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.

Weird Japanese thing of the week

Tremendously entertaining and Japanese. Though I have it on good authority that the dinosaur is not actually real.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Thai dude playing "wall drums" - pretty cool

This is worth watching at least once. You'll have to listen to 5 minutes of Christian rock, however, though by the standards of the genre it's not too bad. I wouldn't be surprised if Jesus is somehow indulging in some highly effective stealth marketing with this one.
The drummer is a music teacher named Weerachat Premananda.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

More on the Reza Aslan interview: Fox News doubles down

After Fox News' jaw-droppingly stupid interview with Reza Aslan on his book about the historical Jesus achieved viral status, the station has predictably backed itself and congratulated interviewer Lauren Green for doing a great job. Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Centre is drafted in to tell us why. And again, it's a superb illustration of just how much the religious right fail to get it.
 One of the funny parts is where Bozell decries the fawning interviews from the liberal media that never press Aslan on what Bozell thinks are serious errors about what Jesus did or didn't do. It's funny because Green, in the Fox interview, doesn't do that either. She spent almost the entire time questioning his right as a person who happens to be a Muslim to write about Jesus.

To be fair, if that question came up once in the interview, there would be nothing wrong with that. Something like, "Mr Aslan, some critics have claimed that as a Muslim, you do not have an objective position on writing about the key figure of the Christian religion. What do you say to that?" But when that question is the only one being asked in the interview, albeit in various different guises, it's clear there is a prejudice at work. It's a great, clear example of the Christian Privilege that operates in America, at least in conservative circles. In the same way that white people are the "default race", Christianity is the "default religion", which means that Christians can talk about both their own religion and others, without their objectivity being questioned. But someone like Aslan who ascribes to a different religion must clearly have an agenda; particularly when his religion is Islam, which is out to destroy America and Christianity. When Aslan says he's an academic with four degrees who just happens to be a Muslim, this doesn't make sense to much of the Fox audience, because (a) being Muslim alone is enough to be suspicious, and (b) the idea of anyone being able to take an objective academic perspective on one's religion is a foreign concept. (The line from Bozell that "he's not a very good Muslim" is reflective of this... one cannot be both a "good" religious practitioner unless you unquestioningly accept everything that the religion tells you.)

The other interesting part of the interview with Bozell is this bit:
"There are also all kinds of holes you can poke in this man's very, very biased and very, very one-sided book.... He also makes the point—and this is something as a Catholic I take great offence to—he says 'there is a very big difference between the historical Christ and what the Catholic church has done to create a mythical Christ.' No there isn't." 
 In other words, if an academic's view of history clashes with what has been written in the Bible, clearly the academic is wrong. Why? Because the Bible = God's word, and God is always right. Except Bozell doesn't see that to be a purely religious view; he thinks it's objective reality, because he knows the Bible to be correct. You'll note earlier that Bozell implies that Aslan cannot be both a good Muslim and objective on religious history. Then couldn't we say the same about Bozell? He can't be both a good Catholic and objective about religion? Well, you can... but only if you follow the "right" religion.

Ask yourself this question: If you wanted to analyse Scientology, would it be wise to only listen to the opinion of people who are part of the Church of Scientology? Would you trust them to give you an unbiased opinion? Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions are no different.