In the film Frank, starring Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the character played by Domhnall Gleeson has a tune raging in his head and is so desperate to get it out that he must go upstairs and release the melody immediately or it might be lost forever.
As he plays around on his keyboard, however, the melody starts to veer off into new territory – not his – and the Madness song It Must be Love automatically pops into his head. This makes him angry and he realises he”ll have to start all over again. Not only has a song and melody been lost but another – much more popular and catchy tune – is now swarming around in his head, dominating and crushing his once cherished little ditty perhaps forever.
So how does this fit into the ruling that Pharrell Williams’ monster track Blurred Lines, performed by Robin Thicke, did copy elements of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song Got to Give It Up?* Because music is perhaps unique as an artform in that imitation seems to hover on its shoulder as the ‘musician’ write’s lyrics, jams, performs or just lazes around in a bedroom waiting for inspiration.
No other artform feels so malleable and elastic in its act of creation. Novels, paintings, films, theatre, ballets, sculptures and all the rest feel as if they have a landscape, a bigger canvas to explore their themes and stories. Music seems to be more about shrinkage and sound. A feeling of impulsiveness and instinct. A semi-psychic calling. A beautiful abstraction that can make your heart soar and your body tingle. All within a five-minute slab of random, rocket-fuelled purity.
And sound is one of the key factors. The right notes with the right vocals can create a seductive, almost hypnotic, quality that can bind a piece into your soul forever. But it’s also because ‘sound’ is part of the natural landscape and its history: the earliest hunter-gatherers knocking a few sticks and stones together; birds tweeting at dawn; a parent who hears a baby crying upstairs realising it’s actually a distant sound of a police siren and so on. These are pieces of music too – and that’s why the fragile forest of a musician’s mind is infinite, but also highly dangerous.
So the Blurred Lines ruling could be seen as a chilling warning to all musicians, particularly in this mash-up era, to watch their step and not get too hung up on their idols – or they could end up sounding just like them.
Listening to the two tracks, Blurred Lines does have similarities to Marvin’s Gaye’s 1970s song – but not as much, as say, Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s smash hit Uptown Funk and The Gap Band’s Oops Up Side You Head (the band are credited so no court appearances) or Oasis’ Cigarettes and Alcohol and T. Rex’s Get It On, which led to Noel Gallagher’s admission in a recent interview that he was amazed not to be sued.
But suing or going to the courts feels wrong when you’re talking about such a devilishly elusive artform. Of course, the lifters, thieves and funky Frankensteins should be brought to task but, most of the time, everything sounds like everything else so it’s no wonder a jury ever come to a verdict when their head’s spinning on the same melodic roulette wheel.
No, music is best left out of the litigation minefield. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful artforms – and that’s why we’re still chasing our tail to understand its emotion, depth and magnetic superpower.
*The Gaye family were awarded more $7m in compensation at a hearing earlier this year, although Williams and Thicke are appealing the verdict.