The Case for “Blurred Lines”

Posted March 13, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

In the trial of the century for the music biz, Robin Thicke’s “blurry” hit song finds itself under many influences

Robin Thicke’s successful hit “Blurred Lines,” also a collaboration with record producer Pharrell Williams and guest rapper T.I, was critically hailed as the definite summer anthem of 2013. Thanks to its sexy and sleek concept video which went viral due to its naughty half-naked female models in an unrated version eventually banned by YouTube, the sexy dance song became the go-to song of the year. Even partygirl Miley Cyrus wanted in on the action, and did so with a duet with Thicke at the MTV VMAs later that year. The stunt turned her into an overnight sensation and proved to be the perfect momentum for her album Bangerz. By the end of the year, the numbers were in and it was official: “Blurred Lines” had become the year’s best-selling single, selling more than 6 million copies by year’s end. The song turned Thicke, an unknown to the pop world, into a global superstar. It also helped put disco back on top. Months before, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which also featured Pharrell Williams, was the rage but had not reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” a song that borrows the essence of disco, became the first time that the classic disco sound dominated the chart’s top spot since Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” almost twenty three years ago.

But besides all the hoopla surrounding Thicke’s No. 1 hit was the controversial underbelly surrounding the song’s makeup. The misogynistic and sexist lyrics, for the most part, was grilled heavily by women, causing college groups and sororities to take Thicke – a longtime crooner popular with the ladies – to task. Some of the lines in the song actually advocate date rape. But there was another level of Mr. Hyde-ism attached to Thicke’s silly ditty: The irony surrounding its parallelism to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 disco hit, “Got to Give It Up.” No one was a total stranger to the news. It had been a prominent headline for an array of music critics and circulated just as much as the song’s other controversies. But with almost anything successful and at the top comes the worries of its kingdom being assaulted. When the dust finally settled on how identical the two songs were, executors of Marvin Gaye’s estate decided it was time to respond.

Let it be said that Thicke and Williams, the primary characters of “Blurred Lines,” created the perfect storm for a lawsuit. There probably wouldn’t be a case if the two didn’t create the bait for Gaye’s estate – overseen by daughter Nona Gaye and ex-wife Janis Gaye. During interviews with the media, while “Blurred Lines” was rising to its glorious apex of popularity, both Williams and Thicke exposed just how much the Gaye’s disco powerhouse influenced their own work. “Pharrell and I were in the studio and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up.’ I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’ Then he started playing a little something and we literally wrote the song in about a half hour and recorded it,” Thicke told GQ magazine in 2013.

His defense to those earlier statements, made in the court trial of copyright infringement and plagiarism, Thicke claims he was under the influence of alcohol and Vicodin. During the trial, Thicke wanted to bow out from his association with the song by throwing Williams under the bus. Back in September last year, Thicke admitted under oath of being jealous of Williams’ handling of the song. “I was jealous and I wanted some of the credit… I tried to take credit for it later because [Williams] wrote the whole thing pretty much by himself and I was envious of that,” he said.

He also told the jury that he had exaggerated his involvement in the song and that it was actually Williams who came up with the song, in no less than one hour. One hour? Gosh, even some of the worst songs at Motown weren’t made in a hour. Strike number two to a jury. If you’re going build your case on your songwriting, especially for a song that’s going to pocket in millions of dollars, saying it only took a hour to make isn’t exactly a compliment to the process. And as Gaye’s estate made plainly in their deliberations, not much work needed not to be done when much of the song was culled from Gaye’s handiwork.

But if you know how the science of the courtroom works, painting a picture of a flawed, troubled and faulty defendant will always work as a plaintiff’s reward.  Thicke is documented, at least in the eye of the media, to lying – that’s if his version of the truth holds up. Thicke’s excuses for being intoxicated and drugged up during those interviews doesn’t exactly fly, especially when there is no record of Thicke entering rehabilitation to help curve his dirty habits. If he had possibly followed up his excuses with a sign of progress, something the courts and a jury may be sympathetic over, the “drunk/high” excuse would fly. Sadly, this doesn’t make Williams look any better, because the hit-making producer never refuted Thicke’s ill-timed response.

Also hurting Thicke’s story was the evidence of imbalance in publishing royalties. If he didn’t actually play a major role in writing the song, then why exactly was Thicke given a co-writer credit that entitled him to about 18-22 percent of royalties? These errors made Thicke and his testimony unreliable and exposed cracks in his case.

Since the verdict, everyone has been jumping up and down with their own personal evaluations of the song, as if they’ve had general concern over a “guilty” verdict or the rippling effects it may cause in a creative industry. Now everyone is an expert on the matter and has some kind of knowledge to dispense on the subject, as if modern-day newspapers really had full-staffed music columns or as if personal gossip bloggers really had some vested interest in pop music (shit, they don’t even buy it nowadays). And those persons are thrusting their opinion on the masses since they are also paranoid of potentially losing in similar cases. Read the headlines since the aftermath, and you would’ve thought Ebola took over the musicophere:

The New Yorker complained that the copyright verdict should be thrown out entirely.

A music theory expert explains why the ‘Blurred Lines’ copyright decision is wrong, Dan Bogosian said in a piece for Flavorwire.

And there’s dozens more articles out there like that.

And in case you thought that Gaye’s family and his estate are carnivorous vultures, hungry for a big check, you might want to go back and do a little quick research. It was actually Thicke and Williams who initiated the court process, by taking the matter to court to potentially protect themselves. That’s right; Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. preemptively sued Gaye’s estate. They sued the estate as a preemptive move to block a lawsuit from Gaye’s family. The trio’s lawyers argued that duplicating a “feel” or “sound” did not add up to copyright infringement.

