Marvin Gaye vs Robin Thicke: Plagiarism?

The news that Pharrel Williams and Robin Thicke have been ordered by a U.S. court to pay the estate of Marvin Gaye some $7.3 million dollars in royalties for copyright infringment is both vaguely silly, and also potentially very damaging to music in general. Ultimately, I think and hope that the decision will be overturned on appeal – and I’ll spell out why I think that somewhere down the page after much droning.

By a stroke of serendipity, I was planning to cover the plagiarism of Led Zeppelin at some point on this blog, but that would be altogether more obscure and irrelevant for all you young hipsters who flock to my bloggings. So without further ado…

Firstly, let’s look at the alleged infringement up close. Necessarily, that means to kicking back for ten minutes to hear both songs. Crucially, I implore you to listen to them both in their entirety. Here is Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit Got To Give It Up

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp7Q1OAzITM]
And here is the piece of work created by those villainous ne’er-do-wells Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams on their 2013 hit Blurred Lines
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyDUC1LUXSU]

See? It’s practically note for note!

Actually, no I don’t see – regardless of what a court may say. What I hear is a similar opening groove and drum pattern. In fact, it would be hard for anyone to argue that beyond the first ten seconds that there is anything other than a distant familial similarity between the two songs, and that is rooted is nothing more than a drum pattern.

Once both songs have got past their opening stanzas, they are clearly their own beasts in terms of melody and structure. Blurred Lines satisfies itself with but two chords, whereas Got To Give It Up deploys four and generally displays a significantly freer structure, with some mild polychording going on between the bass and other instrumentation (primarily some vamping on a Fender Rhodes piano and some nice, jazzy sax as the song moves on).

Blurred Lines is much more restricted, structurally speaking and fairly typical of a modern studio production. The two methods of construction are actually interesting in themselves.

Marvin Gaye’s song is rooted on a bass line that is actually quite different to that of Blurred Lines. Firstly, it is clearly played by an actual human bassist, and is thus chockful full of little variations throughout – sometimes clinging to the bass drum, at other times syncopating in a subtle cross-rhythm against it, and being occasionally broken by extemporised fills. It speaks, in short, of a live studio band working to a structure, but free to operate to their own whims in terms of individual parts. Occasionally, the drummer breaks out a little fill of his own, and there’s the pleasing warmth of an actual performance unfolding in the studio.

Blurred Lines line is (I suspect) the result of a piece of programming. Once you’ve built up a groove on some pieces of studio software, it can be left to run pretty much forever and vocal parts and arrangements can be extemporised over that loop until you’re happy with them. These are songs from two very different eras and that difference alone will be revisited in a future blog post.

Modern songs like these are usually built on top of a rhythm track – and here, perhaps, you can argue that Blurred Lines seems to share its greatest similiarity with Got To Give It Up. Both songs are effectively just a groove with some vocalisations laid over the top. As mentioned though, for the bulk of each song they’re clearly different beasts. There are no melodic similarities. Blurred Lines even avoids the trap that has caught so many artists down the years – the direct lyrical quotation.

A famous case of this is the Beatles’ Come Together. Lennon wrote the song while fooling around with an old Chuck Berry number called You Can’t Catch Me. Listening to them closely and with a little imagination, you can just about detect the similarity but when all is said and done You Can’t Catch Me is a fairly standard rock ‘n’ roll number and not that dissimilar in itself to lots of other songs of that era. Where Lennon fell down though was to take one line of Chuck Berry’s lyrics – “here come ol’ flat top”. That was enough to give the game away and force Lennon into covering a couple of Chuck Berry songs on his Rock ‘n’ Roll album of 1975.

The line in question comes around 1:10 into this video of the original

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrDoy4LDDCg]

…and right at the top of the Beatles’ Come Together from 1969.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axb2sHpGwHQ]

Aside from those lyrics, you’d have to be super-sensitive to even detect the a rip-off. Nonetheless, that was enough for a court to aware in favour of Berry.

