If you haven’t been under a rock for the past few years, odds are you’ve heard “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke/Pharrell Williams/T.I. It was one of the bigger hits of 2013 and the longest running number one song on Billboard of the decade so far. You probably remember the controversial music video that was ‘banned’ from YouTube only to return, having some people to believe the whole thing was a publicity stunt. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It wasn’t the first video to deal with nudity, misogyny, and good marketing and it won’t certainly be the last. Moving on.
One controversy Thicke and Pharrell couldn’t successfully shake was the much publicized lawsuit they were hit with by the Marvin Gaye estate in which Thick and Pharrell were accused of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”. Early in the case, the Gaye family were told that they didn’t have enough solid evidence to prove that Thicke and Pharrell had purposely ‘copied’ the song in creating “Blurred Lines” but things took a dramatic turn when the overly confident Thicke and Pharrell tried to throw their very own lawsuit in the ring against the Gaye estate. Thicke and co launched a lawsuit seeking declaratory relief that “Blurred Lines” wasn’t copyright infringement. A lawsuit that resulted in favor of the Gaye family, costing Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams 7.3 million dollars in copyright damages. T.I. was excluded from the lawsuit because, well let’s face it, what did he really do here? The less said about him, the better. These are adult issues. Perhaps a new remix of this song could open with Pharrell exclaiming “Er’body pay up!!!”
Upon listening to both songs, you can obviously see the influence Marvin Gaye had on Thicke and co. The party vibe, the bubbly bass guitar, rhythmic bottle clicking, occasional falsetto, and the tongue-in-cheek suggestive lyrics. Taking a closer, more technical look at both songs though, the lines get blurred (no pun intended…okay maybe a little). Now, I’m not what you would call the ‘average’ music listener, I’ve been playing musical instruments for over half of my life and I know my way around music theory pretty well and I can tell you right here and now that “Got To Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines” do not share much in way of actual written sheet music. One is in a major key the other in a minor for one. “Blurred Lines” only uses about half of the chords in “Got To Give It Up” as well as the vocal melodies being completely different. There was a very good reason why Thicke’s lawyer team motioned for Gaye’s song not be played in this case; despite not being close on a technical level, the ‘feeling’ is nearly identical.
After the courts going in Gaye’s favor, it brings up the question: Where is the line drawn? Even if you can’t copyright chord changes or rhythm, what constitutes as ‘feeling’. This could be a turning point in both pop music and copyrighted material in general that makes it a very different playing field. Based on this logic, can Madonna sue Lady Gaga because “Born This Way” feels similar to “Express Yourself”? How about Green Day receiving a lawsuit from The Kinks because “Walking Contradiction” sounds like “Do It Again” and “Warning” is nearly identical to “Picture Book”? Blurred lines indeed.
Those songs sound closer to each other than “Blurred Lines” is to “Got The Give It Up” and as far as I know, there haven’t been legal issues taken. People have been paying homage to their influences for years and I think that is very flattering. Well unless you are Chuck Berry, who sued The Beach Boys for “Surfin’ USA” because it sounded like “Sweet Little Sixteen” which resulted in him getting the sole writing credit and copyright to the song. Some artists have even been known to craft songs in such a way that it’s a tribute. For instance, in 1997 Sugar Ray had written and performed a song for the Scream 2 motion picture soundtrack, in a style so similar to Weezer, they named it “Rivers” in tribute. As flattering to Rivers Cuomo as that is (and the best song Sugar Ray has recorded) by the logic of the Blurred Lines lawsuit, if he is ever hard up for some extra cash, he could take Sugar Ray to court, make reference to the case and probably walk out a couple million dollars richer!
