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Category:    Home > Essays > Music > Composition > Originality > Creativity > Plagiarism > Legal > Industry > History > Soul Music > Soun > Why Honest, Original Music Artists Have Never 'Got To Give It Up' For Other Musicmakers Taking Their Music, No Matter The 'Blurred Lines'

Why Honest, Original Music Artists Have Never 'Got To Give It Up' For Other Musicmakers Taking Their Music, No Matter The 'Blurred Lines'

By Nicholas Sheffo

This essay about authorship, originality, responsibility, big thinking in the arts, the origins of art forms, the persons who drive them and a bit of history to go with it, intended to challenge everyone to take the arts more seriously; an article not made to demonize anyone, no matter how badly they have knowingly behaved. The recent court case where the family of the late, great Marvin Gaye won their lawsuit against the creators of the hit song Blurred Lines for ripping off Gaye's brilliant #1 hit Got To Give It Up (Part One) not only forces the entire entertainment industry to fess up to grey area over what are copyrighted works and the like, but to stop ignoring authorship for profit.

No doubt everyone likes to get some things for free and in the world of consumers listening to music, watching films, taking in TV shows and more, they can make a copy for themselves in what is called 'fair use', which has nothing to do with whatever is considered illegally stealing a work. That is a separate essay that does not apply here at all because consumers can do mash-ups (or the like) and usually not get sued, depending on what the copyright holder decides. Also, just because something is 'old' does not mean you get to use it for free, an overgeneralization that is just an excuse to throw a tamper tantrum when one does not get their way on something.

Blurred Lines was a big #1 hit for months, bringing together a likable and inarguably talented Pharrell Williams (both as a producer, performer, composer, conductor and award winner, starting with his fine work as part of the duo The Neptunes) with troubled rapper T.I. and the son of talk show host, TV sitcom star and TV theme song composer Alan Thicke, Robin Thicke, for a danceable ditty about... the fun and joys of sexual assault and rape?!?!?

Yes, that is just the tip of that iceberg, a Hip Hop/Rap song you can dance to that sexes up something that is NEVER sexy unless you are a predator, pervert, sexual predator and/or woman hater. It's unfortunate success is the ugliest reflection of our cynical, sad times, where civil rights have all been undone, especially in Rap & Hip Hop, a genre artist Questlove has rightly stated has failed African Americans (it peaked in 2000 and could not stop George W. Bush from having two terms as President in an administration that was not liberal/African American friendly). This does not make Williams or T.I. traitors to any of these communities or Thicke some kind of weird racist, opportunist, et al, either. This is about money and at least a bit of arrogance.

Forget about what the men on the song may have said about the song being, then not being, then being (again) a rip-off of the Gaye classic. Forget about how the two songs sound so similar; you'd swear the original was being sampled, but this was no Ice Ice Baby. Realize that the trio lost the court case despite that their lawyer got the judge to prohibit having both songs played back to back, giving said lawyer plenty of time to explain his idea of copyright law. We won't even get into the strange filing by the defendants to say the song was not a rip-off of the Gaye classic by having a file that said so; a backward admission of liability if you think about it.

So what makes Got To Give It Up (Part One) and Marvin Gaye so great? Whether some individuals like it or not, Gaye is one of the main reasons Rap and Hip Hop happened. One of Motown Records' most important singers early on, his Soul and R&B credentials were inarguable, especially for a record label so successful and one accused of being more 'white' than it should be; a bigoted, musically illiterate thing to say. Gaye delivered hits for them early on, including cross-over monster I Heard It Through The Grapevine, an official, approved remake of a song already a big hit by the inarguable Gladys Knight & The Pips. Armed with a new arrangement, Gaye's remake is an all-time classic, profoundly so and with a vocal to equal any soul vocalist now, then or ever.

By the 1970s, Stevie Wonder and Gaye were among the artists at the label redefining not just soul music, but all music by breaking out in the era of the singer/songwriter with artists like Carole King, Roberta Flack, Elton John, Nilsson and more in the wake of Bob Dylan. Smokey Robinson would soon go solo too. In the case of Wonder and Gaye, they were cutting some of the most important music of all time and certainly their careers. One track Gaye cut was so different, label owner Berry Gordy refused to release it saying, in a statement that would be prophetic and come back to haunt him and the label, sounded like two radios playing at the same time that was a mess no one would play. Eventually, he released it and Gaye made it the title song of his masterpiece album What's Going On?, one of the most important albums ever made with a title song that became the forerunner of Rap and Hip Hop still today.

The lawyer for Williams and Thicke kept saying that Gaye had not invented the beat or music itself so anyone could do a song with a generic beat (a weak, silly thing to say that he managed to do without laughing in anyone's face) which Gaye's original cannot be accused of having, but Gaye is a giant in music history for which his clients would never have had careers and for which this lawyer would not be hired in the first place for the case. Which brings us to Got To Give It Up (Part One), a song so smart about being sexy that it also makes the career of someone as great a Prince possible and shows What's Going On? (album and single) were no fluke. So what about that song, which actually started as a spoof of Miami-based male vocal disco, which Gaye & company seemed to deem limited in its soul or depth?

Though it is harder to surmise this now in a sexually explicit, crude society where the sexy is unsexy, dehumanized and gutted out upon media arrival the majority of the time, the genius of Got To Give It Up (Part One) is a dance song (no longer a satire having transformed into something much more significant) about a man hitting on a sexy woman (dancing with her, in fact) in ways that have been going on forever, but had not been articulated so honestly or realistically as it is in this song. It was a revelation at the time, captures the end of the counterculture well in its naturalism, fits the sexual freedom of the disco era perfectly without being a typical generic disco record and blatantly celebrates the freedom of the civil rights movement... none of the true happiness or joy of which Blurred Lines could possibly begin to grasp or imagine.

Thus, it is a very original work and Gaye (just by the incredible vocal alone!) is the co-author of the work inarguably, with a vocal that is slyly referenced (even mocked?) in Blurred Lines, though obviously no ones singing on that record could come close to Gaye's (the interestingly timed 'wooo' at the beginning is almost an admission of this, in its own mechanical State Of Shock way) and the notes have been changed just (too) slightly enough to deny it is the same song when it is. It reminds me of the argument that TV commercials are not louder than the programs, with some spokesman next to a meter showing the 'truth' but you can hear he is not telling the truth and the scientific measurement is only offering a distracting fact and only capturing one dimension of what is really happening.

Williams in particular has been the legitimate author of many songs, and when you sample, you need to pay for the rights to that sample (post-Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique in particular) like a painter has to buy a specific color of paint from a single manufacturer if they are the only ones making it or actually created a special paint only they somehow have the rights to at the time. That is authorship and for it to work amongst real, grown adult, honest artists, you have to pay if you also expect to be paid. If not, you go to court, loose your case and must pay financially. No matter what happens in appeal or to the separate case brewing against T.I. as of this posting, the Williams/Thicke loss is a landmark that re-establishes the importance of the very laws that protect Williams (et al) and make him money legitimately.

Another argument is that Rap/Hip Hop is about taking things apart and reconstituting them (hardly an original idea in itself, as satires (ironically in this case) do this), while also deconstructing the world around it for a certain reality the culture sees, even if that may not be everyone's reality or even true and valid. That makes it a post-modern art form and continues what Punk Rock started only a few years before it, both ironically and rightly with roots in the New York City (and its five boroughs) of the 1970s, including the disco scene that Rap/Hip Hop came out of in its original configuration of party rap: a genre established in part by Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up (Part One)!

To show this another way, we can go back (way back for some) to one other forerunner of the way sound is manipulated and configured in Rap and Hip Hop, the rise of sound cinema, especially in Hollywood. Some of the same editing you now hear in those post-modern music genres are similar to some of what you would hear inventively in early sound cinema. Warner Bros. instantly became a major studio when they added sound (on a disc synched to a film print at first) to the infamous, original 1927 Jazz Singer immediately launching the Classical Hollywood musical the studio would continue to make and innovate with hits like 42nd Street and more leading up to the creation of their own eventual record label. Other major studios quickly followed, as did full color film, but the basics had to laid out first.

This would extend to non-musical like Howard Hawks' original Scarface (1932) and the amazing Alfred Hitchcock, whose innovations in his first sound films in England (before coming to Hollywood) were groundbreaking for the whole artform as he always was. A few years before Hip Hop and Rap arrived, a late 1960s counterculture comedy filmmaker named Brian De Palma made the first film ever to get an X-rating: Greetings. He even made a sequel called Hi Mom! that challenged racism in one particular sequence. Both films remain worth seeing. He could have continued in that vein and become competition for Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

Instead, his love of Hitchcock led him to become a maker of mystery thrillers starting with the amazing Sisters (1972, including a music score by the man who was Hitchcock's composer for many of his classics: Bernard Herrmann), followed by more thrillers like the mixed Obsession and Body Double, underrated The Fury, remarkable Dressed To Kill and Blow Out and Carrie (1976), which was the first time a film of the then-little known author Stephen King was made. It remains one of the few adaptations of King that work.

De Palma was criticized for ripping off Hitchcock, but as the late Robin Wood (author of the groundbreaking book Hitchcock's Films) rightly argues in his book From Vietnam To Reagan, De Palma is actually, often is making commentary on Hitchcock's films and their limits when it comes to women, persons of color, patriarchy and in the wider range of human sexuality. After all those films, De Palma was seeming doomed to be typecast as a ripoff artist (personified by the great short film spoof (shown widely in the 1970s on the original Saturday Night Live TV series) The Clams with stop-motion animated clam shells attacking people, made to look like Hitchcock's natural disaster classic The Birds (1962) pronouncing De Palma the writer, director and everything else in the voiceover as if he owned cinema. He never claimed this, any more than Pharrell Williams has, but the 'control freak' label gets attached to anyone who seems to have their act together.

That would have been it for De Palma, except he also liked the Gangster genre and when he made The Untouchables, he was looking for his first blockbuster (he was forever mad at the original United Artists by not going into wider release with Carrie) as well as disappointed that his epic, 1983 remake of Scarface had bombed in its original release, losing money for Universal, getting an X-rating for violence (it had to be cut down a few minutes), for going further than Coppola's first two Godfather films (which Scorsese would do further than both with GoodFellas and Casino) in graphic violence and a group of particularly infantilized, regressive film critics of the era who wanted 'Uncle' Steven Spielberg (via his more commercial works, intended or not) to pacify them, tore it apart as they had other ambitious epics like Scorsese's New York, New York, Coppola's One From The Heart, Friedkin's Sorcerer, Cimino's Heaven's Gate and even Spielberg's comedy 1941.

Yet, the film was daring, had new ideas the 1932 film did not have or would dare to have at the time and came with two other inarguable assets: Oliver Stone was a co-writer and it had one of the greatest actors of all time playing the title role: Al Pacino. Thus, when VHS and Beta videotapes arrived in the 1980s, the film (along with Sidney Lumet's underrated Prince Of The City; Lumet almost directed Scarface, but passed) became a big back catalog hit for those who had missed it and viewers had higher attention spans than usual to get the most for their money out of expensive tape rentals and purchases. Add the luxury of being able to stay at home and enjoy films in a way only the rich few who could afford 16mm and 35mm home film rentals did previously, no matter the quality drop, and it was now a hit.

Though Pacino's delivery of his crazy philosophy on life, love, greed, money and power were supposed to be ironic and darkly comic as a burned-out man's point of view of the world, a new group of post-modern music lovers took it as actual life philosophy and that is how the Scarface remake became the touchstone film for Rap/Hip Hop and ended the Hitchcock stereotyping of De Palma for good... again, intentionally or not. De Palma in all cases shows how to reference previous works where applicable without being a rip-off artist and even, when accused of being such, is not. He lived to see himself vindicated.

That Scarface is a film that remakes another film speaks volumes of the post-modern/recycling continuum of the Rap/Hip Hop community that adopted it and that's fine for what became the next wave of music after Rock (still alive now, if not predominant like it used to be). Just because you have a post-modern artform (be it Rap/Hip Hop, Punk, Dubstep, Electronica, even Disco) does not end art or The Arts as we know it. It is just another culture saying what it has to say, though only a select group in any genre is going to be remembered or be relevant years, decades or centuries from now. Rap/Hip Hop seems to have a certain sense of entitlement in sampling and stealing music (et al) from others they do not even know, though you get people in all arts doing so from others, it is epidemic in 'the game'.

African Americans struggling to keep Rap/Hip Hop 'black', 'real' and 'pure' so persons in that community can tell 'their story' (which seems to turn out to be the same unoriginal, formula tale of bad times, true too often) have therefore run into a contradiction: you cannot tell a new, original story if you are sampling other stories and even lives that are not your own. Pre-Internet, you would hear the argument that the genre was great in telling people in the suburbs (read world of white teens then) that there was another world where people of color were being left and neglected. With the Internet everywhere, Hip Hop/Rap about 40 years old (!!!), the same message said endlessly and changing demographics (including economic situations), that reasoning no longer holds true.

Thus, Blurred Lines and its cynical, angry commercial success should actually be a red alert for Rap/Hip Hop, a genre that needs (along with the rest of the country for that matter, but it specifically because of its audience) has lost its power and political edge with such a bored piece of waste-of-time unoriginality. With the President Obama-inspired retro racism and a skyrocketing of violence against unarmed African American males (partly (misdirected) anger at Obama) that is costing many their lives out in the open daylight, there is no place a Blurred Lines or any other waste of time, but those who 'strongly dislike' Obama and African America love this kind of song because it is one of many perfect distractions to hide behind and allows for 'useful idiocy' that never helps society at any time.

So this means it is not just the problem of one song, but of a country and the music industry in particular, especially where young artists think it is fine to rip off anyone who cannot afford to sue them and even boldly dare known artists or their estates to come after them, thinking they cannot lose. That is wishful thinking, but brings us to one other culture Blurred Lines supports and that is bullying, which has seen a sudden upsurge since the 1980s and is at an epidemic now. Why? Because it is cheap and if you can push people for free into doing what you want them to do, you can save money while making them disposable in the 'we don't need you' atmosphere that the 1980s started, has only become worse and kills art and maybe even people.

So we then get bullying by musicmakers with money, some of whom would rather go to court to justify not paying the money that they themselves would sue for if it was their music and be irate if it happened to them. If they say they would not sue, why not just donate all their royalties to charity? Because they are being highly dishonest. In a lawsuit against Mac Miller in early 2015, he released some free songs with a sample he did not pay for and is still rightly being sued as the song sampled was and is not his to give away for free. Their argument was that they did not get many money for it and hey, many songs are sampled and no one gets payed. That does not make it right, legal or fit any copyright law anyone knows, but for a young generation that bashes anything valuable as 'sacred' and anything valued being for fools who should be used, gutted out and dumped, that is the culture of true haters you are dealing with. Guess they decided to ignore how Frank Ocean did the same on his 'free' song American Wedding generously samples The Eagles' iconic hit Hotel California. Guess more high profile, big winning, big money lawsuits are going to need to happen for persons not asking for permission and not paying the price for use to get the message or pay a higher price.

Miller's lawyer even argued that the 'free publicity' their track using the song they did not own or get permission to use should have a monetary value and be subtracted from the lawsuit amount, for which he (here too) did not laugh in the face of anyone he said this to. Is he a lawyer or promotional company executive? If the latter, I cannot remember who he sampled, so he failed as a promoter. And I bet he has sued everyone who has ever used a Miller song without Miller's permission. If anything, this is the argument of a bootlegger who says they are getting the work out of an artist they are a 'fan' of, thus also implying free promotion. Well, people trying to make money and a living don't want or need 'free' promotion from sudden, self-appointed promoters who are promoters of convenience when making money for themselves and even a client. When Diana Ross years ago heard the 'fan' argument for 'fans' making money by selling her work without he knowledge or permission, she said that they were not her fans. How correct and prolific she was!

