Theory Teacher's Blog

Blurred Lines and Musical Conditioning

As everyone has probably heard in the news earlier this week, Pharrell  Williams and Robin Thicke were sued for copyright infringement because their song “Blurred Lines” borrows so heavily from Marvin Gaye’s classic hit “Got to Give It Up.” The court ruled in favor of Gaye’s family. My friend and colleague Leigh over at the ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore blog quickly and adroitly responded to this event by reflecting on the conditions of popular music. She somewhat disagrees with the court decision and public shaming of Pharrell and Thicke that followed by pointing out that all pop music involves appropriation of some kind or another. Therefore, we should be focusing our attention on the felony crime of piracy rather than wagging our self-righteous fingers at the misdemeanor crime of petty thievery. The more serious question for the courts is how new forms of digital distribution don’t always compensate artists for their work. I encourage you to follow the link to her argument, since I don’t think I’m fully doing justice to Leigh’s nuance and sincere love of music.

And I encourage you to read her argument because I am about to disagree with it, so we’re going to have a bit of a blog-o-sphere throw down.

But before I go on the attack (as is my Scorpio-nature), I want to give some respect and agree with a lot of what she’s saying. I was immediately reminded of Public Enemy’s song “Caught, Can I Get a Witness,” that begins,

Caught, now in court ’cause I stole a beat.
This is a sampling sport,
but I’m giving it a new name.
What you hear is mine, PE you know the time…
Like hey, I’m on a mission, I’m talking about conditions….

And he goes on. And of course, what I like about Leigh’s blog post is that — like Chuck D — she is also talking about conditions. I would agree with the point that piracy is the more serious issue and that appropriation is inherent in all pop music. The point is not just valid but also essential. And in the case of hip hop, which is the most innovative form of appropriation and re-articulation, one of the conditions in the 1980s when Public Enemy produced that song was urban poverty, the brutality of Reaganomics, and street music (so who could pay royalties anyway?)

But I think Leigh’s argument is conflating different conditions and missing a key distinction. One of her examples is the many versions of “Mustang Sally,” which she cites to point out how musical innovation occurs, but in this case, everyone knows they are versions of the same song. So, obviously not a case of copyright infringement. Likewise, when hip hop DJs sample, everyone knows they are sampling. That’s why they are called DJs. Hiphop is somewhat of a feedback loop, the new song bringing renewed appreciation for — or even critical thought about — the old song. Similarly, when John Coltrane released his album, My Favorite Things, what was innovative (a term I prefer over the term “original” to describe art) about his jazz was that it changed how we think about older songs. Such is the nature of jazz, which may confirm Leigh’s point about appropriation and innovation, except that Coltrane is open about what and how he is appropriating. As for the case of Sam Smith’s borrowing from Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” for his song “Stay With Me” that has been cited as a case comparable to the Thicke-Williams appropriation of Gaye, it seems to me that there is a lot of manipulation of the audio of that YouTube mash-up in order to make the case (and to my ears, the songs don’t really sound all that similar), but more importantly, Smith openly acknowledged his debt and respected Petty. The important thing about all the examples I just cited is that these artists show respect and acknowledge their debt. And here we might recall Jacque Derrida’s conceptualization of “debt” for philosophy, as I have in previous blog posts about my own professor Marshall Grossman and about the Caribbean poet and philosopher Eduoard Glissant. Derrida points out that we read, write, think, and be through the labor of others, and that we are partially, but always incompletely, constituted by this relation.

The case of Pharrell and Thicke is significantly different from all of Leigh’s examples, because the issue is that they didn’t acknowledge their debt, even though they well knew that they were borrowing the riffs. A key point of evidence legally speaking is that they were fully aware of what they were doing, and Pharrell, of all people, should know better. They didn’t respect the industry and the culture. They blurred the lines. We can even contrast the case of “Blurred Lines” to Pharrell’s other hit song “Get Lucky” which is somewhat derivative of Stevie Wonder’s style (though not of any song in particular.) Hence, the highlight moment of last year’s Grammys was when Pharrell and Stevie played together. Jedi Masters of music both of them, keeping it real, showing due deference and mad respect, and it was glorious. That’s how you get lucky. Not by blurring the lines.

