The first few times I heard the Queen/David Bowie hit “Under Pressure,” I kept thinking to myself, these guys ripped off Vanilla Ice. Mr. Ice, of course, is best known for his self-referential rap hit “Ice Ice Baby,” i.e., for ripping off Queen and David Bowie. I knew rather little about rock and roll until my late teens and didn’t become fully conscious of Queen until a month of so shy of my twentieth birthday, so I had no reason to believe that Vanilla Ice had jacked that rather derivative, if dope, bass. I also assumed, for rather stupid reasons, that Vanilla Ice must have been a great musical mind because, back when I was maybe eight, one of the neighbor kids in Palo Alto had described him as the only white rapper. The neighbor kid’s enthusiasm was such that he clearly considered this a great cultural accomplishment for white people. In fairness, the kid couldn’t have been more than seven, and his comments were much more intelligent than anything formally said about race relations in the Palo Alto public schools.
Unbeknowst to me at the time, Vanilla got his ass iced for–I’ve seen this described as “sampling” “Under Pressure,” kind of like one might “sample” the hot foods bar at Market of Choice and be sternly cautioned never to set foot on Market of Choice property ever again. He settled the copyright infringement suit out of court because duh, he took a cool tune and narcissistically crapified it for quick cash. This is one way we know that Kid Rock is classy for a cracker who ends up in night-shift brawls at Waffle House and marriages to Pamela Anderson. Bawitdaba da bang da dang diggy diggy diggy, he may perform some suck-ass ditties, but at least he gets permission instead of straight-up jacking other artists’ shit. And the acts he mashed up? Lynyrd Skynyrd? Warren Zevon, the great three-chord wonder of Fresno? Not exactly top-notch acts, to judge from their most popular numbers. There was hardly anywhere for Kid Rock to go with the tatters of their work but up. How can association with a Waffle House cracker bruiser be an embarrassment for a group that sold out to KFC?
The stories of Messrs. Ice and Rock come to mind on account of two more recent musical plagiarism dustups that have been in the news. First Sam Smith got into trouble for ripping off the melody of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” for his own emo hit “Stay With Me.” Then Robin Thicke and noted clown hatter Pharrell Williams got into trouble with the estate of Marvin Gaye for jacking the background to “Got to Give It Up” and mixing it into “Blurred Lines.”
Disraeli’s line between ape and angel isn’t the only one that’s blurred in these cases. Smith incorporated a couple of bars of one of Petty’s least inventive songs into the chorus of a stylistically very different song of his own. The material that Thicke and Pharrell copied or imitated or, shall we say, blurred was somewhat less obvious: a percussion/monkey whoop sequence that features prominently in “Blurred Lines” but is much softer and subtler in “Got to Give It Up.” As with the Smith/Petty donnybrook, the disputed songs are otherwise rather different: where Gaye is calm, smooth, laidback, and intermittently intelligible, Thicke and Pharrell submit a letter-perfect bid to perform reefer-aided sweet animalistic romance on interested parties. (Why Jamaican ganja? Probably because it’s harder to fit “Humboldt” into a rhyme; Sara Bareilles is from Eureka, and even she hasn’t tried. Or maybe Humboldt is too white for their style.) As this mashup shows, the two acts have used the dope background beat to very different effects. (It might be a good idea to watch it soon, just in case Oasis Records didn’t thoroughly cover its ass and gets bugged with a DMCA takedown notice.)
These cases have of course been an excellent opportunity to make a joyful noise (or an emo noise) and offer first fruits unto the trial bar. Not surprisingly, the attorneys who take cases like these aren’t necessarily the cream of the crop ethically. They have to have top-notch legal minds in order to get the work because their clients are extremely well connected and loaded to the gills, but they have to have less in the way of principles than legal intellect in order to accept the work. With the hours and sheer attention to detail that is required to represent celebrities or their estates, an attorney could competently represent capital murder defendants, argue before SCOTUS, or practice any sort of arcane public-interest law. Cases like these don’t get dumped into some greenhorn legal pool at the public defender’s office or onto some semi-retired probate lawyer whose name was chosen at random out of the phone book, maybe because it was the only name in the phone book.
