You may be tempted to, but do not cheer the fact that a Los Angeles jury on Tuesday determined unanimously that Robin Thicke’s 2013 Pharrell-composed hit ‘Blurred Lines’ plagiarised Marvin Gaye’s 1977 disco foray ‘Got to Give it Up.’
I get it. You like Marvin Gaye way more than you like Robin Thicke. It’s understandable.
Gaye was a visionary voice of a generation who suffered a violent death far before his time at the hands of his own father. Thicke is a perpetually smirking Ken doll whom we probably would’ve never heard of had his father not been the dad on Growing Pains. Thicke clearly won the familial lottery.
And Pharrell? Well, everybody loves Pharrell, but you figure he’s probably got all the money in the world so it’s all good, right?
Do not be fooled. This isn’t about Gaye, Thicke or Pharrell. Yesterday’s outrageous, indefensible verdict is an assault upon the livelihoods of all creative people, everywhere. It sets an absurd new precedent that could effectively render the time-honoured artistic techniques of pastiche and homage illegal. It is madness.
Almost all successful musical copyright claims in U.S. courts have hinged on “top line melody.” That is, the part of the song you would hum, were you to be humming it in the shower. Usually in pop music, that’s going to be something in the lead vocal.
A perfect example would be Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me,’ which, as Smith recently conceded in an out-of-court settlement, nicks a melody line from Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down.’ I was concerned about that case too, but even I admit the signature melodic phrases of the two songs are nearly identical.
The Gaye family’s legal team could not make a case on top line melody alone. According to the Hollywood Reporter’s account of the testimony, their hired gun musicologist, Judith Finell, could only point to two tiny melodic fragments that ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give it Up’ have in common. Both of her assertions are, in my opinion, huge stretches.
First, there’s the opening line in ‘Got to Give it Up,’ where Gaye sings “I used to go out to parties.” Finell testified that this melody bares “stunning” resemblance to where Thicke begins the chorus of ‘Blurred Lines’ with the words “that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl.” I can only imagine how stunned Ms. Finell is when someone in the office shows up to work wearing a maroon blouse while she is wearing red, as that is the extent of the similarity that I hear between the two lines.
Second, there’s the tiny scrap of melody from the back-up vocal part that enters Gaye’s song at 3:15 on the words “dancing baby.” Finell testified that this is similar to the melody that Thicke sings on the words “but you’re an animal,” “maybe I’m going blind,” and elsewhere. And sure, it is, but it’s two notes for crying out loud!
The other similarities that Finell noted between the songs are not part of the top-line melody, and are, in my view superficial. Noticeable, meaningful, but superficial. A sparse, staccato bass line that leaves a lot of space and syncopates against a similarly sparse and staccato electric piano part; a chord progression that seesaws between tonic and dominant chords (as virtually all western music does); lyrics that focus on the theme of “transformation,” in which a character is drawn out of his or her shell.
Yes, ‘Blurred Lines’ kind of sounds like ‘Got to Give it Up.’ In the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark is kind of like B-movie serials from the 1930s. It’s pastiche, homage. Whether it’s conscious (as I suspect it was), or unconscious (as Pharrell claims it was) is immaterial.
It’s hard for me to believe that Gaye himself, or any successful, working artist, would have brought this suit. Artists understand the distinction between plagiarism and reference. This case is everything that’s wrong with copyright.
Adam Ragusea is a journalist in residence at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism in the United States, and is also a classically-trained composer.