We can broaden this theoretical conversation beyond the legal issue of copyright to think about the music culture more generally. Consider the difference between Vanilla Ice and Eminem. Both white guys, borrowing riffs. What killed Vanilla Ice’s career? Not that he stole a beat without acknowledgement.That wasn’t it. Rather, he didn’t show deference to the black culture he was appropriating. In contrast, Eminem (like the Beastie Boys before him) is always careful to pay his respect to the culture he is working within, even as he worked to radically transform what hip hop could be. And so the older generation of black artists give him respect in return. Similarly, why are people pissed at Iggy Azalea? It’s not because she’s a blond white girl from Australia appropriating African-American culture. Contrary to what the popular media seems to think, her racial identity is not the issue. The issue is that she doesn’t acknowledge her debt and show any respect.

To get even more theoretical, we can look (again) at Michel Foucault’s famous essay, “What is an Author?” where he introduces the term discourse to talk about how the work of “Marx” goes far beyond any authorial intention or originality of Marx and becomes a discourse unto itself, within which other innovators can say and do things that are “Marxist” even if we might imagine the actual human being named Karl Marx disagreeing with those Marxists. (And since Marx tended to disagree with just about everyone around him, I think we can easily imagine that scenario.) More relevant to the case of Pharrell/Thicke/Gaye, I am reminded of an interview with Foucault included in the book Power/Knowledge where he was asked why he doesn’t cite Marx in his many writings. His response was that his work was so totally situated within the tradition of Marxist discourse that he didn’t feel the need to cite him — it would be like citing Newton about gravity. No scientist publishing a paper today would feel the need to put Newton or Einstein in their Works Cited page, because their work is foundational for the whole academic discipline. But there was something a little disingenuous about Foucault’s flip comment when the stakes of the Marxist tradition were so politically fraught at the time he was speaking. His comment in the interview doesn’t quite square with his own analysis of the author function and his conceptualization of discourse, which includes the changing conditions of copyright law, the circumstances of writing, and the institutional structures within which the writing event happens as well as the ideologies and politics of the situation.

All of these things are what Leigh calls in her blog post the “conditions” of artistic and intellectual production. However, to quote Kenny Rogers (or rather, Teddy Hill and the Southern Soul, or rather the writer Mickey Newberry, to give credit where credit is due), as I am kinda dropping in to participate in a conversation that she initiated, “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.” Did Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke?


March 13, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Steve, I think you are mixing up plagiarism with copyright violation. Plagiarism is using without attribution. Copyright law gives exclusive rights (for a limited time) to the “creator” and attribution is irrelevant. Using something without permission is illegal.
    There are many nuances regarding how much or how similar, or for what purpose, but the essence is use without permission. Most classical composers would have been in serious violation of current copyright law. And the blues would probably never exist if copyright law had been enforced 100 years ago.
    I am reminded of the comic strip,”Foxtrot”, when Jason wanted to copyright digital 1 and 0.

    Comment by Jim Schnepf | March 14, 2015 | Reply

  2. Steve, this essay is so great. I tried to type out a comment several time, but it eventually became too long and so here is the repl-post on my own blog:

    Comment by Leigh M. Johnson (@DrLeighMJohnson) | March 14, 2015 | Reply

  3. […] has given me a lot to think about, so please do stop now and read Thomas’ essay here: “Blurred Lines and Musical Conditioning.” In sum, Thomas argues that I downplayed Thicke and Pharrell’s real (and really serious) […]

    Pingback by Blurred Lines, Part Deux: Appropriation vs. Expropriation – A WordPress Site | May 22, 2018 | Reply

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