Blurred Lines – Sometimes the truth just sounds ridiculous
Talk about blurring the lines. The Pharrell Williams/Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye decision seems to have set a precedent for a messy new world order. I remember first hearing about the case and thinking ‘haha, nice try’, expecting it would just disappear but here we are, many months later and Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke have got to give it up – $7.3m that is – pun intended.
First, the mandatory disclaimer: i’m no copyright expert, heck i’m no legal expert so just take the preceding paragraphs as the ramblings of a concerned music man. As you will see this whole business just seems to have set my mind into over-drive.
Rewind. I remember the first time I heard Blurred Lines, I was driving, switched stations, it came on the radio after and I just assumed it was a DJ mix with that Marvin Gaye song in the background. The next time I heard it, I realised it couldn’t have been a mix, at which point I assumed they had sampled that Marvin Gave song. In fact I remember thinking Pharrell was a genius for ripping off that Marvin Gaye song and staying on the right side of the copyright law, just skirting close to the edge. So I thought, so many thought.
Fast forward to this week, upon hearing the ruling, I immediately cued up both songs on the blaster with a view to dissecting the specimens. Here are my conclusions. The melodies are different – vocally, Blurred Lines actually sounds like something Prince could have made (could he have a claim?…). The basslines are somewhat similar but the notes are very different. So how could there have been any copyright infringement? Has to be the vibe. The beats feel very similar but it’s obvious that the original song wasn’t sampled. So is ‘feel’ now something that can be infringed? If I go ahead and program a drum pattern similar to say, Mtume’s Juicy Fruit, do I leave myself exposed to a lawsuit? This pretty much seems to me like you can now be liable for having a drum beat that sounds like another song’s drum beat.
Question is, can a musician no longer create something similar to some other song? Music has always been about songs and artistes influenced by others. Where would Cameo be without The Ohio Players, Guy be without The Gap Band, R Kelly be without Guy, Lo-Key? be without Con Funk Shun, Prince be without James Brown, etc, etc? What if you don’t even know the song you’ve just written sounds like anything in existence? There’s only 12 notes in the scale, how different can a songwriter be? Theoretically as time goes on and more songs get released, the greater the probability that your song will sound like someone else’s. When you create music, your influences come out without you knowing it, that’s why they’re called your influences. Does that mean you should thrash a nice melody that innocently comes along just because it sounds like another song? Or do you have to credit someone you actually didn’t set out to rip off?
Musicians have always ripped off other songs and I don’t mean that in a negative way, the average musician knows how to stay on the legal side of the copyright line or so we all thought. Heck, sometimes you actually set out to create something that sounds like some song you like, it’s called a homage and that’s what I concluded about Blurred Lines. But then I read that Pharrell said he hadn’t been influenced by that song to which was reaction was “say what now?!” But i’ll come to that later. Seems to me that it’s just lawyers playing their game and on this occasion they succeeded. As my grandmamma always said, where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.
I’ll just take a quick detour to other questions this whole affair has posed in my head. How does Robin Thicke end up getting credited and making $5.6m for a song it transpires he didn’t co-write?! How is it that the record companies who have benefited from this infringement don’t have to cough up anything? Sure they might not have committed the infringement themselves but they have benefitted from the infringement haven’t they? All these questions. Answers might be simple though.
Anyway back to Pharrell, multi-talented and comes across as a guy with integrity so i’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe him. The man’s works are obviously influenced by the old school so it is conceivable that he might have inadvertently ‘vibed’ off Got To Give Up without realising it. But then i’m pretty sure everyone with ears that listened to it must have mentioned to him just how similar it sounds to that Marvin Gaye song. So it got me thinking, could this be one of those situations when the truth just happens to sound ridiculous? You know what I mean? You’re driving through a part of town you’re not familiar with and the satnav is messing up. You pull over and ask the lady walking down the street for directions, she gives you a cross between a smile and a puzzled look. She takes a sharp intake of breath, proceeds to lean on the car door as she gives directions. As luck would have it, a car toot toots behind you as it flashes it’s beam in your rear view mirror. You glance at the side mirror and see a policeman get out of the car and approach you, with the benefit of the police car’s full headlight beams you now notice tthat he lady is chewing gum, wearing a short skirt and fishnet stockings. As the officer taps on your car window you know this is going to be one of the situations where possibly the truth just sounds ridiculous.Share: