I’m sure all of you have heard about the recent court decision that gave Marvin Gaye’s estate a $7.3 million award, finding that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke committed copyright infringement stemming from their 2012 hit single “Blurred Lines.” They lifted the melody and rhythm for their song from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single “Got To Give It Up.” The two songs do sound similar enough, and interviews with Williams do show that he was heavily influenced by Gaye’s work. I find myself agreeing with the jury on this because of Williams’ Whiteness rhetoric about being the “new Black” last year, as well as Thicke’s constant cultural appropriation in his videos and music.
The decision, though, made me think about how much copying has gone on in music over the years. It made me think about the first time I heard Madonna, off her first self-titled album, on the airwaves in the fall of ’83. It was her first Billboard Top 40 single “Holiday.” Except that the first dozen or so times I heard it, I thought at first it was “And The Beat Goes On,” a late ’79/early ’80 disco hit from the group The Whispers.
It was the first time I realized that music artists could copy each other, or at least, have similar sounds, rhythms, tones and other musical arrangements in their songs. The lyrics were obviously different, but both “And The Beat Goes On” and “Holiday” were “forget-the-cares-of-this-world” dance-pop songs with heavy R&B influences.
I’d wondered for years whether Madonna ever gave The Whispers any formal credit for sampling their music for one of her very first tracks. I did find an answer in the Madonna (1983) album’s liner notes. Nope, not a single mention, not a word of acknowledgement. But John “Jellybean” Benitez was mentioned as producer. There’s no way in this world that he and the other folks who worked on “Holiday” didn’t know who The Whispers were or hadn’t heard their song “And The Beat Goes On.” It’s possible that Madonna herself didn’t know, but given her constant credits to the disco era, I seriously doubt that, too. Take a gander below, folks, and tell me how similar the two songs were/are:
Keep in mind, though, this was before Madonna had become “Like A Virgin” Madonna, “Material Girl” Madonna, and “Vogue” Madonna. And copying, sampling, and lifting was more acceptable in the early 1980s than it is today. Especially since at the time, neither The Whispers nor Madonna were music icons. Of course, lifting from relatively obscure Black artists to mainstream a song or music genre is nothing new. Just ask Al Jolson and Elvis Presley!
Thirteen years later, The Fugees released their big hit, “Ready Or Not” (1996). As soon as I heard it, I knew they had sampled Enya’s “Boadicea” (1987), because I’m that kind of eclectic music enthusiast. They didn’t give Enya credit in their initial liner notes, either, and hadn’t obtained permission to use her music in their song. Enya threatened to sue over this rather obvious copyright infringement, and The Fugees and Enya settled the issue out of court.
By ’96, the rules for sampling other music artists’ work had become tightened, and Enya herself was a well-known, if not iconic, new age music artist. The up-and-coming Fugees picked the wrong Irish singer to copy without permission or acknowledgement.
What does all of this mean? For starters, you should never plagiarise someone whose work is well-known. Vanilla Ice, meet Queen and David Bowie. The Verve and “Bittersweet Symphony” from ’97? Let me introduce you to The Rolling Stones!
But the “Blurred Lines” decision means much more than the message that one should steal from an unknown without a major music contract instead of stealing from Marvin Gaye. The legal decision blurs the distinction between illegal sampling and inappropriate cultural appropriation. Really, Madonna’s use of The Whisper’s “And The Beat Goes On” is just as blatant, and so was her appropriation of disco, R&B and other Black and Latino dance rhythms between ’82 and ’93. Unlike Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, though, Madonna’s appropriation wasn’t seen as such, at least during her first years of fame. Heck, I knew more than a few Black folk who though Madonna was either Black or biracial prior to the Like A Virgin (1984) album, likely because like me, they didn’t have cable to watch MTV ad nauseam.
I guess that Pharrell’s and Robin Thicke’s act has worn thin with the fickle public. This may well point to the larger fact that mainstream popular music and the artists that are creating today’s music are about as creatively collaborative and eclectic as a dunker in basketball with no jumpshot and no defensive skills. This isn’t your father’s White Soul, aka, Michael McDonald, Darryl Hall & John Oates, or even Kenny Loggins, working with Earth, Wind & Fire or Kool & The Gang. Today’s music artists can only do their music one way, and need “inspiration” to “create” a “new sound.” One that is too often lifted from the past, yet never placed in context, and sampled with and without permission.