Copying, Lifting, and Cultural Appropriation

March 19, 2015

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke at the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards, Beverly Hills, CA, January 25, 2014. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images, via Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws, via Getty Images agreement with CC-SA-3.0.

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke at the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards, Beverly Hills, CA, January 25, 2014.
(Larry Busacca/Getty Images, via Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws, via Getty Images agreement with CC-SA-3.0.

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.

Last Gasps, Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” and My ’86 Mets

October 26, 2014

The Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner connection, Game 6, 1986 World Series, Bottom 10th, Shea Stadium, Queens,  NY, October 25, 1986. (

The Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner connection, Game 6, 1986 World Series, Bottom 10th, Shea Stadium, Queens, NY, October 25, 1986. (

Sunday, October 26, 1986 was part of a great three days for me, perhaps the three best days during my Boy @ The Window years. My Mets had pulled off a miracle. They survived being within a strike of losing the ’86 World Series because Mookie Wilson put a ball between Boston Red Sox 1st baseman Bill Buckner’s rickety legs the night before. Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” was #1 or #2 on the R&B charts and was near the top of Billboard’s Top 40 on this day twenty-eight years ago. Within the next thirty-eight hours, my Mets would complete the comeback, and win their second (and last, to this point anyway) World Series after falling behind 3-0 through the first six innings. Meanwhile, my Giants would run through the Deadskins at home in East Rutherford, NJ, as Joe Morris rushed for 185 yards in a 27-21 victory, on their own march to a championship title.

GoGurt, Yoplait's squeeze -in-mouth, portable yogurt, October 26, 2014. (

GoGurt, Yoplait’s squeeze -in-mouth, portable yogurt, October 26, 2014. (

My coping mechanisms were at their peaks, though, and had nothing else to do but crash down into the Earth. It was also my senior year in high school, a time of too many AP courses, too many college-going pressures, too many haters and doubters among my classmates, and too much of the grinding poverty and chaos that was living at 616. Within two weeks of my Mets, my Giants and Anita Baker’s first big hits, I’d discover my idiot stepfather’s pornography collection, nearly got set up with a prostitute because of my father, and face humiliation at the hands of my AP Physics teacher David Wolf and his boss Estelle Abel for the first time.

It took me almost two years to recover from the happenings of the mid-fall of ’86. In the process, I faced betrayal, ostracism, humiliation, broken-heartedness, and homelessness, but somehow managed to not make every song and every Mets and Giants (and Knicks and Rangers) victory a vicarious signpost for my own life. It helped that I started to think of Pitt — if not Pittsburgh — as my home, with concerns beyond living and dying with my New York teams and with relatively unknown but talented music artists.

Giants' RB Joe Morris running through Deadskins again, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, December 7, 1986.  (

Giants’ RB Joe Morris running through Deadskins again, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, December 7, 1986. (

I learned other things along the way, too. That myMets and Giants weren’t the perfect teams I thought they were. Between the alcohol and drug issues of Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, LenDykstra, Lawrence Taylor, Kevin Mitchell, not to mention their and other teammates’ domestic violence issues, it was obvious to me that talent and winning were more important than living by a consistent code. Listening to the new 24/7 sports radio station WFAN when it began its run in the summer of ’87 showed me the hearts and minds of most fans. They obviously weren’t using sports as a coping strategy for dealing with the emotional grind of poverty and threats of abuse and domestic violence at home. Mostly White and male, their constant barrage of vitriol and disparaging racial commentary about my favorite athletes at that time — Mike Tyson in particular — actually made me wary of White sports fans for years afterward.

I also learned that with artists like Anita Baker and Luther was really the last gasp of R&B as I’d known it to be in the US. R&B was already too much like ’80s pop and a bit too mixed up with rock at times, but with Cameo’s “Word Up” and Club Nouveau’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” R&B was already beginning its merge with hip-hop, and not in a good way, either. Yeah, there were some exceptions, like Levert, or Regina Belle, but the process of R&B devolving into some Yoplait GoGurt version of itself — with Autotunes, bad rap lyrics and worse rhyme spitters, and assembly-line hip-hop beats — had already begun.

Anita Baker, Rapture phase, circa 1986. (

Anita Baker, Rapture phase, circa 1986. (

Some of you may say, R&B’s still alive in the US, specifically in our churches, but that’s not true, thanks in large measure to Kirk Franklin. His work in the ’90s made it so that it’s taken longer for jazz to catch on in bands and choirs than rap and hip-hop. No, if you want to find R&B with actual singers these days, try the United Kingdom of Great Britain, try France, try Senegal, try Nigeria. But don’t try the US. Nicki Minaj is no Aretha, no matter how imaginative her videos and her clothes. For that matter, Iggy Azalea’s no Teena Marie, as the former doesn’t understand the difference between cultural appropriation and authenticity. Hip-hop sprang in part from the roots and branches of R&B, but like a parasitic vine, it has cannibalized those roots.

