In the case of “Blurred Lines”, the price for copying is almost $7.4 million. This is the damages awarded this week to the estate of Marvin Gaye, the result of a lawsuit the family filed against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, charging that their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” was more than merely a song of questionable quality, but one lifted from Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give it Up”.
The verdict has been panned widely as rubbish (though it does have its supporters). Many argue the songs are not enough alike – or, at least, not enough in the ways that actually matter – for the decision to really hold water, and certainly not similar enough to set such a troubling precedent. That precedent being, perhaps, that no more copying is allowed. (On Friday, word came that Gaye’s family also considers Pharrell’s “Happy” to be a copy of Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar,” but aren’t considering legal action at this time.)
One wonders how different this week might have looked had this decision come some time ago, full as it was with reproductions and copies. Granted, some were entirely authorized, or just creators recreating their creations. The case of yet another, additional, Ghostbusters movie comes to mind. Or the announcement of a live-action re-boot of Dumbo. Even Zoolander is getting a second chance, for some reason.
There were some unauthorized copies, aside from “Blurred Lines”, to discuss, however. Historica Canada’s mash-up of our beloved Heritage Minutes, edited to mimic Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” might be partly allowed; Historica owns the footage, even if they don’t own the music. Elsewhere, the release of the iWatch immediately spawned memories of similar attempts that came before it, and instant imitations on the black market – the latter definitely not allowed.
And of course, as always, Kanye was there, this time to close the circle. His new fashion designs were previewed, and one magazine quickly suggested his pieces were a little too close to what we saw in – what else? – Zoolander.
In the middle of it all, we were reminded of Kurt Cobain. The first trailer for Montage of Heck, a new (authorized) biographical documentary about Cobain’s life, also arrived this week. It wasn’t something anyone outside of a core group of fans had been awaiting, but when it came, it immediately seemed to feel like something we all wanted anyway.
The trailer, itself a montage, quickly shows the chronicle of Cobain’s life, starting in his earliest days. Footage of him as a small child flash by as a young voice introduces itself as Kurt Cobain, set eerily to a lullaby “All Apologies”. The story quickly becomes more familiar: Shots of Cobain and Nirvana achieving monumental fame; brief accounts of Cobain’s inner turmoil; and, finally, back to home videos, this time of Cobain with Courtney Love and the infant Frances Bean – the family he created.
Perhaps there is still a good story to be told about Cobain; his impact on popular music in the decades since his suicide is unquestioned. But maybe now is also a good time than any to remember that timing is everything. That is to say, like the hoards of musicians he influenced, the musicians that came before him equally affected Cobain. He said so himself a few times. In 1994, he told Rolling Stone magazine the story of how Nirvana’s massive 1991 hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, was born. He said he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit that.”
The reproduction was not direct, and certainly not as close as some other Nirvana songs came to predecessors. Cobain said “we used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” Even the riff for the song, Cobain said, was “clichéd”. It just so happened the cliché was either ignored or forgiven. It didn’t matter that the chord was familiar or the dynamic was recycled. As with the Beatles, what mattered was the context, the timing.
What are we to make of our copies, in their various forms?
Any disdain or frustration we have is perhaps is not about reproduction, but rather about replication. We know we don’t need a second Zoolander for the same reason we didn’t need a second Anchorman or, for that matter, a second Ghostbusters. Its purpose is limited, existing only for the sake of being a replication, rather than a continuation. It is not designed to take us any further.
I found myself wondering this week what might have happened if “Blurred Lines” had ushered in some sort of cultural turning point, rather than what it represented instead: a marker for backward thinking about women. In all likelihood, it was never destined for longevity. Still, in a different context, and propping up different lyrics, the true creator of that bass line, or any other elements, might have been irrelevant. Rather than being an example of alleged artistic thievery, it could have been seen as one of artistic license.
Who knows? Maybe if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hadn’t arrived when it did, it too would have been remembered as a dubious copy. I guess in 1991 we all just got lucky.