Pat Clark

‘Blurred Lines’ ruling opens can of worms

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke have to give it up to Marvin Gaye’s family.

What they’ll potentially have to give up is $7.4 million, pending appeals, after last week’s ruling by a federal jury in Los Angeles that found the “Blurred Lines” songwriters guilty of copyright infringement. The decision was confounding and, for folks in the music industry, probably a little bit scary.

I’m no fan of artists ripping off others’ popular music, but the ruling that Williams and Thicke stole from Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” (mostly Williams, since Thicke has admitted to being mostly, shall we say, “altered” during the writing of the 2013 “song of the summer”) seems like a hit of a different kind to the music industry.

It came on the heels of a settlement between Sam Smith and Tom Petty over similarities between Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Funny, I never thought of Petty when I heard Smith’s song; it reminded me of “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, but that’s probably more lyric than vibe.

No matter; the cases must have entertainment lawyers ecstatic.

Seriously, how many songs do you hear that remind you of others? It happens all the time.

As soon as I heard the unbelievably catchy Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk,” I thought it sounded like singer Mars was channeling all kinds of James Brown. Blondie, too.

Yes, Blondie. The mini-rap in the middle of “Uptown Funk” made me think immediately of the rap that closed Debbie Harry’s song “Rapture.” I might be the only person in the universe to put those two together, but that’s what it reminded me of when I heard it.

(Side note: As much as I love “Uptown Funk” – and I really, really do – the song also pains me so. Only because every time it comes on the radio, I involuntarily break into sit-down funky chicken dance mode, which can’t be at all pretty to anyone who might be driving alongside me. And yes, I threw out my neck again thanks to the tune, which is completely and joyfully infectious.)

But, as many have asked since the “Blurred” ruling, can you be guilty of copying a vibe? That’s a question with seemingly boundless complications.

Sure, the ruling supports my contention that no truly original pop/rock music has been written since the 1960s, 1970s and some of the ’80s. The early artists who made rock ’n’ roll the force that it has become dug deep into the musical mines for the genre and came up with nearly every great sound, chord and hook there was to find there.

Of course, the rock pioneers were taking a vibe and running with it from artists and genres that came before them, including and most obviously the blues. And there have been plenty of other findings of copyright infringement in songs over the years.

But this latest is a musical Pandora’s box.

If you really want to get deep down into it, you can trace any and all music ever penned back to the first cave man (or woman, natch!) who ever whacked a tree branch in rhythmic repetition on a rock. That first Paleolithic beat no doubt has been repeated in countless songs over time, but it’s going to be radically tough to prove.

As the Washington Post’s Chris Richards wrote: “If vibes are now considered intellectual property, let us swiftly prepare for every idiom of popular music to go crashing into juridical oblivion. Because music is a continuum of ungovernable hybridity, a dialogue between generations where the aesthetic inheritance gets handed down and passed around in every direction. To try and adjudicate influence seems as impossible as it does insane. Is that the precedent being set here?”

Well said. And in that story, Richards has a touché of an ending note:

“For context, let’s revisit perhaps the most consequential court decision on pop music before this one: the 1991 case … in which the rapper Biz Markie was sued for sampling a Gilbert O’Sullivan song without permission. The Biz lost the case, and in many ways, so did hip-hop. … But pop music has a survivalist knack for self-correction, and in the early aughts, it brought us a new class of hip-hop super-producers – rookies eager to create their own futuristic rhythms from scratch. One of the most promising talents in this emerging bunch was a baby-faced Virginian from a production group called the Neptunes. His name was Pharrell Williams, and in pop music’s potentially hyper-litigious future, there will be plenty of people for him to sue.”

‘Crime’ ratings

Now that three episodes of the Modesto-set drama “American Crime” have aired on ABC, are you watching?

A lot of people did tune in for the first episode – 8.4 million according to zap2it.com. But the show dropped to 5.8 million its second week – a trend for pretty much all ABC shows on that particular Thursday night.

Reach Scene editor Pat Clark at pclark@modbee.com.

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