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March 19, 2015

In art, the lines are always blurry

In art, the lines are always blurry

In the immediate aftermath of the courtroom verdict that awarded $7.4 million of the profits from the 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” to the family of Marvin Gaye (whose 1977 single “Got to Give It Up” was allegedly plagiarized), two distinct groups of commentators formed.

On the one hand, countless “experts”—lawyers, journalists, musicians, musicologists—emerged with articles of protest and dismay, explaining the disastrous precedent set by the case, which proclaims the illegality, not of creating a note-by-note copy of someone else’s song, but rather of borrowing the ineffable “feel” or “groove” of another musician. In a sense, it asserts that it is illegal for an artist to take inspiration from or pay homage to another artist, making criminals not only out of Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars (who may fear lawsuits from Madonna and Prince, respectively) but also out of Quentin Tarantino, Vincent van Gogh, William Shakespeare, and every other creative person ever. For an example of this type of article, see “Why the ‘Blurred Lines’ Verdict Should Be Thrown Out” by the New Yorker’s Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor.

On the other hand, “regular people” widely celebrated the “blurred lines” verdict with snickering glee. Some insisted that the producer Pharrell really had taken specific, tangible elements from the sheet music of “Got to Give It Up” (though it strikes me that, if this had been the case, Universal Music in 2013 would have gladly ponied up whatever token fee the Gaye estate requires for a sample—Gaye’s work had appeared lawfully in hundreds of hip-hop songs already). But those who had never heard of Marvin Gaye seemed equally cheerful that the ruination of the singer Robin Thicke—whose health, family life, and public image all crumbled as a consequence of his rise to fame in 2013—had reached its epic conclusion: “the swaggering, spoiled philanderer is now just a divorced creep, and he doesn’t even get to keep the money—hooray!” For an example of this type of reaction, see the comments section of every Internet article defending “Blurred Lines.”

Whether the verdict was correct or not, it feels like a fitting end for a song that from the very start of its Billboard climb inspired unusual rancor. Today, “Blurred Lines” is universally despised, a travesty on par with Milli Vanilli: it’s our job to pretend that none of us ever liked the bestselling song of 2013 in the first place. Although it isn’t rare for an overplayed pop hit to accrue retrospective disdain, this is the first time that the public’s shame at having enjoyed a derivative, sexist song by a lying, egotistical drug addict has forced a judge to award millions of dollars to the plaintiff in a frivolous lawsuit.

Yet the song’s reversal of fortune surely preceded its legal troubles. It started, perhaps, with critics who complained that the lyrics promoted date rape: the line “I know you want it” suggested a male assumption of female consent in spite of contrary protest. Meanwhile, YouTube banned the “explicit” version of the “Blurred Lines” music video, which featured topless female models playfully mimicking animals. And then came Miley Cyrus’s infamously lewd duet with Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs.

Was that the moment the tide shifted? Maybe, but last week’s verdict originated somewhere in the nostalgic, disgusted heart of America and in the attitude toward contemporary popular music that has prevailed here for the past two decades or more.

It is commonly accepted by people over the age of 13 that today’s most successful pop stars “have no talent” and can produce hits only by ripping off artists from the past—hits that we reluctantly enjoy only because radio stations complicit in the corporate takeover of American music force them into our ears a hundred times a day. We deem every Top 40 entry robotic and soulless, if somewhat catchy. We publicly mourn John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, and privately accept Katy Perry and Pitbull.

The jury’s decision in the Gaye lawsuit was as much as an expression of our collective distaste for the brainwashed, Pepsi-sponsored global superstars who, by our own consent, dominate the commercialized music scene of the new millennium as it was a ruling upon Robin Thicke’s personal conduct. We are sick and tired of watching the son of the actor from “Growing Pains” prance around in $8,000 sunglasses: “real artists” are supposed to grow up in poverty, sign exploitative contracts with predatory Detroit-based record labels, suffer from depression, and ultimately get murdered by their own fathers—all while singing straight from the soul.

Today’s popular songs, by contrast, must be regarded as “products,” not as acts of human creativity, and indeed virtually every criticism of “Blurred Lines” stems from this view. The notion that the song’s treatment of piggish male attitudes toward women was (obviously) satirical—and that the men in the music video were therefore deliberately made to look ridiculous—carried no weight in 2013’s court of public opinion, because “satire” belongs to the realm of “art.” The music video itself was “offensive” only according to the vanilla corporate standards with which we expected it to comply.

Within the domain of art, Pharrell’s reworking of preexisting material was standard operating procedure, and he seemed to do a fine job of it. Yet a major lawsuit now rests upon the belief that the product-makers at Universal Music and its corporate brethren are so devoid of creativity that they must have stolen the very idea of “music” from artists of the past in order to create the “product” they sell to us today—and that an arbitrarily-selected “product-maker” should atone for this crime by paying millions to an arbitrarily selected “artist” (who, inconveniently, happens to be dead . . . but that’s how we know he was a real artist).

The verdict suggests that writing a pop song is a fundamentally different act today than it was 40 years ago: a capitalist crime rather than an imaginative endeavor. A little harsh, I think.

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