Back to the case of Blurred Lines, there is clealry no such lyrical quotation. In fact, let’s put the lyrics side by side 🙂

Got To Give It Up


I used to go out to parties
And stand around
‘Cause I was too nervous
To really get down
But my body yearned to be free
I got up on the dance floor baby
So Somebody Could choose me

No more standin’ there beside the walls
I done got myself together baby
Now I’m havin’ a ball
As long as you’re groovin’
There’s always a chance
Somebody’s watching
Might wanna make romance

Move your body, ooo baby, you dance all night
To the groove and feel alright
Everybody’s groovin’ on like a fool
But if you see me – let me in
Baby just party high and low
Let me step into/ to your erotic zone

Move it up
Turn it ’round
Ooo Shake it down
Ooowwwwww

You can love me when you want to babe
This is such a groovy party baby
We’re here face to face
Everybody’s swingin’
This is such a groovy place
All the young ladies are so fine!

You’re movin your body easy with no doubts
I know what you thinkin’ baby
You wanna turn me out
Think I’m gonna let you do it babe

Keep on dancin’
You got to get it
Got to give it up
(Repeat until end)


The lyrical theme is pretty clear: Marvin Gaye’s protagonist used to be sad, but now he isn’t! Why? Because he dances. In fact, so liberating is dance that he literally dances into the ‘erotic zone’. I don’t think that’s ever happened in Wakefield.

Blurred Lines


Everybody get up
Everybody get up
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say
If you can’t read from the same page
Maybe I’m going deaf,
Maybe I’m going blind
Maybe I’m out of my mind

OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you
Hey, hey, hey
You don’t need no papers
Hey, hey, hey
That man is not your maker

And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get past me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about getting blasted
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

What do they make dreams for
When you got them jeans on
What do we need steam for
You the hottest bitch in this place
I feel so lucky
Hey, hey, hey
You wanna hug me
Hey, hey, hey
What rhymes with hug me?
Hey, hey, hey

OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you
Hey, hey, hey
You don’t need no papers
Hey, hey, hey
That man is not your maker
Hey, hey, hey

And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get past me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about getting blasted
[Pharrell:] Everybody get up
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I hate them lines
I know you want it
I hate them lines
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

One thing I ask of you
Let me be the one you back that ass to
Go, from Malibu, to Paris, boo
Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you
So hit me up when you pass through
I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two
Swag on, even when you dress casual
I mean it’s almost unbearable
In a hundred years not dare, would I
Pull a Pharside let you pass me by
Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you
He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that
So I just watch and wait for you to salute
But you didn’t pick
Not many women can refuse this pimpin’
I’m a nice guy, but don’t get it if you get with me

Shake the vibe, get down, get up
Do it like it hurt, like it hurt
What you don’t like work?

Baby can you breathe? I got this from Jamaica
It always works for me, Dakota to Decatur, uh huh
No more pretending
Hey, hey, hey
Cause now you winning
Hey, hey, hey
Here’s our beginning

I always wanted a good girl
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get past me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about getting blasted
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

Everybody get up
Everybody get up
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey


Clearly cut from a very different lyrical cloth, Blurred Lines is much more concerned with all the sex the protagonists want to have with various girls. Indeed, the video (naked chicks cavorting) and lyrics (“Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you /He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that”) have led to accusations that the song is a bit rape-y.

Again, as with their construction, this is very much a reflection of the eras in which the two songs were made. Marvin Gaye probably did a little improvisation in the studio so very few of his vocal licks are repeated. By contrast, Thicke and Williams clearly sampled bits of vocal they liked and wove them into the fabric of the song – almost as percussion. This has been common practice since the glory days of hip-hop, but has a venerable tradition going back via James Brown to early blues records, where singers could always throw in a “woo-yeah” whenever lyrical inspiration slackened.

So… what are we left with?

Basically, the one and only similarity that could be considered outright plagiarism is the drum part and perhaps a sequence of two bass notes. That insistent beat in both songs is pretty close in terms of tempo, arrangement and instrumentation. Now, it has long been established in law that one can’t simply sample someone else’s work and use it in your own without due credit being given. De La Soul’s momentum was arguably stymied by the litigation sparked by their liberal (and amazing) use of samples in their debut album Three Feet High and Rising back in 1989.

Here though, we’re not talking about sampling. There are differences between the two drum parts. As I’ve already mentioned, once the Marvin Gaye band are in their groove, the drummer periodically goes off piste to emphasis particular beats, change the feel of the song in places and cut himself some slack from the boredom of whacking away the same cymbal-kick-snare pattern for 5 minutes. The computer at the heart of Blurred Lines doesn’t care for such things, and sticks doggedly to its pattern throughout. The percussion is, though, undeniably similar.

The songwriter or the musician?

