A Thin Line Between Love and Hate

The recent kerfuffle between Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye’s estate raises an interesting issue for this project. It reminds us that the role of influence, and particularly the degree of influence that one work has on another, can be serious business. The licensing of a Song of The Summer like Blurred Lines can net the artist and the publisher additional millions of dollars in revenue, and extend the cultural impact of the song well after the kids have turned off their radios1 and gone back to school. Many a lawyer has made many a dime pursuing accusations of plagiarism between artists. And so it goes that Thicke pre-emptively sues Gaye and Funkadelic’s rights owner to protect those dimes, and inevitably they will get sued right back.

When I listen to Got To Get it On side by side with Blurred Lines, the threads of influence reverberate loudly, but I don’t hear plagiarism.2 (Unlike, say, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, which was a little disturbing in how flagrantly it “borrowed” from Express Yourself.)

Maybe I’m just distracted by how fucking catchy the song is. The Times has argued that Blurred Lines and the eponymous album are derivative without sufficient innovation, and this critique may be fair. I haven’t listened to the whole album, but to me the title track feels like just about the right level of homage + update + feeding the cultural appetite at exactly the right moment. And holy shit that song is catchy. It was hard to imagine a more addictive song than Daft Punk’s Get Lucky to win the crown of Song of the Summer, but now I can barely remember how that one goes.3

But back to our main purpose here, which is tracing the signals of influence across works of art and the artists, across genres, across history. I always assumed that signal strength would be at its apex when we have an artist actually participate. But I realize now that if we interviewed Thicke about what influenced the creation of this song, or his body of work in general, his lawyers would advise him to avoid any mention of Marvin Gaye, who has arguably been an enormous influence throughout Thicke’s career (much like Katy Perry, whose single Roar has raised umpteen comparisons to Sarah Bareilles’ Brave, has remained silent about the comparison.) Can an artist be trusted, in any genre, to give accurate due to their influences, when an army of lawyers might be waiting in the wings to punish such an acknowledgement?

It is worth noting, at this point, that it is the estate of Marvin Gaye, and the rights holder of Funkadelic, that were posturing legal action. If Marvin Gaye himself were alive, would he be making an issue of this, or would he be proud of the fact that his musical legacy is experiencing a real resurgence in the culture? We will of course never know, but we get a hint of what might have been through George Clinton, who tweeted

and even went on TMZ to declare his support for Thicke and Pharrell. ┬áThis is where I believe you, dear reader, will be as critical a member of this project as any artist will. We have to give enormous weight to self-reported influences, but the collective intelligence of the listening/viewing public will provide a valuable counter-point. You can’t ever be sure that what the crowd hears or sees was actually on the artist’s mind, but we see now there may be moments where the crowd can be a voice for the artist when it would be too costly for the artist to speak for themselves.

(1) Do kids listen to radios anymore?
(2) And by the way, how does one find a judge and jury that are qualified to objectively draw this critical line between inspiration and theft? How do I get that job?
(3) Does anyone else find that when they play Get Lucky in their mind, Around the World is playing seamlessly over it in their mind’s background? Is that just me?

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