On Originality and Its Opposite

The music community was all aflutter lately with the news that Marvin Gaye’s estate had prevailed in the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit.

I was a bit surprised at the reactions I saw from the people in my community. The general feeling seemed to be that this legal victory was a bad thing. The basis for this perspective, as far as I can tell, is either a kind of post-modern/death of the author/nothing is original kind of mentality (one I’m all too familiar with from endless earnest debates in my university years) or a position of unvarnished self-interest: “oh shit, now we’re going to have to worry about being sued just for being influenced by stuff.” Andy Herman articulated this point of view, as well as giving a thorough overview of the case, in an LA Weekly opinion piece with an ever so slightly hyperbolic title.

I could say something about how strange it is that people who are otherwise reliably on the far left of most issues suddenly turn into laissez-faire free marketeers when it comes to the issue of musicians being compensated. Especially when many of those people are musicians themselves. But I feel that might go off track of the main point I wanted to make.

It’s certainly true that all art is influenced by what came before it; creative impulses don’t come out of a vaccum, though some brilliant and/or bizarre work might seem to.

I’ve stolen a lot from other musicians in my own work—sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly; sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally, more often somewhere in between the two.

 

 

For example, in the song “A Thousand Pardons” from the first WP album The Elements of Style, I spent a lot of time agonizing over changing a melody because I thought it resembled that of a Luna song—while somehow missing the fact that the instrumental bridge is lifted directly from Guided By Voices’ “Striped White Jets.” And my style of singing blatantly apes the Magnetic Fields, who I was listening to a lot at the time. (If Robert Pollard or Stephin Merritt want to come after me, I will happily buy either of them a drink—I think that’d be about equivalent to a fair portion of the money I’ve made from this song over the years.) (And yes, I’m aware that Luna, GBV and Magnetic Fields are all artists who used overt pastiche in their work. It was the 90s, what can I tell ya?) (And yes, I’m also aware that I’ve just used three parenthetical sentences in a row. It’s my own blog and I can do what I want.)

But I like to think I wouldn’t just take someone else’s song, shamelessly duplicate it, and then try to pretend I hadn’t—which is what, as Herman documents in his article, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams did with “Blurred Lines.”

When I read Herman’s article, I was reminded of a passage in Randy Bachman’s autobiography where he talks about his mentorship of Canadian classic-rock band Trooper. Bachman recollects as follows:

The method I employed with the group was fairly rudimentary. First, I suggested they list their ten favourite songs. […] I then told them to pick one song from the list, keep the whole song and chorus, but sing a different melody over it using the same lyrics. Add a new guitar solo as well. Once they had a new melody, I told them to change the lyrics. […] Then change the phrasing and breaths. Finally, take the chord progression they had been using from the song and alter the tempo. Now they had a new song derived from their influences.

Now, some might call this a coldly calculated attempt at commercial hit songwriting that has nothing to do with creativity. Others might say that it’s as fiendish an example of creative thievery as the “Blurred Lines” case, but one in which the thieves cleverly covered their tracks. It is kind of brazen. (From another perspective, longtime friend and WP collaborator Steve Raegele suggested to me that it’s what all pop songwriters do, just not as consciously.)

 

But the point is, the Bachman method at least goes to the trouble of putting enough of a twist on the original that something new comes out of it. I think it’s fair to say Pharrell Williams is a creative enough guy that he could be expected to do the same.

When I realize that something I came up with (or thought I did) sounds too much like something else, I change it. Or I drop it. Or, in some cases, I leave it in and take my chances. Obviously that’s what happened in this case, and they got caught on it. I don’t see what’s so awful about that, to be honest.

If I’m wrong, and Herman is right that this will precipitate an avalanche of lawsuits, maybe that will motivate people to put a little more effort into putting twists on their influences—or just to be a little more original. Is that such a bad thing?