You probably saw the news this week: Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams and their record companies have to pay the Gaye family over 7 million dollars because Blurred Lines is too close to Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up. Enough people have weighed in on whether or not that’s fair and if “Blurred Lines” is a straight rip off of Got to Give It Up or just “inspired by” so I’m not going to waste my time debating that. I’m going to make a completely different point:
“Blurred Lines” improves on the original.
And it’s not the first time this has happened in music.
Go ahead. Go back and listen to Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up. It’s got that infectious beat, sure, but what’s with those lyrics? He’s singing about being a wallflower and he’s doing it in such a high, almost timid, falsetto that it sounds like you’re listening to a demo. And by the way, speaking of being original, Marvin didn’t exactly invent that style of singing. By 1977 (When “Give It Up” was released) there were tons of male singers hitting the charts by hitting the high notes (take one listen to George McCrae climbing the scales in Rock You Baby or anything the Bee Gees were doing at the time.) But I’d always felt that Give It Up has a sort of unfinished quality to it and the times I’ve played it in my DJ career I’ve had mixed results at best. Sure, it filled the dance floor at times for me, but even then it was at the beginning of a set where I had plenty of room to go up (both in BPMs and in energy.) “Give It Up” is not a peak song. It’s a dance set opener. Maybe.
Then 2 years ago “Blurred Lines” comes along and blows the original up. More infectious? Yessir. Packs dance floors? You betcha! More popular than the original? Oh, yeah (twelve weeks at #1 versus one week) And it wasn’t all because of the unrated video (although that certainly didn’t hurt). Thicke and Pharrell in essence took the unfinished work of Marvin Gaye, sprinkled in some early Michael Jackson flavoring and came up with one of the best dance songs of the last decade. “Blurred Lines” will be packing dance floors for years to come. Count on it.
So whether they copied Gaye or not, I say they improved on him.
And like I said, it’s not the first time. Sure, Queen and David Bowie came up with an incredible bass line that carries “Under Pressure” through its highs and lows (and that song certainly has both). But no one in America heard it. The song peaked at 29 and by 8 years later (when Vanilla Ice stole that bass line for his biggest hit) no one remembered it (and neither Bowie nor Queen were performing the song regularly in their live shows.) Vanilla Ice improved on the original. He took a long forgotten hook and brought it to the masses. And I probably reveal my bias as a mobile DJ here but: any song that packs a dance floor is a better than a song that doesn’t. “Under Pressure” isn’t going to get people to the floor or keep them there. But when a crowd hears “Stop. Collaborate and listen” they’re on the floor dancing and singing along. Guaranteed.
Will Smith has done this numerous times in his career as well, most notably taking the melody of “He’s The Greatest Dancer“ (a nice little disco song by Sister Sledge that was completely forgotten about when their record company released “We Are Family“) and re-imagining it to “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Again, “Gettin Jiggy” has packed (and continues to pack) many a dance floor for me. “Greatest Dancer” is a nice, cocktail hour, toe tapper at best. And if “Born This Way” (Lady Gaga) really was a ripoff of “Express Yourself“ (Madonna) then kudos to Gaga for turning Madonna’s boring manifesto into a dance floor filler.
I realize some people are going to be up in the arms about these claims. But I also realize that some people just always like the old thing because it seems cooler to do that. I still shake my head in disbelief when I hear a Met fan pine for Shea Stadium. Or a DJ talk about the “good old days of vinyl.” So if you’re that type, the type that can never admit that the original could somehow, possibly be improved upon, then go ahead and keep preferring (and playing) those tracks. Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying Sam Smith’s Stay With Me” (ok, bad example, I don’t think this one improves on Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”) and listening closely to the next Flo Rida song to see who he has improved upon.