On the other side of the coin, there is a much bigger picture to be looked at from an artists perspective. As an artist your work represents who you are. A song, story, riff, style, is your bread and butter. While “Got To Give It Up” may not have been the crowning achievement in Marvin Gaye’s extensive career, it’s still his art and should be protected by law. The main purpose for copyright is protecting rightful ownership. Arguably the same laws that eventually cost Thicke and Pharrell nearly 8 million dollars, are the same laws that are protecting them from being the victim of infringement. Let’s say a new female artist gets on the scene, she’s cute, blonde, strums an acoustic guitar, writes songs from her teenage journal, and breaks into mainstream with a hit song with a hook featuring the lyrics “You don’t know about me, I’m feeling twenty threeeee” you best believe a lynch mob of thirsty lawyers representing Taylor Swift would be at the new artist’s door before the video finishes airing on VH1 with a healthy collection of legal papers. As bad as I despise Swift, I wouldn’t blame her one bit. Her song and schlock is her lively hood, if someone uses it to further their career without acknowledging her hard work (rhetorically speaking) then they get what’s coming to them!
However, I don’t believe tributes and homages need to be treated as crimes. Yes I know that water is murky and there are exceptions to the rule. Should Oasis be sued because they tried to look like The Beatles? Or how about every single pop metal band in the 80s who based their careers upon the template created by Van Halen? If anything, that could benefit both parties involved. My all time favorite band Superdrag recorded a song “The Emotional Kind” that was performed in style of The Smithereens’ “Yesterday Girl” both songs sound very very close in style and ‘feel’ but before this controversy I’d say there wasn’t enough ground for a lawsuit, but I enjoyed it so much it made me want to check out The Smithereens and it made me a big fan of their work. Something that might have never happened if Superdrag didn’t turn me on to them. If artists can sue each other for being influenced, then it’s ultimately over for all musicians. How many artists is there in the world who can say they haven’t been influenced by another? Oddly enough in the 80s, John Fogerty was treated to a lawsuit for creating a song that sounded too much like Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band who he used to front and was the primary song writer for! (Google that kids, it’s a great read!)
Even before the lawsuit controversy began, Thicke is on record in saying that he and Pharrell set out to make a Marvin Gaye-esque song when they came up with “Blurred Lines”. In another douche move during the trial, Thicke at one point tried to convince the judge that he didn’t even write the song, that it was Pharrell at the wheel the whole time. This inconsistency in his story, plus throwing Pharrell under the bus wasn’t making a very good case or earning him any karma credits. Plenty of people (well okay, YouTube commenters) claim that the Gaye family were just being money hungry trolls who seen the popularity of the song as a window to make a few bucks off of it. If that would be the case, they could’ve sued Ed Sheeran for his hit song “Thinking Out Loud” for sounding remarkably similar to that of “Let’s Get It On” or even just about every pre-Blurred Lines song from Robin Thicke. I personally think that karma just caught up with him. Thicke and Pharrell dodged the bullet the first round when the judge threw out the Gaye’s case of infringement. Why in the name of all things holy, would they try to counter sue the Marvin Gaye estate? They were stirring up a hornet nest and their luck eventually ran out.
Which brings me to my final point. Today’s celebrities live their lives with this Devil-May-Care mentality where they think they are invincible and free to infringe upon just about anything their hearts desire. They have enough money to either get away with it or at most, get a slap on the hand. It’s no secret that the music of yesterday is better than what we have today and that fact has crawled under societies skin in a way that mainstream pop is self-aware, conditioning new artists to feel that the best way to earn credibility is to rip off something from the past and claim it’s theirs. If someone calls them out on it, cry that it’s an homage and counter sue them for even thinking it was a rip off. I’m a huge Marvin Gaye fan and I despise Robin Thicke, but as much as it pains me to say it, I don’t believe “Blurred Lines” is a rip off of “Got To Give It Up”. I believe this case was fueled by the Marvin Gaye estate’s emotions and Thicke and Pharrell’s over-confidence. I do feel that Robin Thicke IS guilty of being a talentless, douche, misogynist and just maybe this lawsuit is the kind of poetic justice he needs to encourage him to not only become a better artist, but maybe a better person. Or at least a more tactful one.
As for my feelings on “Blurred Lines” itself, I did a video review a couple years ago when the song/video was all the rage, you can check out that video as well as commentary on it’s laughable music video here.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.