Imitation, flattery, and the pleasures of casual theft

LA Times classical writer Mark Swed took up arms on behalf of the creators of “Blurred Lines” a few weeks back.

“Blurred Lines” was a song written by Alan Thicke’s son and genius producer/singer Pharrell Williams. It featured rapper T.I., as well as two separate music videos, one which would get you fired if watched at work, and the other which would make coworkers think slightly less of you.

Problem was, “Blurred Lines” sounded an awful lot like Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give it Up.” At least, that’s what the Gaye family thought. They filed suit and a court ruled in their favor — to the tune of $7.4 million.

Mark Swed argues that musical …. appropriation.. is not only common in music history, but an integral part of hit-making. Here’s Swed in full-on professor mode.

The millennial-old Gregorian chant is in the DNA of Western music. Once the chant became the foundation for writing large-scale, multi-part Masses and motets in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, composers were given a laboratory for developing what became modern harmony, counterpoint and rhythm. And as the Mass developed, the more commonplace the source of the Mass’s foundational melody the better.

In other words, nicking melodies is a really old idea, and a good one at that. If it wasn’t, Mozart, Stravinsky & Mahler would’ve been wrapped up in court proceedings for the best years of their lives. Swed again:

There was no issue of ownership. Pre-existing material was nothing more than building block, just as an A major scale might be. Music was born as an art of absorption. When Bach made concertos out of pieces by Vivaldi, he bettered Vivaldi, and the pieces became Bach. You would be hard put to find a great composer who didn’t use what came before, and the more progressive the composer, the bigger the bandit.

There’s a great Jay Z line where he responded to critics about jacking Biggie lyrics:

I’m not a biter, I’m a writer for myself and others. I say a B.I.G. verse I’m only Bigging up my brother, Bigging up my borough. I’m big enough to do it I’m that thorough, plus I know my own flow is foolish.

Translation: we both know where it’s from, I made it my own, I earned the right.

All that is well and good between a couple professionals. But when something becomes a mega-hit like “Blurred Lines,” the money flows, and pros act like amateurs. The Estate of Marvin Gaye smelled an opportunity, came knocking on Alan Thicke’s door asking for his son, and hit the jackpot. (Again. I mean, Marvin Gaye’s been dead for decades and they’re still cashing in on his name.)

A similar thing happened after really famous, genre-bending albums like Odelay and Paul’s Boutique came out. These albums used insane levels of sampling — of other people’s work, without permission — and fans went nuts. The songwriters who got sampled went nuts, too. Game over.

On its face “Blurred Lines” is a song even people such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel can like. Admittedly, it does sound like Marvin Gaye. But what of it?

The precedent this ruling sets is a disturbing one. You want to protect original ideas and reward their creators. But how original were they to begin with? As Swed wrote, what if the woman who invented the A major scale copyrighted it for her own use and no one else’s?

You build off of what came before. Keep it real, and pay respect.

UPDATE: I wasn’t aware of the thick legal history surrounding this song. Pharrell & Thicke actually preemptively sued the Gaye family in 2013. Skateboard P & Alan Thicke’s son were also worried about allegations their song sounded like Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways.” Sheesh.


By Will Roseliep

Writer for different outlets. Personal work appears here first:

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