OUR WEIGH INS: THE BLURRED LINES OF MUSIC PLAGIARISM

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Words By: Gerrod Harris

Almost exactly two years ago, the radio was struck by “Blurred Lines”, a pop anthem which would become one of the biggest songs of 2013.  Written and performed by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, “Blurred Lines” would sell one million units in mere months, and was number one on the pop charts in fourteen different countries.  In total, worldwide, it has sold over eleven million units.  The song, however, was not made cool until Queens Of The Stone Age performed a striped down, acoustic cover of it on BBC, proving Josh Homme can make just about anything cool.

Despite its massive success, “Blurred Lines” has met a large amount of controversy.  Firstly it was attacked because of its creepy, misogynistic lyrics.  The second issue the song brought up, which was resolved in court just earlier this month, was that the Marvin Gaye estate was suing Thicke and company for plagiarising Gaye’s groovy tune, “Got To Give It Up” from 1977.  As of March 11th, Thicke and Pharrell must both pay $7.4 million to the Gaye estate.  Before this continues, as I am not trying to defend “Blurred Lines”, I must first disclose, I am not a fan of Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s music nor was I impressed much with “Blurred Lines”.  I am a big fan of Marvin Gaye’s work, as he had one of the best voices in the industry, and wrote more than a few incredible albums.  But I have to say, despite my dislike of Thicke and Pharrell, and my love of Marvin Gaye, I strongly think that the court ruling in the Gaye estate’s favour is wrong.

There are certain elements to music which can be given a copyright, and certain aspects which are clearly an example of plagiarism, where as there are other musical elements which can be borrowed and reused.  The grounds used in past cases to prove musical theft often involve lyrics, a signature riff, melody, or lifting and sampling an entire segment from another song (without permission, of course).  This was seen very recently when it was proven by a team of musicologists that Sam Smith’s single “Stay With Me” was far too similar to Tom Petty’s 1989 hit, “I Won’t Back Down”.  Other elements cannot by patented like a beat, chord progression,  or texture,  as there are only so many different beats/chords/textures and to put a copyright on them would kill the creative process, making it near impossible to innovate.  With that in mind, after listening to “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up”, there are certainly similar elements, but nothing strong enough to say they stole Gaye’s work.  Even acclaimed songwriter Nile Rogers, who has worked with rockers like Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger and David Bowie, has said “ [‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got To Give It Up’] didn’t really sound alike”.

In this case, the similarities are based on inspiration, not replication.  “Got To Give It Up”, much like “Blurred Lines”, is driven by a shuffle beat on the drums, with a rhythmic cowbell line, giving both songs a catchy, solid groove.  They both also feature the use of a vintage Fender Rhodes keyboard.  It is for these reasons that the Gaye estate chose to sue Thicke, and why the courts ruled in their favor, claiming the two songs had the same “feel”.  Well that’s not right!  A shuffle driven song is nothing unique, as it’s been used from everything from the blues to modern pop.  A funky cowbell pattern? That is a common percussion track to add a new layer to the song, and is used all the time, from Motown era soul to rock, disco, and pop music.  On top of that the Fender Rhodes does have a very distinct sound to it, which is why countless of musicians have sought out this instrument for the character it brings to songs.  The list of those who have incorporated a Fender Rhodes keyboard is as long as it is versatile, including artists such as Steely Dan, Herbie Hancock, The Doors, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, and Radiohead.

The feel/groove created by Gaye on “Got To Give It Up” is fantastic, but it was not originally his and should not solely be his now.   If a feel could belong to someone in a legal setting, would the blues not have been redundant long before superstars like Elvis Presley came around to reinvent it?  There is only so much one can do with the blues, and then it would truly be the properties of traditional bluesmen of the 1920’s and 1930’s like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.  The electric blues of the 60’s and 70’s would be Eric Clapton’s and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s.  Pop tunes with a rock foundation would be only for the Beatles, and hard rock would be that to only Led Zeppelin.  Punk would be that to Iggy and The Stooges, and metal would be Black Sabbath’s.  Hip-hop would not even exist as the earliest rappers performed over old jazz and funk songs.  Rather than having billions of songs of so many different styles, we would only have hundreds, maybe thousands, belonging to so few artists.  As Thicke’s and Pharrells lawyer, Howard King, put it, “somebody can make a claim based upon a song that sounds the same, yet is materially different – and if they can find eight people who don’t read music, they might win…Record labels are going to be far more reticent to put out new, good music that is similar to the style of other music for fear that they are gonna get a claim, including spurious claims. I mean, why wouldn’t anybody bring a claim now?”  There are only so many feels and grooves music can capture, so where does the line get drawn?  This verdict can actually become a dangerous precedent which can be used against future musicians, preventing them from reaching success, and making their own name. Even right now on the pop charts, if a feeling is a valid ground to charge someone with musical plagiarism, is Ed Sheeran in the wrong with his fantastic chart topper “Thinking Out Loud” as it has a romantic, seductive mood just as Gaye had created in his classic, “Let’s Get It On”?  Of course not!  A slow love jam is only that effective with that feeling, as heard in both songs.  What about in the rock cannon; did Royal Blood take something away from Rage Against The Machine for involving such thick, effect filed riff?  No, but rather they contributed to the alternative rock genre, further developing to the style with their incendiary debut album Royal Blood.

Legendary classical composer Igor Stravinsky once said, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals”.  There are some things you can’t get away with stealing, but a groove is certainly not one of them.  Musicians are constantly influenced from what they hear, whether it is current or not.  For that reason, nothing is ever completely original, but the beauty of music is that there are a countless amount of variable elements which can be combined into something new, and can even still be unique.  When this does happen, it reminds us that innovation does not come without inspiration.

What do you think?

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