On Tuesday, a California federal jury ordered Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay $7.4 million to the estate of Marvin Gaye, finding that the duo ripped off Gaye's classic "Got to Give It Up" for their 2013 song of the summer "Blurred Lines."
The two songs share a similar groove on first listen, and according to musicologists who testified on behalf of the Gaye estate, those similarities made "Blurred Lines" a crime.
Already, the Internet is abuzz with just how damaging this ruling could be. The term "chilling effect" is being thrown around a lot. The fear is that now that there's a precedent that previously undefinable things like "groove" and "feel" are subject to copyright law, artists will be afraid to write new music or even name their influences in public. It might even lead to a deluge of lawsuits. As musicologist Michael Harrington told USA Today, "If this were to become a standard, it's going to be one of the greatest growth industries of all time, suing people who sound like someone else."
The Gaye estate hired musicologist Judith Finell to break down the similarities in "signature phrase," "hook," "keyboard-bass interplay," "lyrics," and "theme X," a counter-melody. Basically, as Andy Hermann of our sister paper LA Weekly pointed out, "it's all just musicologist talk for the obvious fact that, structurally and rhythmically, the songs are quite similar."
Well, now that one song sounding similar to another is punishable by massive fines, let's look at another pair of songs that seem very much alike, one with a Phoenix connection. I'm talking Kelly Clarkson's brand new "Heartbeat Song," which sounds an awful lot like Jimmy Eat World's 2000 song "The Middle."
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Let's compare the songs very closely. Frankly, if he wanted to, Jim Adkins would have a case. In fact, if you use the same criteria the Gaye estate's musicologist did, you'll see that Kelly Clarkson should be getting very nervous right about now.
"Signature Phrase:" Yup, looks like Clarkson is screwed on this one. The Hollywood Reporter quotes Finell as testifying that repetition of the same note is "one of the most important considerations in comparing melodies." Both "The Middle" and "Heartbeat Song" rely on the same main notes for the verses, with individual flourishes and minor rhythmic variations thrown in by each singer.
The first measures of each song's first verse are identical -- both sing one word on the root of the chord. The second measure contains eighth-note phrases on that same pitch, and Clarkson's third measure goes up a whole note in pitch, whereas Jimmy Eat World's melody goes down a half step, but not before touching that same note Clark Clarkson uses to end the phrase. Both verses' third measures are mostly space, perhaps with some pickup notes into the fourth verse, where both singers use the same note. Then, both singers move back to the tonic for the fifth measure, again, mostly space, use eight notes in the sixth measure to introduce a phrase that finishes the eight-bar verse, though Clarkson's ending is a bit flashier than Adkins'.
Melodically, though they use slightly different-yet-still-similar chord progressions, the verses are nearly identical
Hook: Here, Finell alleged that key words of "Blurred Lines" and "Got to Give it Up" shared similar timing as well as notes. Well, by that logic, Clarkson is guilty of the same thing. Both choruses are the same length, eight measures, and the singers focus on the same three notes in each chorus. In fact, though the chord progressions are slightly different, the melodic structure of both choruses is virtually identical. Strike two, Clarkson.
Keyboard-bass interplay: This doesn't strictly apply here, namely because Jimmy Eat World doesn't use a keyboard. But the Hollywood Reporter account describes musicologists for both sides arguing over how Thicke's song and Gaye's tune build their feel, including via chord progressions and instrumental interplays that create the overall vibe of the song. I mentioned earlier that the chord progressions are very similar in both songs; now, let's look at the details.
Though the chord progressions appear very different on paper, all "Heartbeat Song" does is take the chords in "The Middle" and change one note in each of them.
"The Middle" features a very simple I-V-IV in the verse and a I-V-IV-I progression in the chorus. They're essentially the same and repeat for the whole song except for the bridge, where the order switches a bit: V-I-IV-I-V. "Heartbeat Song" uses four chords almost exclusively, and the chord progression looks like so: I-iii-vi-IV.
Both choruses change chords every two measures, and the chords to which they change from the root are extremely similar. All you have to do to create a iii-chord from a V-chord is add the root underneath the V-chord. All you need to do to get from a IV-chord to a vi-chord is move one note from the IV-chord down a half-step. Likewise, to get from a I-chord to a IV-chord, all you'd have to do is move a different note a half-step down.
Lyrics: In a fine move of rhetorical reductionism, Finell found similarities between Thicke's allegedly and infamously rapey lyrics and Gaye's harmless verses. I'll just let the Hollywood Reporter do the explaining:
Both songs center on transformation. The narrator of "Got To Give It Up" transforms from a wall hugger to an enthusiastic dancer, while in "Blurred Lines," "the 'good girl' will transform into a more sexually liberated girl," said Finell.
Let's play the "absurdly generalized analysis" game with our two songs. In this case, they're about hope. Clarkson's lyrics are mostly written in the second-person, though some first-person pronouns find their way in there. Adkins are purely second-person. The verses of "Heartbeat Song" are a little vague, but they seem to deal with the excitement of finding a new lover after a long period of pining. "The Middle" is about giving confidence to a "girl," presumably a teen, who is feeling down and socially outcast. What do the two have in common? Both songs are promise better times, pleasure after periods of prolonged misery.
"Theme X": I tried for about 10 minutes to figure out what the hell this phrase was talking about, and I couldn't hear it. So I'll just point out that structurally, the songs build tension in similar ways. For instance, both first verses start out with just the bass lines, and then add guitar flourishes and on the second verse. If that analysis didn't convince you that Clarkson ripped off Jimmy Eat World, maybe this extremely convincing mashup will:
Here's the thing: I heard the cries of plagiarism shortly after Clarkson's song came out earlier this year. I listened to both songs and figured that yeah, while the two songs shared structural and melodic similarities, I didn't think it rose to the level of outright theft. The Middle" is a bare-bones pop-punk song with minimal production, and "Heartbeat Song" is a pop song that relies on all sorts of fancy studio tricks to be effective. The two songs felt fundamentally different enough that any cries of plagiarism would eventually prove to be unfounded. Artists borrow ideas from their influences all the time, and artistic progress doesn't happen in a vacuum. The differences between the two songs are minor and subtle but ultimately very important.
For the record, I still don't think Clarkson plagiarized, and until now, I thought the legal system would agree. But after the jury decision in the Thicke-Gaye case, I'm not so sure. Using those same criteria presented to the jury, it seems like Jimmy Eat World would have a pretty convincing case. There's more space between "Blurred Lines" and "Got to Give It Up" than there is between "The Middle" and "Heartbeat Song." And that's the true damaging effect of the "Blurred Lines" ruling -- quality songs that sound similar to other quality songs written in the past three decades might now be subject to lawsuits, and that's why so many music industry observers are now so nervous. Only time will tell. For now, Clarkson's probably lawyering up, and Jimmy Eat World has a decision to make.
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