View From The Side: Blurred Lines Goes To Trial
‘Blurred Lines’ was a massive international hit for Robin Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. in 2013, thus proving that any kind of misogynistic bullshit is acceptable in pop these days, as long as it’s got a good beat behind it (on a more recent note: has anyone actually listened to the lyrics of Chris Brown’s ‘Loyal’? And this guy has a teenage audience?). But my problems with the lyrics (‘I know you want it’ as a refrain? Really chaps, could it get anymore rapey?) and Robin Thicke’s embarrassingly obvious ‘rich white guy trying to be down’ stylings aside (‘You’re the hottest bitch in this place…’ he sings, desperately hoping no one replies, ‘Robin, when have you EVER talked to a woman like that?’), the issue here is that incredibly infectious beat… which sounds a hell of a lot like Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ to me, Marvin’s estate and anyone else who’s got a pair of ears:
Thicke acknowledged to GQ that they were trying to make ‘something with that groove’ (referring to Gaye’s 1977 track)… but later told a legal deposition that he was so loaded on Vicodin at the time that he and Pharrell ‘wrote’ the track that his boy P did all the ‘work’ (Note to Pharrell: People who have been very rich their whole lives will always throw their friends under the bus, it’s in their nature). So it seems that this one’s going to go the distance now, as the BBC have reported a US court’s ruling that, ‘a trial should settle a dispute over whether Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' hit ‘Blurred Lines’ copied elements of Marvin Gaye's ‘Got to Give It Up’.’
So the stage is set for one of the most interesting showbiz / music trials in recent memory. And while I for one am hoping that the increasingly unstable Thicke goes so postal that he ends up leading the LAPD on a massive car chase just like O.J. did twenty years ago, I got some slightly more rational responses from certain DJ friends of R$N when I posted this news up on Facebook. ‘Fuck ’em, Thicke is despicable and Pharrell has the dough’, said Horse Meat Disco co-founder Jim Stanton pithily, while London acid house hero and recent ‘Acid Thunder’ compiler Terry Farley was in an equally unrepentant mood, ‘As if Thicke and Williams ’aint got enough dollars already – it’s a straight up rip… do the right thing’.
Another UK house music stalwart (and fine journalist in his own right) Tim Sheridan mentioned that Pharrell has previous when it comes to taking ‘inspiration’ from the past, citing the similarities between Chuck Brown & The Soul Stirrers ‘Bustin Lose’ and Nelly’s Pharrell-produced ‘Hot In Herre’ from 2002 (which used a presumably cleared sample, but still hardly smacks of originality).
But not everyone came out on the side of the Gaye estate, with Thomas Cox of Pittsburgh Track Authority (who also writes for Attack Magazine) mentioning that it’s not against copyright law to reference other music, adding that in his opinion it wasn’t musically similar – and it should be noted that though the presiding Judge Kronsdadt, ‘determined that there was a genuine dispute as to whether several elements – including signature phrases, hooks, bass lines, keyboard chords and vocal melodies – were similar,’ he also stated that ‘the jury would have to limit the analysis to how the compositions appear on sheet music, not how the two songs sound to listeners.’ So things might not be as cut-and-dried as they look… or sound. Forbes has some interesting comment from a lawyer here.
However, I’ll stick my neck out and say that there’s a moral issue at play here, as well as a legal one. We have two modern musicians, of considerable wealth and acclaim, being accused of using the music of one of soul music’s greatest stars as a hell of a lot more than a jumping-off point. Both Robin Thicke and Pharrell are so clearly influenced by Marvin it’s untrue (the former laughably saying that he ‘liked being called the “white Marvin Gaye”’ in court, while the latter called him ‘a genius… the patriarch’ when speaking to AP in 2013) and yet they’ve gotten themselves into this mess with the estate of a man who is clearly one of their role models. Marvin Gaye re-defined what soul music could be with ‘What’s Going On’ and in a career that started with him wanting to be the Black Frank Sinatra, he ended up carving his own path to similarly iconic status. He was also a troubled man, so would probably sympathise with Thicke’s substance abuse issues; though I’m sure a stern talking-to (and, I like to think, a couple of firm slaps) would be administered if he was here to defend himself. But in what seems to be so often the case these days, a couple of middle-of-the-road chancers are positioned as cultural kings, when in reality they’re not even a pale imitation of the real. If either is still capable of shame, now would be a good time to own up and make restitution.
It’s Marvin, they’re his family – sometimes even if you win, you still lose.