Will Madonna sue Lady Gaga? Will George Clinton sue OutKast? Will Prince sue Bruno Mars, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and umpteen-hundred others? And then will Little Richard sue Prince?
These idiotic questions became frighteningly legitimate after a federal jury in Los Angeles ruled that singer Robin Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams had committed copyright infringement. The jurors decided that yes, Thicke’s 2013 chart-topping single “Blurred Lines” had copied elements of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up,” and awarded Gaye’s family a walloping $7.4 million. The titles of the two songs in question could not have been more fitting.
But it was the lack of detail on exactly which elements were copied that prompted a hard-swallow across all of popland on Tuesday night.
The jury was instructed to make its ruling based on written melodies, chords and lyrics, not the sounds of the respective recordings. If that’s the case, how these eight jurors arrived at their verdict is incomprehensible. Yes, “Blurred Lines” approximates the rhythm and timbre of “Got to Give It Up,” but is that theft?
Listen. Both songs have cowbell-ish percussion that plunkity-plunks at a similar tempo, but the patterns are different. Both songs have rich, teasing basslines, but the notes and rhythms of each are dissimilar.
“Blurred Lines” contains the phrase “Shake your rump, get down, get up-a,” while Gaye’s song includes the line, “Move it up, turn it ’round, shake it down” — but that’s about it, in terms of lyric parallels.
Sure, both recordings are filled with background chatter, as if they were cut at a party. And in direct homage, “Blurred Lines” is littered with steam-whistle WOO!s — one of Gaye’s vocal trademarks.
But while “Blurred Lines” might lack imagination, Thick and Williams ultimately only seem guilty of stealing a vibe.
And if vibes are now considered intellectual property, let us swiftly prepare for every idiom of popular music to go crashing into juridical oblivion. Because music is a continuum of ungovernable hybridity, a dialogue between generations where the aesthetic inheritance gets handed down and passed around in every direction. To try and adjudicate influence seems as impossible as it does insane. Is that the precedent being set here?
Obviously, that doesn’t mean that countless musicians haven’t been done dirty over the past century. An entire generation of American bluesmen died before sniffing the monthly private helicopter fuel budget of the rock-and-rollers who ran off with their sound. Others have settled out of court.
And that’s one reason why a cheer went up on social media after Tuesday’s verdict was announced. This time, the young cads didn’t get away with it. Another reason for those cheers: Many people have a severe distaste for “Blurred Lines.”
But releasing a middling mega-hit is not a crime, and to applaud Tuesday’s decision — which many assume will be appealed — is to applaud the idea of regulated art.
For context, let’s revisit perhaps the most consequential court decision on pop music before this one: the 1991 case of Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Brothers Records Inc., in which the rapper Biz Markie was sued for sampling a Gilbert O’Sullivan song without permission. The Biz lost the case, and in many ways, so did hip-hop.
Before the ruling, Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” and De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” had each used heaps of samples to create magnificent, meticulous sonic collages. But after the Biz Markie case, those kinds of albums stopped getting made. The law had essentially removed a tool from the artists’ hands.
Sampling didn’t vanish completely — but it was cost prohibitive, and artists willing to pony up for clearance would often try to get the biggest bang for their buck by cutting-and-pasting recognizable hooks into their refrains. These weren’t magnificent collages so much as solitary cut-outs slapped onto some construction paper.
But pop music has a survivalist knack for self-correction, and in the early aughts, it brought us a new class of hip-hop super-producers — rookies eager to create their own futuristic rhythms from scratch. One of the most promising talents in this emerging bunch was a baby-faced Virginian from a production group called the Neptunes.
His name was Pharrell Williams, and in pop music’s potentially hyper-litigious future, there will be plenty of people for him to sue.