradiction is to credit everything he hears (two disbeliefs equalling belief).
This means he believes the Grapevine’s terrible news about his woman (which is probably true—what woman could put up with a man of Marvin’s endless indecision?) and simultaneously believes Their advice, if only because the advice contains the seeds of its own fallibility in advising that no advice is to be believed.
So. First he believes them, then he ignores them, then he disobeys them, and before you know it you’re back to the start and the whole hideous circuit begins again, a la Groundhog Day, where heavyset rodents have been replaced with infidelity, and there is no Andie MacDowell-inspired self-betterment escape-clause for poor Marvin.
Chicken and the egg?
Or Motown omelette with a healthy dollop of temporal warp?
What have you done, Gaye?
Let’s try to condense it into one simple sentence: He hears he cannot believe anything he hears, which means he must believe everything he hears, which means he must believe their advice that he can’t believe anything he hears.
Frankly, Marvin’s girlfriend making eyes at yesterday’s news is beginning to look like small potatoes compared to the existential nightmare he has foisted upon himself.
1966 or 1984?
We have yet to treat with the most horrifying ramification of all; should we even believe Marvin? We’re hearing him, and everything he says is untrue, according to the advice he received—everything everyone says is bullshit, apparently.
Every utterance that has ever passed through human lips is a flat-out, bare-faced, blatant lie, from “it’s raining out” to “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” And just what are we supposed to make of Bilbo Baggins’ birthday speech in Lord of the Rings: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”? Dear God, is this the death of honest communication, some Orwellian nadir where everything must be forgotten before it is heard?
It seems Marvin is not totally unaware of the hideous conundrum he has created, as he sobs at the end of the chorus; “Ooooh, I’m just about to lose my mind.” I hear ya Marvin, I hear ya. Or maybe I don’t. I don’t know anymore.
The whole thing smacks of madness and worse, and therefore we hastily say Lyricbusted! before beating a hasty retreat to the well-lit realm of his greatest song, “What’s Going On” (a question he may well have asked more frequently after his brush with the rift in time and space he created with Grapevine).
A freelance writer, Benjamin is also an audio engineer with 20 years of knob-twiddling experience. He harbors a deep affection for hyperbolic lyrics and has written more than his fair share of them over the years, alongside other curious species of wordsmithery.
Image: “Marvin Gaye 1966” by photo by-J. Edward Bailey – eBayfrontback. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marvin_Gaye_1966.jpg#/media/File:Marvin_Gaye_1966.jpg