More often then I like to admit, I’m surprised by my lack of awareness of pop culture and pop music. About a week ago I saw an article on the BBC that was about Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and Clifford Harris Jr.’s recent single, “Blurred Lines,” and the claims of copying from the estate of Marvin Gaye. In brief, the article addressed issues of music authorship and ownership, and it raised in my mind the question about what constitutes copying, and what constitutes an original work.
“Blurred Lines” is one of those songs that I didn’t realize I already heard in stores and clubs. I never thought the song was much much than a knock off of Prince’s “Kiss” track, but I also wasn’t familiar with the Marvin Gaye song, “Got to Give it Up,” which is being touted as the source of Thicke, Williams, and Harris Jr.’s material. Besides the fun of getting to judge who’s right and who’s wrong, listening to both songs back to back was a lesson in what makes a great pop track come together.
There is no doubt that the tracks are similar, the authors of “Blurred Lines” have even admitted that they took their inspiration from Gaye’s 1977 disco song; both songs feature a bass line, a nice percussion groove, and lots of falsetto singing. The controversy seems to be in the drum hook at the beginning of each song. You can hear in the first few bars of each track:
However, there are big differences between the two songs. Most importantly, the vocal lines are different tunes and the hooks are not the same. Also, the songs develop differently. Gaye’s track, despite its sparse instrumentation, contains significant development over the song. This is mostly from the bass, which jumps registers, implies weird chord changes, and varies the rhythmic pattern of the line. “Blurred Lines” does not contain nearly as much development as “Got to Give it Up” and despite virtually the same texture, the song is extremely repetitive; by the end of the second verse/chorus, the song has given everything is has to offer—so the songwriters added a rap verse and pull back some the orchestration to keep it interesting. It’s a valiant effort on the part of Thicke & co., but it doesn’t quite cut it.
“Blurred Lines” is not copying.* It shares a lot in common with “Got to Give it Up,” but songs sounding similar is nothing new at all and I’ll be surprised if the judge rules in favor of the Gaye estate. What this fiasco does demonstrate is how a simple thing as adding variety to a bass line can completely change the drive and interest in a song. The composers of “Blurred Lines” said they wrote the song in about an hour, and it sounds like it. With a little more variation, the track could have been much, much better. Hopefully, when Thicke, Williams, and Harris Jr. decide to use a classic track as the model for their next summer hit, they’ll pay closer attention.
As a final note, while researching for this article, I stumbled upon this mashup of “Blurred Lines,” “Got to Give it Up,” and Prince’s “Kiss.” Enjoy!
30 November, 2013 – Unfortunately the mashup I mentioned has been removed, probably due to copyright restrictions.
*12 March, 2015 – A jury recently ruled that “Blurred Lines” does infringe upon “Got to Give it Up,” and last summer I changed my opinion on whether the song is copying. I now believe that “Blurred Lines” is indeed infringement. Hopefully, we can all move on with our lives now that this has been resolved.