So it was recently ruled in the US District Court that Pharrell and Thicke had stolen their 2013 hit from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to give it up”, and forced to pay 7.4 million buckaroonies.
The absurdity of this ruling is matched only by the counter-claim that the duo are: “unwavering in their absolute conviction that they wrote this song independently.”
This creates yet another tedious false dichotomy in our society whereby either an artist works completely independently or “rips off” other people’s work. The problem is that – in reality – the lines are far more blurred. It’s not so black and white (2 puns for the price of one, you lucky thing!).
All of this contributes to one of the most insidious myths in our culture – individualism. No (wo)man is an island – it’s not how we humans (or any animal for that matter) work, and it’s not how art works. It’s not how music works.
Here’s the headline: No one ever wrote any music – ever ever ever – independently. Ever. Didn’t happen. Not once.
No one in the history of music has ever been a genius on their own. That’s the trouble with this “genius” myth. Beethoven would have been nothing without Haydn and Bach, and his father forcing him to practice through the night, looming over him with a cane to punish his mistakes at the piano. Beethoven is replete with stuff lifted from the giants before him – lifted and added to. Same with anyone else you care to mention: Debussy, the Beatles, Bowie (especially Bowie!) and Stravinsky, who did (probably didn’t) say:
“A good composer does not imitate, he steals.”
What makes a good genius is knowing how to take what is already there, combine it, and add one’s own stamp. That’s all there is to it. Name one “genius” who didn’t. You can’t.
In a song cycle I wrote a few years ago setting Philip Larkin poetry, I openly steal from diverse sources, from liturgical plain chant, to Bach, the Beatles, Bowie, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bob Dylan, Debussy (the theme of the whole thing is stolen from him) and even 80s flash-in-the-pan pop sensation Lipps inc.
But I put it all in a new context – that’s where my creativity comes in. And what about my open ode to Blurred Lines? Will I get sued for this? (I know, I know, you have to make money first…)
So should Williams and Thicke have been sued? Not for me to say, and I’m not all that interested. But I am interested in what’s behind it – the myth of individualism which is creating a huge civilization of disconnected individuals operating counter to their evolution and best chance of a life of well-being. We live in a perverse world where you can have 1000 “friends” but no friend. Don’t believe the lie that we are individuals – we aren’t – not socially, not mentally, not physically and not in our essence. Context is everything – and I mean, everything. The nonsensical ideology that allows this particular false-dichotomy to arise is the same that threatens to continue to isolate humans from each other when we are more abundant than ever.