The jury, in this case, didn’t feel that way. And with the evidence laid, and the amount of “blurred lines” in Thicke’s testimony and character, it didn’t help his case.

Williams didn’t a good job in the beginning of the trial either. He also exposed a few lies. He admitted to the courts that he was able to read music. When presented with a score of his own song and asked to read it out loud, he fumbled. “I’m not comfortable,” Williams responding constantly as attorney Richard Busch, representative of the Gayes, continued to prove if Williams could actually read sheet music.

Certain media and even some self-proclaimed musicologists are crying foul over the results in the trial’s verdict. A lot of it is built out of fear.  They are afraid that this was open a can of worms for a flurry of lawsuits similar to this one, and will stifle high levels of creativity. And it just might?

But, let it be said, as I’ve said before, “Blurred Lines” mimics Gaye’s song to a tee. This wasn’t just a case of influence. This was copying and pasting elements of the song in the guise of new techonology, creating a new faux-funk, but Gaye’s song was still heard. Philadelphian songwriter Bunny Sigler agrees: “You know I’ve heard it. They played it all the time. I thought I was listening to ‘Got to Give It Up,” he said. When I asked Sigler if he thought the song was a rip-off or just contained elements of it, he responded: “That’s where they try to get slick. They play with it.”

I interviewed Sigler last year when commissioned to handle the liner notes for Let Me Party With You, a record that ironically contained a song that possessed similar sounds from “Got to Give It Up.” His song, “Let Me Party With You,” was also a big disco hit and released months after “Got to Give It Up” disappeared from the Top 40. Sigler had been down a similar path as Thicke with his own song, since Gaye and his entourage threatened to sue him. Legendary disco mixer Tom Moulton, who handled the twelve-minute mix on “Let Me Party With You,” recalls how Gaye’s hit even influenced him to mix the song in a way that patterned Gaye’s big hit: “See, Bunny Sigler never saw a lawsuit with that song. And the only reason I tried to make it sound like ‘Got to Give It Up’ was because at that time I thought I’d never work on a Marvin Gaye record. Hey, I felt this was the way a Marvin Gaye should really sound, so that’s why I mixed it that way.”

Those threats eventually cooled down, especially since “Let Me Party With You” never reached the mighty million-selling status of its big brother. Although it remains one of Sigler’s big hits, it stalled at number 43 pop and number 8 R&B. The Philly soul singer and composer of big hits for Patti LaBelle, the O’Jays, among others, knew that Thicke was in trouble and that a settlement was somewhere in his future forecast. “They are going to make a settlement somewhere,” he says. “See, Robin Thicke and the guys that produced it, you know, they’ve been in the industry awhile. The trickery is around. When people hear it, they think they are hearing the other song. But what they are trying to do is disguise as much as they could. But I’m saying – if you’re still hearing ‘Got to Give It Up,’ they didn’t disguise it enough. Right now, from the only times I’ve heard it, I still couldn’t tell you the words of it. I didn’t think it was a new song.”

I was starting to read one article today and didn’t even bother to read the piece of opinion when I saw the headline. You know, a bad headline can usually ruin a good article. In this instance, the writer said that it’s okay if you hate Thicke. but the verdict is wrong. I agreed with the verdict and don’t hate Thicke. Let me add that I don’t hate anyone, not even my worst enemy. I’m a music critic and journalist and take great pride in writing about my subjects without bias or animosity, even if their lifestyle isn’t up to my caliber or presents them as a troubled douchebag. If I seriously hated Thicke, I wouldn’t give him the time or day. I’ve reviewed “Blurred Lines” and the album containing it. And every time I brought it up, the easy comparison to Gaye’s disco jewel always came up.

In April, I said:

“And it’s not a bad jam. Play it after ‘Suit & Tie’ and you’re probably going to think that Thicke has found his ‘Got to Give It Up.’”

In the album review, while recalling the album title cut, I continued the conversation:

“Thicke has developed a formula that attracts the young and the slightly old, the ones that recall the grandeur heard on Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up.’ On the turf, Thicke plays with booty-shaking disco, intoxicating cowbell clatter and MJ-inspired woos.”

In December, Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield wrote a scathing review of the song in their annual roundup issue and actually called it the “worst song of the year.” The critic went for blood: “It’s not just another terrible song. Its historic badness is an achievement that demands respect,” he wrote. “Musically, it rips off a beloved soul legend…As for Marvin Gaye – nothing wrong with copying genius if you do it right. “Got To Give It Up” creates the illusion of unforced ease, as if Marvin just breezed into a party that was already grooving full blast. But “Blurred Lines” sounds like a guy trying miserably hard to get it right, and therefore getting it wrong.”

Ouch. Even I was much nicer during my critique.

But in the trial of “Blurred Lines,” Thicke’s character and series of lies trumped the merits of his defense. And although the song “Blurred Lines” didn’t feature complete riffs and chords or resort to the typical art of sampling to develop its composition, it is an unusual collaboration of art that uses the hues and brushstrokes of those living and those now deceased. Sure, if Bo Diddley would be filthy rich if he decided to sue every person that lifted his legendary chords for their own artistic gain. But in this case, a faulty defense and blurred lies ruined any kind of blessing in favor of Thicke.

T.I. was dismissed from prosecution and will not have to pay a red cent, since his only contribution to the song was the original rap lyrics. In court, it was revealed that he was only paid $700,000 for his involvement in the song. The primary composers earned close to $17 million; $5.6 million went to Thicke and close to $5.2 million went to Williams. As part of the ruling, the Gaye estate will receive $7.3 million from Williams and Thicke.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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