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Offense and Influence
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
When a federal jury awarded Marvin Gaye's heirs $7.3 million in the "Blurred Lines" copyright infringement case, it was surprising to me how few people wanted to stick up for Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. Even if you hate the song (and lots of people do, though it was the biggest hit of 2013), it's hard not to see that a terrible precedent was being set by the ruling. "Blurred Lines" does indeed borrow liberally from Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up," but the song is hardly the first in rock and roll history to rip off another source so blatantly, so obviously; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other "obvious" rock and roll thefts in just about any iTunes user's library. If the "Blurred Lines" ruling were applied retroactively to any obviously "influenced " song in rock and roll history, there would be judgments against every major artist of the past 60 years. And the Rolling Stones would owe Chuck Berry about $100 million dollars, easy.
So, as Tim Wu wrote in his excellent opinion piece in The New Yorker (March 12, 2015), it's a terrible decision, one that certainly will be overturned on appeal; as much as people want to see Thicke get punished for being a thieving, unlikeable schmuck/misogynist, eventually, he's not going to have to fork over a cent. Which is the way it should be, for rock and roll has always been an unabashedly cannabalizing art form and it's far too late in the game to try and change all that. If the appeals court should agree with the original ruling — and again, I'm certain that it won't, but if it did — it would be an absolute nightmare for any contemporary songwriter, for then, any writer would have to be incredibly wary of being too obviously "influenced" by any other song, for fear of outrageously punitive reprisals. And in rock and roll, as in any other art form, it's just about impossible not to be influenced, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously by everything buzzing about the zeitgeist.
But really, the reason people are so happy about the "Blurred Lines" decision has absolutely nothing to do with Marvin Gaye or intellectual property issues or plagiarism in general; no, people want to see the writers of "Blurred Lines" get punished because, to them, "Blurred Lines" is a misogynistic, date-rape anthem, and they would be delighted to see some sort of karmic "payback" to the creeps who created the song. "Blurred Lines" is often cited by many social critics as one of the leading pop culture culprits (along with rap music, video games, etc) that has led to increased violence against women and stratospheric levels of sexual assaults in the United States. Proponents of the rape culture theory believe that songs like "Blurred Lines" show a casual dehumanization of women and objectification that they believe leads directly to criminality, or, at least, acceptance of criminality.
I remember when the controversy broke out over "Blurred Lines" in the Summer of 2013. The song had become the anthem of the season, a huge hit, but almost immediately critics were troubling over the content of the lyrics. I read some of the opinion pieces at the time and I tried to keep up with the story but I never actually heard the song itself, which, in hindsight, is sort of amazing; the song was inescapable that year, yet I managed to escape it. (This is what happens when you get old and insular--you miss what everybody else gets. I still haven't heard "Call Me Maybe," though I'm certainly aware of it.) Anyway, from what I read of "Blurred Lines" I wasn't in any hurry to seek it out; though it's virtually impossible for me to get offended by anything, I still had no interest in hearing it. The song seemed like a creepy, douchey anthem, nothing that I wanted any part of.
So, cut to a full year later, I'm at a wedding reception, and after the painful speeches and the stupid garter thing the DJ finally cuts loose and after a few duds he plays a song that, within seconds, I discover that I absolutely love; I can't make out the words because the guy's singing in a falsetto but it sounds so fantastically cool to me that I can't get over it. I hadn't responded so immediately to a song since "Paper Planes" broke in 2008, and so, halfway through I ask a girl sitting next to me what the name of the song is and she looks at me like I'm an idiot. "Blurred Lines," she says, and to her credit she doesn't say "Duh" though "Duh" is clearly what she means.
The next day, then, after the hangover had receded, I tracked down "Blurred Lines" and discovered that it sounded just as cool to me as it did the night before. I brought the lyrics up on the internet and searched for the objectionable parts and after a few seconds of moral adjudicating, I shrugged my shoulders and decided I could live with myself for liking the song. I expected something really hateful and shocking when I listened closely but what I heard was some juvenilia, some dumb rhymes, and some stooge trying to talk a girl into having sex with him. Shocking, I know, that a guy would try that, but I guess that was the objectionable part, the guy saying, "I know you want it."
Obviously I have no desire to be a social pariah here and of course I understand how delicate this subject and of course I'm aware of the horrific stats about sexual assault and I certainly don't want to offend anyone who takes this very serious stuff so seriously and Jesus can I add any more qualifiers to this one sentence?!?! I know this is a tricky subject, but I don't want to have to turn in my feminist/humanist/somewhat-decent-guy card for admitting that I like "Blurred Lines" because I do like the song and I also believe there's a big difference between a cartoony guy in aviator sunglasses saying "I know you want it" and the criminal acts of a despicable human being. Those are clear lines, after all.