Not-So-Blurred Lines – Why Pharrell Lost

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(Spoiler alert:  At the end of this article is a special mashup version of the two songs “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” that I created and added on March 15, 2015, and you can listen to by clicking the arrow in the embedded media player.)

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke may have tried to blur the lines, but, on March 10, a federal jury saw them clearly – and only took 8 days to do so: “Blurred Lines,” they’re 2013 smash hit single, came a little too close to sounding like the 1977 dance/funk classic, “Got To Give It Up,” by Marvin Gaye.

When writer/producer Pharrell Williams began the journey to his phenomenal comeback a few years back, first with the Daft Punk single, “Get Lucky,” which he helped produce and for which he provided lead vocals; and then with the simultaneously charting song “Blurred Lines,” the dance-funk track he also co-wrote and performed with blue-eyed soul singer, Robin Thicke, he probably didn’t think it would be the latter song that would still be generating headlines two years later.  After all, “Get Lucky” was a throwback tour de force, combining the underrated talents of three previously successful acts all gunning for career revivals: Chic founder and legendary 1970s/80s producer, Nile Rodgers, who played rhythm guitar on the track; Daft Punk – a 1990s/2000s French electronic/house duo with a loyal cult following; and Pharrell himself.

“Blurred Lines,” on the other hand, was just a dance/funk collaboration with contemporary R&B star Thicke, who before then had recorded several big R&B hits, but had never really had that one breakthrough crossover pop hit.  However, it was “Blurred Lines” that ended up being the bigger commercial success, resonating with practically everyone who could dance and spending 12 weeks at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 that summer – five of those weeks with “Get Lucky” stuck behind it at an unlucky Number Two.

Here in 2015, it’s all about “Blurred Lines” again…and “Got To Give It Up,” the song whose style Pharrell liberally borrowed from when he wrote the 2013 hit “in an hour.”  “Blurred Lines” was the song for which he later began collecting what were likely the biggest paychecks of his career (before his own juggernaut “Happy” hit in 2014).  The federal jury’s decision this past week that those paychecks would have to be shared with the descendants of Marvin Gaye, landed a big blow to Pharrell, Thicke, and other would-be song copiers.   In the process, it relegated “Blurred Lines” to that dreaded and somewhat legendary list of other songs (like George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”) that sounded too much like familiar older hits and ended up costing the artists who wrote and recorded the rip-offs possibly millions.

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To understand the jury’s recent “Blurred Lines”/”Got To Give It Up” verdict, one has to first understand the two songs’ styles, their similarities and their differences.  Basically, it boils down to this: the songs were not sung in the same key, nor do they use the same note or chord selection.  So you would not be able to put the two tunes’ sheet music side by side and do a note for note comparison to determine their likeness.  And the Gaye family likely never claimed that in their lawsuit.  In fact, the Gaye family didn’t initially file a lawsuit – they filed a counterclaim against Williams’ and Thicke’s initial suit that was filed as a preemptive strike – a dumb one, I might add, and I’ll get to that later.

But back to the two songs in question.  What they lacked in musical note similarities, they certainly made up for in “feel.”  One really only has to ask: without “Got To Give It Up” would there ever have been a “Blurred Lines”?  The easy answer: no.  The Williams/Thicke camp had previously admitted as much in the media and, reportedly, even in the courtroom when they testified that Thicke had asked Pharrell to create a song with that sound.  Pharrell and Thicke, according to news accounts of the proceedings, tried backtracking from that story as the trial progressed.  But it was the feel or sound of the two songs, not their sheet music or technical similarities or lack thereof, that ultimately did in the “Blurred Lines” singers.

My understanding is that the Gaye family wanted to exploit the two songs’ similarities in the courtroom by playing for the jury the entire Gaye track, but the judge said no after determining that piece of “evidence” to be inadmissible (for reasons that I still don’t understand).  Although reportedly thought to be a major legal setback by the Gaye family’s attorney, I contend that the judge’s decision may have actually worked in their favor.  My hypothesis is that when you analyze the two songs side by side in their entirety, they are somewhat technically distinct, given those sheet music differences I described earlier.  Upon repeated full listenings, one could actually identify and pick apart those differences…enough so that a court could reasonably have rendered a different decision.

However, the most distinguishable parts of “Got To Give It Up” were not the note selection or chord progression documented in its sheet music.  Instead, it was the rhythm track: the four-on-the-floor base drum, the high-hat cymbal placement, the distinctive percussion throughout, and the way the bass guitar (or synthesizer) and subtle keyboard rifts wrapped around each beat that set it apart.  Except for straight-up remakes, no other song before 2013 had ever sounded like “Got To Give It Up.”  By only being allowed to play song snippets rather than the full track, I can see a savvy lawyer exposing jurors to only those unique elements that reflected the songs’ similar qualities, sparing them the trouble of having to be musicologists to figure it all out.  The eight jurors in this case found – unanimously I might add – that those unique sound elements of “Got To Give It Up” were protected by its copyright, which was owned by the Gaye estate because Marvin had written the song himself 38 years ago.

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In addition to their musical similarities, “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” both reached #1 on the Hot 100 during the same week in June exactly 36 years apart.

Fortunately for the Gaye family, it was those same unique elements that made it easy to recognize any attempts at duplication or “borrowing.”  For the many times that the song has been covered since 1977, the Gaye estate has surely benefitted financially.  When I first heard “Blurred Lines” two years ago, the first thing I thought of was “Got To Give It Up,” and I assumed Gaye’s family had been taken care of. Instead, I was surprised to later find that there was no Marvin Gaye writer’s credit to be found on the track, and hence, no royalty payments to his estate.

Unfortunately for Williams and Thicke, it was their irreverence and greed that led to their loss in court and ultimately – unless the ruling is overturned on appeal – the loss of millions of dollars in “Blurred Lines” revenue.  It was that same greed that brought them to the courtroom in the first place.  When it became clear to them that “Blurred Lines” was a runaway smash that was raking in millions of dollars in profits, they opted to launch a preemptive strike to prevent the Gayes from ever getting their hands on any of it.  They chose this path instead of one that actually showed Marvin’s family respect and paid homage to the late singer who inspired them.  Why not give Gaye a writer’s credit or offer to give the Gaye estate some of the fortune they reaped from his music?  Why not do that instead of suing them for a claim that the late singer’s family had not even yet made – that “Blurred Lines” was a ripoff of “Got To Give It Up”?

Instead they chose to wake the proverbial sleeping bear, and the bear bit back – hard!  The Gaye family counter sued for $25M and won a ruling for over $7M – a nice paycheck for a 38-year-old song whose revenue checks in recent years had likely been relegated to small royalties from occasional recurring oldies radio airplay, minimally successful cover versions, and even less frequent downloads of the original song from digital music stores.  In fact, that $7M is probably much more than Gaye ever earned from the song during his lifetime – even when factoring in inflation.

Pharrell called the court’s ruling a loss for the music industry and for the creativity of today’s artists who are often “inspired” by older music.  I say it’s more just a loss for Williams and Thicke (and other copycats), the latter of whom -Thicke – has hardly been heard from since he launched the ill-fated suit.

And chalk it up as a win for those artists who were creative enough to come up with their own styles and who should be credited by contemporary acts who choose to use the original artists’ work as their own.

Justice has prevailed – for now.

DJRob

Click the arrow in the media player below to listen to a special mashup I created of “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up.”  You might be amazed at just how similarly constructed the two songs are.

You can also read Billboard magazine’s recent article on the verdict by clicking here.

Also, here’s a link to a YouTube clip of another good mashup version of the two songs.

 

 

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