These are attorneys with the intelligence and the drive to practice any sort of law that interests them, and they choose to devote their talents to intellectual property disputes between two Casanovas in off-white Miami Vice dress casual and the estate of their red-jacket-on-sequined-black-vest forbear over who gets credit for the cowbell and the whooping. These are not ones to be satisfied that the surviving members of the Commodores will not be eulogizing Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in smooth, smooth song. No, they insist on settling the score among the living. And some of them are just fucking assholes about it. One of the NPR reporters covering the “Blurred Lines” trial mentioned that an attorney for the Gaye estate caused Thicke great offense by pointedly noting that he had not had another hit since. This is a bit like saying, “Well, Dr. Fleming, it must be embarrassing that your other discoveries haven’t lived up to Penicillin.” The parties to these cases hire lawyers who could do anything but choose to angle for advantage in civil disputes between two wealthy parties by insinuating that the opposing party is a talentless hack from an unauthorized Marvin Gaye cover band that plays Monday night gigs in dive bars on Stinkin’ Lincoln.
The Good Wife, CBS’s drama about the much taller and more baritone crypto-Blagojevich governor of Illinois and the overlapping circles of sleaze around him, had an episode on this subject. Alicia Florrick and her firm were retained by two mewling, shifty-looking hipster musicians as plaintiff’s counsel in a copyright suit over their hit song “Thicky Trick.” In this case, both sides readily stipulated that she was a thicky trick (ain’t nothin’ but); what they disagreed on was whose tricky and who had rights to the thicky. (Again, consider watching the video before CBS pulls some DMCA takedown stunt to avenge the jacking of its shiznit.)
This episode did an excellent job of portraying the soul-crushing suckage of the practice of law. The shifty hipsters were ultimately vindicated when their counsel noticed the crack of a bowling ball in the track that the defendant had released, proving that it the audio had been stolen from the plaintiffs’ original recording in a bowling alley. It went to show that clients aren’t always as they appear; this is an underappreciated lesson in modern America. Unfortunately, the road to this conclusion was long and hard. At one point, the defense attorney, a venerable-looking silverbeard, made a glowering announcement in the midst of deposition: “I’m getting really sick of this song!” There was no denying what defense counsel wanted: to go home, put a Mendelssohn record on the turntable, pour himself a tall boy gin and tonic, and get absolutely fucking trashed. But he couldn’t. They were playing his song.
If you do really well in law school and bust ass chasing the holy grail of making partner, you, too, may be allowed to join this hallowed fraternity of well-paid mercenary butlers. Once you get there, you’ll have plenty to sort out: whether some slouching hip-hop douchebag jacked shiznit off a couple of simpering hipster douchebags with acoustic guitars, whether two other caterwauling hip-hop bros ripped off a Motown Legend, whether one of England’s proliferating emo crooners stole two bars of one of the shittiest songs written by an otherwise talented Hoosier emigrant to Los Angeles. Bugger me on the steps of the Old Bailey, it sounds lovely.
Why the hell is this the kind of intellectual property infringement that gets many panties into a bunch? I’m not talking about Vanilla Ice, whose work is total bullshit, or Rebel Kane, who is a fictional television character, meaning that I’m a loser for worrying that I may not have gotten all the facts of the “Thicky Trick” case right. I’m talking about acts like Sam Smith, Robin Thicke, and Pharrell Williams. At worst, these guys took some incidental musical themes from other acts and incorporated them into original songs that, I have to say, are pretty good. Pop music would be worse without them. The path to its apotheosis lies in the successful mashup of “Blurred Lines” and “Mrs. Robinson,” but I’m content for the time being with a monkey-whooping talk-to-the-animals redux. Run along and whine to Tipper Gore if you have a problem with Thicke and Pharrell for being misogynists or some shit. Hey hey hey. You, too, want it, yes?
The real trouble with intellectual infringement isn’t with popular upstarts sampling a bit here and a bit there from fabulously well-connected legacy musicians by way of creating something new, if not completely original. To see real trouble, take a look at the intellectual hall of mirrors that makes up much of the manosphere. Take a look at its feminist/SJW counterpart. These people have real trouble thinking for themselves. Check out some of the mental garbage that gets a columnist’s byline and a sinecure in the mainstream press. Don’t be surprised if the mainstream media have already achieved infinite recursive plagiarism of Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and Megan McArdle.
Now, that’s a reason to lose your lunch.