But here’s the rub. Marvin Gaye may have written Got To Give It Up, but the drumming was almost certainly largely the work of the drummer himself (I don’t have his name to hand, but doubtless Wikipedia will tell you all about him). For this work, the musician in question normally receives very little credit in monetary terms. You can argue this is unfair if you like.

Charlie Watts is very rich, but his cut of the money that Honky Tonk Woman has made over the years is probably minimal compared to the that of the song’s legal authors, i.e. Jagger and Richards. And yet, his cowbell intro and drumming is entirely critical to the song’s feel – and thus its success.

Another example? Walk On The Wild Side. Lou Reed’s genius is there in the genesis of the song – the lyrics, the structure – hell, the existence of the thing – but it is arguably the bass line that makes it iconic. Herbie Flowers – who played on the record – received a flat fee for his work and perhaps a few shillings in terms of royalties if he was lucky. The rest accrued to Lou Reed.

Here, the argument seems to be that Blurred Lines is effectively the same as Got To Give It Up on the basis of a similar drum pattern and a general “feeling.” I call bullshit on that as the suggestion is that Blurred Lines literally couldn’t exist had Got To Give It Up had never been written. With a slightly different drum pattern, Blurred Lines would still be recognisably the same song. At worst, we have a subconscious quotation of a particular part of the arrangement of another song.

Again, to go back to the example of the blues: there are only so many licks.

History’s verdict?

There is a broader point of principle here, and one that interestingly illustrates how music has gone from being an art to being an ‘industry.’

Since music moved from being a primarily live experience to a primarily recorded one, the rules of the game changed. I was in a folk club in Mexborough just a couple of weeks ago. There, a singer was singing a song called “At Gorton Wood” about a famous incident during the miner’s strike of 1984. While his lyrics were original – and clearly very personal – the entire song in terms of melody, arrangement and instrumentation was the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. If he ever records and tries to sell it, he’s legally fucked.

But in fact, for all of human history this is what has happened. Every song is necessarily some distant cousin of another, and without legal interference everyone borrows to some degree – soemtimes intentionally, sometimes not. In traditional idioms such as folk, blues and country it’s just part of the game, but as in most spheres of life once money is involved the lawyer’s aren’t far behind.

Decisions such as this are nothing but a lawyer’s game. The poor uncredited drummer got almost nothing for his work in the first place. Marvin Gaye’s been dead for years so even the people who are getting the money contributed nothing to the original track. And, at the bottom line, these are clearly two different songs, saying different things in different ways to different audiences.

As ever, the only winners are lawyers and the moneymen.

Production vs. ‘The Song’

When you hear a song, you are rarely actually just hearing a song. Confused? Well a song is just a melody allied to a chord change – the kind of thing you get when someone plays the piano or guitar and sings along. What you most commonly hear is actually a production. A production is where a bunch of choices are made by a bunch of people to create a sonic interpretation of the underlying song.

This is most obvious to us when someone we hate covers a song we love. We are so familiar with, say, The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love that a change of production seems jarring. In fact, let’s give that direct example a run out. Here is the Beatles original from 1963.

You might detect a hint of swing about the song, but what about this 1964 version by Ella Fitzgerald?

Gosh!

It’s the same song, clearly, but how different! Taking the same chord progressions and effectively the same melody, Fitzgerald and – critically for today’s discussion – takes a wildly different approach to instrumentation and presentation. The tempo is slightly slower. Instead of the clanging acoustic guitars of the Beatles, a full band is at play – snapping through jazzy horn stabs in the patent big band ‘swing’ style. Where the Beatles present the song with a straightforward delivery, Ella’s take clearly comes from a very different place.

So what you are hearing here are two different productions of the same song. One is basically the song peformed in front of microphones by a live four piece guitar band. The other is a carefully orchestrated and scored piece of music played by a much bigger ensemble of jazz musicians.

Since music first became primarily a recorded medium (rather than just being a live performance) production has been of enormous import – in terms of both artistic and commercial ‘success’. Arguably, we live in the age of the celebrity producer: a Timbaland, Mark Ronson or Will.I.Am can create hits from songs that otherwise might languish in obscurity through the strength of their production skills. It’s a different kind of talent to that of songwriting, but something that is almost unavoidable when talking about songs. As far as possible on this blog I’ll be talking about songs themselves, but it’s always worth remembering that very rarely are we ever talking just about a ‘song’ in the purest of terms.