Why Defending ‘Blurred Lines’ Against Marvin Gaye’s Family Is Essential for the Future of Art
This week, I find myself in the awkward position of defending a piece of music I pretty much despise: Robin Thicke's grating, sexist "Blurred Lines."
Thicke currently stands before the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California, in Los Angeles, defending himself and his song against the family of Marvin Gaye, who allege "Blurred Lines" steals elements of Gaye's 1977 hit, "Got to Give It Up." Unlike the settlement between Sam Smith and Tom Petty over "Stay With Me," which was said to lift elements of Petty's "Won't Back Down," the dispute between Thicke and the Gaye family is unfolding in a courtroom, and promises to set a precedent for how recording industry copyright cases will be handled by judges in the future.
The case has implications that reach beyond Thicke and the millions of dollars he might have to pay for his "derivative" song. At the heart of the disagreement is the cultural notion of how artwork -- including, yes, "Blurred Lines" -- is created, and how we allow artists to go about creating it.
Art, in all its different forms, has been pretty apathetic toward notions of originality throughout the ages. Herman Melville, writing Moby-Dick, knowingly copied from whaling manuals of the early 19th century, not only cribbing the words themselves but changing and actually falsifying their facts in order to create an alternate timeline in which his fiction could exist. Later, William S. Burroughs would cop whole passages out of dime store science fiction novels, as he did in Naked Lunch, without so much as a footnote. In both of these instances, early works were repurposed, reconstituted, turned into something entirely new. Moby-Dick is not, after all, a whaling manual; Naked Lunch, the pulp novel on smack, startled even the warped sensibilities of the pulp reader.
Entire genres of pop music have been created on the premise of artistic theft, ever since DJs mixed and matched soul records and breakbeats at late night Bronx house parties. For me, not much of a hip-hop head, Ice Cube's appropriation of the Isley Brothers' "Footsteps in the Dark" is a revelation in the way it repurposes a few bars of the original to create an entirely different thing -- the idea that every song contains millions more within it. Bigger artists often make sure of copyright law to hamper artists like these by demanding shared songwriting credits and their attendant loyalties. One curious exception? Bob Dylan.
Dylan, ever the mensch, has allowed other artists to remake his music without even claiming any of the royalties for himself.
Dylan, ever the mensch, has allowed other artists to remake his music without even claiming any of the royalties for himself. And for good reason -- few have plagiarized to the extent Dylan has. As part of a long tradition in American folk music, in which authorship essentially relied upon the lyrics you altered, not the ones you made up, or how you sang rather than what you sang, Dylan's most original and influential work was often a patchwork of words and music he borrowed from other artists. The melody of "Blowin' in the Wind" was ripped note for note from "No More Auction Block," a traditional song Dylan sang in cafes and apartments for years. In Dylan's songs, bits of verse from T.S. Eliot sit side-by-side with lines from old detective movies. In recent years, Dylan raised eyebrows when, in Love and Theft, he copied lines from a Japanese book called Confessions of a Yakuza. But this borrowing has always been part of Dylan's art, and American art in general.
In Dylan's case, as in the case of Melville and Ice Cube, the artwork yielded from this borrowing is not the same, or even nearly the same, as the original artwork from which it borrowed. It's entirely new, as original as we're likely to get as human beings, unconsciously and inevitably influenced by everything around us. To be an artist is partly to acknowledge that no ideas are truly original; that a world of meaning can be imparted through recontextualization.
The judge in the Robin Thicke case has ruled on copyright cases like the current one before, and according to the New York Times, he has tried to narrow the definition of intellectual property in these cases to the actual melodies, rhythms and harmonies -- the sheet music, in essence — so that songwriters can't go suing each other just because their songs "feel the same." (One play of "Got to Give it Up" and you realize "Blurred Lines" straddles this line.)
But even this distinction is too generous. Thomas Jefferson -- bear with me -- essentially the originator of American copyright law, once said: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” In other words, "derivative" works can enrich the culture without stealing anything of value from the borrowee.
Sway Calloway, a DJ and MTV News correspondent, put forth what is probably the most common view in the music industry on the situation when he told the Times, “It’s supposed to be an homage. But you still have to follow the rules. If you’re going to take from someone else’s creation, then you may have to pay the piper.” In this case, the piper, Gaye's family, is seeking some portion of the song's estimated $30 million profits.
Marvin Gaye, God rest his soul, doesn't deserve this money. He didn't write "Blurred Lines" any more than Tom Petty wrote "Stay With Me" or the Isley Brothers wrote "It Was a Good Day."
Thicke and his record company will be able to pony up, but smaller artists who might repurpose Gaye's music, and the music of any other big recording artist, won't have the same option. Instead, they'll simply be inhibited from creating their art.