Thursday, August 29, 2013

Robin Thicke vs Marvin Gaye: Is "Blurred Lines" a ripoff, legally?

R&B singer Robin Thicke has become a rather controversial figure of late. There was the release of the massive worldwide hit Blurred Lines, with its video of scantily clad women. (There have been suggestions that its lyrics are "rapey", but that's really a case of some feminists seeing what they want to see to make them outraged.) Then there was the furore over Miley Cyrus grinding against Thicke during a performance of that song at the VMAs, which is several minutes of my life I never wish to experience again.
Also in the news, the family of Marvin Gaye is suing Thicke for allegedly ripping off Gaye's 1977 hit Got to Give it Up. Except Thicke got in there first and is suing Gaye's family as well. Or something. I'm not quite sure how all this works, but Thicke apparently wants a judge to declare once and for all that Blurred Lines is an original work and thus prevent any claims to the huge amount of money he is making of the song.

(He's also taking the same step with regard to the Funkadelic song Sexy Ways, although it's hard to see any real similarity between those two songs at all, frankly.)
Thicke has openly said that Marvin Gaye was an inspiration for him, and he asked Pharrell to come up with a Marvin Gaye feel for the song.

So what's my take? First of all, it's obvious to anyone with ears that Thicke (and Pharrell Williams who produced it) has ripped off the Gaye song. Like, it's not even debatable.

However: in legal terms, that might not pass muster. The two songs don't share a melody, there is no direct sample, no shared lyrics.

One thing that makes this an interesting case is that Got to Give it Up is quite a unique song. Rhythmically, it's quite different from anything else he recorded in his significant body of work. And speaking as someone with a fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of 70s black music, I can't think of a single other song by anyone that uses the same type of rhythm. The bass is rubbery and sparse, the drums are quite basic, but what gives the song its propulsive element is the hyperactive percussion (I think it's a cowbell), accompanied by some more subtle but bouncy electric piano. It's a unique souvenir of the era, a great dancefloor tune that seems to be busy while simultaneously not doing that much, all capped off by Gaye's signature falsetto.

It's partly the uniqueness of the song that makes it easy to hear it in Blurred Lines. People have been borrowing liberally from Marvin Gaye's sound for years; you could easily make the case that Midnight Star's Curious is similar inspired by Sexual Healing. But you could also see that as a case of two prominent artists operating in a similar era, and experimenting with the new technology that was available and which came to form a dominant sound of soul music at the time; those are not the only songs around that time that have that sort of sound. But with Blurred Lines, there is absolutely no question that Got to Give it Up is its rhythmic blueprint, because there is just no other song that sounds like that.

The key elements of Got to Give it Up's rhythm are all present in Blurred Lines - sparse bassline, bouncy electric piano, hyperactive percussion - but they have been changed just enough from the original to make it legally murky. And from what I understand about copyright law as it pertains to sampling and copying music, they have changed it enough for it to classify as an original work. It's the "feel", but not an actual melody. Even the distinctive cowbell rhythm is slightly different.

So legally, Thicke might be on some solid footing here. But morally, I think this is pretty distasteful, and here's why. There are at least 4 other Robin Thicke songs where he samples, borrows or interpolates elements of Marvin Gaye songs. Being "inspired by" an artist is one thing - and as one of the all-time great soul artists, Gaye has inspired many - but Thicke really needs to get some original ideas. Thicke is a decent singer, but a decidedly middling artist, and he's getting fame and fortune basically by being a white guy selling lower-quality versions of Marvin Gaye's music to a generation who's not very familiar with Marvin Gaye. Thus I have little sympathy for him and he should pay up.

I've heard that Gaye's family have now rejected a six-figure settlement offer from Thicke's people. Which means this could get very interesting. It's a risky but bold move on their part. Now that Blurred Lines has become one of the years biggest hits, the Gayes clearly think there is a lot to be made out of the song, and it could cost Thicke a lot more than if he had got the sample clearances out of the way before releasing the track, as most hip-hop-related artists do these days. But it's a rather murky and ambiguous territory to wade through in today's environment, in which virtually every RnB, pop and hip-hop song is biting a piece of something else.

5 comments:

  1. stuck in the middle with you... listen to that song

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  2. That rhythm definitely sounds like the original Gaye song. I don't know what constitutes copying and couldn't discuss the specifics of rhythm/theory, but it sounds similar to me.

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  3. "There have been suggestions that its lyrics are "rapey", but that's really a case of some feminists seeing what they want to see to make them outraged."

    Seriously ? I mean you really do not see any problem with the lyrics of that song ? Did you saw the article on this on Sociological Images ?

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    1. Yes, seriously. Which doesn't mean there's nothing wrong with the lyrics, but a lot of feminist commentators have decided that the song is about rape. If the criticism is that the song uses phrases which could easily be taken out of context to sound rapey, then by all means. I don't really want to defend the lyrics because they are stupid, but some of the criticism has been way over the top.

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  4. Well, saying that it is a case of some feminists seeing what they want to see to make them outraged is really over the top as well !

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