"Blurred Lines" verdict spells trouble for the future of music

"Blurred Lines" verdict spells trouble for the future of music

Whatever you feel about Pharrell and Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines', the recent court decision is bad for pop music

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Marvin Gaye was one of the world's most famous soul music artists.
Marvin Gaye was one of the world's most famous soul music artists.
Photo: Redferns

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Pharrell (left) and Robin Thicke were found to have copied Marvin Gaye's song.
Pharrell (left) and Robin Thicke were found to have copied Marvin Gaye's song.
Photo: AFP

Will Madonna sue Lady Gaga? 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 on Tuesday after a jury in Los Angeles, US, 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 the late Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit Got to Give It Up, and awarded Gaye’s family a walloping US$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 loud gulp and hard swallow across all of popland.

The jury was reportedly 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 mystifying. Yes, Blurred Lines approximates the rhythm and timbre of Got to Give It Up, but that’s about it. Thicke and Williams 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 combinations, a dialogue between generations where the aesthetic inheritance gets handed down and passed around in every direction. To try and determine 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 ’n’ 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 severe moral issues with Blurred Lines.

But releasing a middling mega-hit is not a crime, and to applaud Tuesday’s decision 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 generally hugely expensive, and artists willing to pay up for clearance would often try to get the biggest bang for their buck by cutting-and-pasting recognisable 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 2000s, 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.

Do you think Pharrell and Thicke stole from Marvin Gaye's hit? Listen to the tracks and tell us in the comments!

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