So the real 'chilling effects' of the Blurred Lines case is not against 'creativity', which only goes so far when you are on the 'spin cycle' (pun intended) of recycling other's work like it is your own. If you cannot do that, don't cut that record or face the consequences. The 'party' is over! If you are going to use other's work, you need to pay, and now you will, one way or the other... especially if you are one of the top music artists of your time, worth serious money and previously had a solid reputation as an artist. Why risk a permanent scar on your legacy and career for money?

Even if you accidentally make a song that sounds like another, you can still land up with a classic, which happens rarely, but did when Radiohead had a breakthrough hit with Creep. Turns out it was too similar to the worldwide megahit and classic The Air That I Breathe by The Hollies and a settlement was reached, as was the case in the recent Sam Smith/Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne case. The late Beatle George Harrison was sued over hit huge early solo hit My Sweet Lord when too many thought it was the same arrangement as The Shirelles classic He's So Fine, a crazy case that led to Harrison's infamous manager Allan Klein betraying him to get money from him in the case before (years later) Harrison ended it all by buying the rights to the original song. When The Verve sampled a variant of The Rolling Stones' The Last Time for their hit Bitter Sweet Symphony and thought they had a deal to do so, they still got sued and loss the whole 100% rights and royalty money to it in one of the more interesting cases in the matter.

So within the music business, from major labels to independents, this should teach (or for the more to most hardheaded, be a major warning) everyone to 'check themselves' and think before you rip someone else's work off, especially if they are a major known artist and even a giant in music. You should/will pay because there will always be someone to go after you and rightly so. This should make musicmakers think twice and finally strive to be more original to the extent that they can. If not, the music will continue to be often as bad, forgettable and as worthless as too much of it has been in recent years.

As for Blurred Lines as a song, it is a TOTAL DISASTER artistically. It made money in the most precalculated move of all time and for the worst possible reasons, at the worst possible time and it is all-around embarrassing. That makes it the worst record of all time, cynicism and all, he worst soul record, dance, record, rap record, hip hop record, disco record, R&B record, pop record, single, extended single, re-mixable and sample-able record ever made. The title might also been a comment on the intention to sell the record and hope no one noticed what the makers really did, but putting their money on known-nothings was a mistake. Any real music lover can read between the 'lines' and see what they really did, as well as acting like the sole creators of the work when they know 'they didn't build that' originally.

In the end, it also speaks to a very dangerous, mindless sense of the soulless, generic and authorlessness nature of digital and I don't mean nitwits making angry statements and even threats without being named because they think they can get away with it. Instead, think of taking a still picture (photo chemical or digital), or shooting film or video footage. The image is finished instantly, even of you might have to wait in the case of non-instant film. Then you look to see how it is. You might see some surprises, maybe think some part of it is not looking the way you remembered it or should look to you.

So you can change it, especially easy with digital programs, but you could always manipulate images since the dawn of photography. Totalitarian governments on down always did going way back. So do you change some of the color, lighten or darken any parts, sharpen or soften others or even erase anything? A little bit of that could be fine, but the more you go for those and many other options, the more of a lie the image(s) become(s). And the more it no longer has an author, or even a soul, so who's taking responsibility for its authorship?

If there's money in it, someone will, but that's obviously not honest and if it is good and/or successful, not really their creation. In all this, you can see where the truth of the image and its loss and distortion quickly begin, but we've all been on a very lax honeymoon in this matter and one that will continue for a while. Fortunately, the original authors are rising up, wanting to be heard and get their piece of the pie. And that's why we call it art, because it is by human beings with something original to offer. Post-modern artists like DJs, Williams and more either understand this, or should be expecting more legal action where the lose. As the recent Apple/Taylor Swift exchange shows, this is just the beginning.


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