Posts tagged: Pharrell

A “Blurry” Decision

I would like to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the idea that “Blurred Lines” stole from “Got to Give it Up.” Both the judge’s decision and the huge award to Gaye’s estate are ludicrous. The most ridiculous part of a ridiculous lawsuit was not the melody that was “stolen” (because it wasn’t), but only that the “feel” or “tone” of the piece is too close to the Gaye piece.

Excuse me?

If that is the case, then every bodice-ripping romance novel ever written about a spunky heroine at odds with a hunky hero owes royalties to Gone With the Wind or even Pride and Prejudice. The decision that a feeling can be copied presents a real danger to all future songwriters.

Even the idea that a musical phrase might be copied is moot—after all, there are only twelve tones in the western musical scale, and some combinations are sure to be copies.

Musicians have been copying from each other since the dawn of time. And as long as there has been music, there have been “music detectives” who chronicled the copied lines. My father used to tell me about an old-time radio show where the host took a modern tune and showed how various lines and themes were stolen from older pieces. The Web site SuspiciouslySimilarSong/Music explores the similarities between many songs, including works by the Spice Girls and Billy Joel. Rock and pop musicians have frequently “borrowed” from classical music pieces, usually giving credit for the lines, maybe assuming that by instilling classical music into contemporary pieces they are also stealing a little credibility and class. Singer Eric Carmen’s 1976 hit, “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again” takes its main line directly from a theme from Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. Procol Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is lifted directly from Bach’s “Air on a G String.” (No jokes, please.) The Broadway musical “Kismet” freely admits its songs are actually taken from Borodin’s “Polovetsian Dances.”

Musicians are influenced and inspired by other musicians. Sondheim frequently uses melodic lines reminiscent of music by Bernstein, Gershwin, and even Copland. Just as painting students practice by copying great works of art, so musicians study the melodic lines of past artists, learning to find their own styles through imitation of the masters.

The idea of suing for music infringement is a relatively recent problem. The Beatles were sued by Chuck Berry for taking his song “You Can’t Catch Me” and turning it into “Come Together.” (Here come a Blacktop, He was movin’ up with me” in “Can’t Catch Me, vs “Here come old flat top, he come groovin’ up slowly”). Here, too, the lyrics were set to the same melodic line and beat, an obvious theft, and the parties settled out of court.

But the “Blurred Lines” decision is disturbing: What constitutes a “feeling?” Where does it end? Should Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell, who wrote the Peggy Lee hit “Fever,” sue the writers of the Martha and the Vandellas hit “Heat Wave” for obviously employing the same theme and tone? This decision will rock (no pun intended) the music industry, creating paranoia among writers and curbing creativity. And we will all be the worse off for that.

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