Still, it’s good to remember days like the ones I lived through twenty-eight years ago, with Anita Baker in my ear, my Mets in victory formation, my Giants lined up right beside them. Those days are gone, like the coping strategies I used to get through every one of those days. Not to mention the R&B that was more a part of my life than the hip-hop that my contemporaries were supposedly raised on.

Time, Love & Goofy-ness

July 21, 2011

Time, Love & Tenderness Album Cover, July 18, 2009. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

Sometimes I have no choice but to confirm how weird I am. Especially when it comes to what moves me, including in my choices of music. It wasn’t hard for me to become a Michael Bolton fan when his first solo album dropped in ’87. “That’s What Love Is All About,” a minor hit, was something I enjoyed then, but appreciate much more now as a married man than I possibly could’ve as a freshman at Pitt. “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” well, that’s another story. It’s a fine cover version (something that Bolton grew all too fond of doing in the late-’90s), but nothing will ever replace the Otis Redding original.

The summer of  ’91 was the clincher for me regarding Bolton and other artists from that period. I was in the midst of getting over myself getting over E (see “The Power of Another E” posting from April 2009) when I first heard Bolton’s “Time, Love and Tenderness.” 02 Time, Love and Tenderness.wma I was on my way home from work at Western Psych that hot and sweaty July evening, walking at Warp 3 like I always did back then when the local pop station began playing the song. I also knew the moment I heard it how schmaltzy it was. But it was exactly what I needed to hear and at the time I needed to hear it. I fell in love with the song immediately, and would eventually by the album. “Time, Love and Tenderness” remained one of my pre-iTunes playlist songs for the next three years.
Thus began a year-long odyssey of inviting new music into my life, music that would represent the more adult, contemporary, cool, eclectic and schmaltzy graduate school me. Bolton’s Time, Love and Tenderness album was just the first step. The months of July and August ’91 included music from Seal

My iPod, July 21, 2011 (Source/Donald Earl Collins). Every song named here is on it, but rarely do I play them consecutively.

(“Crazy” — I’ll talk about more in another post), Lenny Kravitz (“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”), Vanessa Williams (“Comfort Zone”), and Mariah Carey (“Make It Happen”). Not to mention PE (“Can’t Truss It”), Naughty By Nature (O.P.P.), and Boyz II Men. It was the beginning of a new period of music experimentation for me, all caused by me tiring of being the odd wheel in a sea of dating friends.

It was the early ’90s, and I could already see how much music was changing. Fewer synthesizers, a faster more rhythmic pace, a much greater fusion of genres and styles. Heavy metal was morphing into grunge and White booty-call songs were turning into passion tales of White male (and female) angst. Whitney Houston’s music was becoming hip, and Michael Jackson was steadily making himself less popular. With me weeks away from beginning grad school, I felt like I’d found theme music that would fit nicely with my times.
Within a year and a master’s degree of “Time, Love and Tenderness,” I would add Grover Washington, Jr. and Jon Secada to my growing and eclectic music collection. Jon Secada? For many fans of the Miami Sound Machine (Gloria Estefan, et al.) not to mention various subgenres of Latino music and Latino fusion, Secada might as well have been Neil Diamond or Michael Bolton. But for me, it gave me a window into other forms of music that I didn’t have or understand before. The dogged and soaring passion with which Secada sang his “Just Another Day” I’d only heard in gospel or with divas like Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston and — in the first two years of the ’90s — Mariah Carey. Men didn’t sing like that, certainly not in pop music!
I became enthralled with Secada and Bolton, Grover and Mariah, so much so that I continued to branch out. Coltrane, Celine Dion, The Cranberries, Sarah McLachlan, Pearl Jam, Tupac, grunge, world music, New Age — Deep Forest, Enya, Enigma — along with neo-soul — Maxwell and Erykah Badu — were all in my collection by the time I finished grad school.
Still, I needed my schmaltz, and I still do. Michael Bolton, for all of his vanity and overestimation of his voice (he’s done duets with Patti LaBelle and Celine Dion, for goodness sake’s), has been a part of my musical memory for twenty-two years. “Time, Love and Tenderness,” for all of its ’80s-esque quirks, is by far my favorite song by Bolton. It made the second half of the summer of ’91 not only bearable, but fun. It reminded me of how innocent I still was, of how it was a must that I keep my heart open to the possibility of love, even though I would undoubtedly get hurt from time to time.
Life is like that sometimes, and in my case, most of the time. I find myself learning more from loss, more determined because of betrayal and more committed when others tell me I can’t do something, like earning an advanced degree or doing a job successfully. For those times, schmaltzy music is often where I revert to for strength and encouragement, for the ability to move forward.


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