“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” — T. S. Eliot, 1920
Aptly enough, this sentiment has been echoed/plagiarized/developed by all sorts of people over the years (eg “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”— Igor Stravinsky; “Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal” — Lionel Trilling; “Good artists copy, great artists steal” — Pablo Picasso), leading to much confusion about the original source. Now it’s simply become one of those phrases belonging to everyone and no one – much like rhyming “maybe” with “baby” or “hands in the air” with “just don’t care” or… oh I don’t know, the combination of cowbell and descending bassline in any number of pop songs… hang on, that last example was just in the news.
2013’s “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams & TI is having to pay Marvin Gaye’s family $7.2 million due to the track’s similarity to “Got To Give It Up”.
The debate rages on regardless of the jury’s verdict. I’m no supporter of Robin Thicke and I relish the thought of him having to part with a few of his smugly earned millions (though admittedly I’d rather the money went to the Musician’s Benevolent Fund or something) but not for something as silly as this.
A lot of people are worried it sets a dangerous precedent. The court ruling is based on “a feeling” rather than a specific sequence of notes or words. Feelings are pretty flimsy things and notoriously difficult to cram into evidence bags. Are all songwriters now in the firing line? Do we “feel” too similar? Isn’t the very act of “feeling similar to things” the way we are supposed to get mainstream audiences to accept us? And if feelings are now grounds to sue, how soon before Themes become grounds too? If I write a song about our times and their propensity to be in a largely constant state of change, will I get a call from Bob Dylan’s people?
I’m not actually too worried about the Dangerous Precedent argument (but then my career has never been troubled by hit singles). Whenever this sort of thing starts happening too often judges and juries tend to just respond with “oh shut up” (which is a rough paraphrase of the verdict following Metallica‘s attempt to copyright the chords E and F). These cases have been going on for as long as hits have existed (George Harrison vs The Chiffons anyone?) and one could argue Thicke Vs Gaye has only got such coverage because “Blurred Lines” was already controversial for its unpalatable subtext and breasty video. Let’s not forget there’s a maxim almost as famous as the above T. S. Eliot quote: “where there’s a hit there’s a writ” (I think this was originally said by the manager of Status Quo, a band who are certainly no strangers to ripping off the work of others!).
I’m more interested in what all this says about the way we listen to things, specifically how we differentiate between genre specifiers and what is intellectual property. When does something that sounds “a bit soulful” or “a bit Motown” become copyright infringement of a specific artist? Plenty of reviews contain the phrase “Beatles-esque” but you don’t see Paul McCartney suing every new indie band.
The way each of us digests music is dependent on all sorts of factors (our past listening experiences, our social groups, our sonic/tonal/frequency preferences, production tastes, peer judgement etc). We naturally seek out trusted touchstones whenever negotiating new cultural terrain. Indeed, the way we access/combat any new song/film/poem is dependent on this. When I first heard “Blurred Lines” the comparison that immediately sprung to my mind was Prince rather than Marvin Gaye (mostly due to all of Pharrel’s little yelps and the big close harmony on the hookline) but that’s because I naturally home in on lyrics and melodies – if you’re more of a bass or rhythm enthusiast then, yes, the finger points more to Gaye (and many many others). But then I’d argue this angle is a production matter rather than a songwriting concern… and so the discussion rages on and on… forever.
One thing that is in little doubt, however, is that as soon as someone says “that bassline sounds like Marvin Gaye” then you’ll hear Marvin Gaye, as sure as “don’t think of an orange penguin” will make you think of an orange penguin. How the jury were supposed to remain impartial in a case about whether or not one song sounds like another song I simply do not know. I guess it would have been a lot more complicated if Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” was influenced by music that came before it, fortunately for all concerned it sprung from the lips of angels fully formed and utterly unique. Phew, his legacy remains uncompromised.
Still, the act of listening is an imperfect thing. I remember years ago my band was described by one reviewer as a cross between Arcade Fire and Madness. That appraisal had us all scratching our heads for a while. I can only assume the reviewer’s own listening habits led him to clutch at the one band he could think of that used vocal harmonies and the one band he knew had a saxophone in it and used the first as his North Star and the second as his Ursa Major then navigated his way from there. I can’t argue with someone about how they hear the world. Art is always completed by its audience rather than the artist.
Track seven of The Bedlam Six‘s latest album has a short linking section (about eight bars) between the folky/rocky bit and the spaghetti western bit. When I first played the song to the band the bassist said “ooh, that’s a bit Lindsey Buckingam” and the drummer said “ooh, that’s a bit Nick Drake”. The fact it sounded like both guitarists simultaneously convinced me it was one of those “no one owns this” motifs and we forged ahead. By the time we’d worked out a full band arrangement you can barely hear what I’m playing anyway so the point became purely academic. But it’s still there in the mix somewhere, if you excavate deep enough you’ll unearth a potential Fleetwood Mac lawsuit, all because I’m doing a little hammer-on with my middle finger on the G-string reminiscent of “Big Love” from 1987’s Tango In The Night (when at the time of composition I was thinking more of Ennio Morricone’s “Fistful Of Dollars” – see how the legal actions against me are piling up? At this rate I’m going to be completely bankrupt before the article is finished).
My point is that though I may owe a debt to Buckingham, Drake and Morricone (along with many others), this debt is an artistic one, not a financial one. And we all know art rarely pays, right?
I’m going to give T. S. Eliot the last word as he argues that Thicke et al are imitators and petty defacers rather than exulted thieves:
“One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
— T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920