Monday, March 16, 2015

Blurred Lines

I've long abhorred the derivative nature of pop music, but the recent jury award against the song Blurred Lines seems to have gone too far.  There is no question that Pharrell Williams, who we eventually found out wrote the song, took the spirit of the song from Marvin Gaye's classic Got To Give It Up but to say he plagiarized the song opens the door for numerous other law suits, as one can say the same for many pop songs past and present.

Pop music has long relied on a relatively limited vocabulary, and many musicians have lifted chords and lyrics directly from other songs without offering any compensation to the original composers, much less credit.  Bob Dylan got into some hot water for not crediting Henry Timrod, an obscure Civil War poet, in his album Modern Times, but the family of Timrod wasn't around to challenge him.   Poets familiar with Timrod's work did.  Dylan kept copious notebooks filled with such uncredited verses he lifted from obscure sources, but he wove them together in his own unique way, so most critics accepted it as part of his creative process, if they could locate the verses.

Marvin Gaye probably wasn't above lifting a few chords or verses himself, after all he was part of the Motown machine that churned out hit after hit, many of them variations of previous hit songs.  Of course, Motown owned the rights to all these songs, so the record label could spin out these hybrids to its heart's content.  Pharrell, who has become an immensely popular songwriter and singer today, probably figured he was just paying a homage to the Motown great, as so many R&B singers do, by tapping into his groove.

The case would have probably been settled out of court, as so many of these cases are, had not Robin Thicke's monstrous ego got in the way.  At first, he claimed on Oprah to have written the song himself, only to be forced to admit it came from the hand of Williams during the court case.  The Marvin Gaye family smelled blood and went after him tooth and nail, receiving one of the largest awards ever in such cases.  The Gaye family is now suing to have the song banned from radio playlists, due to all the acrimony surrounding the case.

Few will shed a tear for Robin, who has been virtually unheard of since his twerking episode with Miley Cyrus at the MTV video music awards.  Robin comes in at about the three minute mark of the video, for those who want to skip the long teddy bear intro.  However, this is a bad precedent for the music industry.

What's to say the family of Randy California had any less a case against Led Zeppelin for the opening of Stairway to Heaven, which the California family claimed was lifted from Taurus by Spirit, written by Randy?  Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit when they first came to America, and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wrote the song shortly thereafter.  However, a judge ultimately threw out the case, as outside of the opening nothing else could be attributed to Taurus.

Pharrell does stick with pretty much the same base rift from Got To Give It Up throughout Blurred Lines, but it isn't a direct copy as was the case with Vanilla Ice some years back, when he lost a similar court case over Ice Ice Baby, which borrowed liberally from Queen's Under Pressure.  Stevie Wonder and others have come to the defense of Pharrell Williams.  

Not surprisingly, Pharell and Thicke are appealing the decision, which is likely to be overturned.  After all, this is a music "industry," not an artistic collaborative or even much of a creative process, as guys like Kanye West would like us to think.  Certain riffs work, as Motown proved long ago, and R&B today still heavily relies on them for their hits today.

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