Funky Friday Writing Advice: Take What Someone Else Did and Make It Your Own

OK, now that you’re good and worn out from chair dancing, let’s talk about the Grammy Awards, where last Sunday, despite a truckload of radio play, Robin Thicke failed to get an award for his super-mega hit “Blurred Lines,” and instead laid the foundation for a future as a Las Vegas lounge act backed by the guys from Chicago (I’ll get to why I started you off with “Tighten Up” in a moment).

Except lots of folks have a problem with a couple of things about the tune. First, the video features boobies. Lots and lots of them. And attractive as those breasts are, the whole nudity thing makes some people uncomfortable. Second, some folks claim the lyrics are just a little too date-rape sounding for their taste. Third, there was that whole business with Miley Cyrus and the big foam finger. But most of all, a lot of folks have noted that the song sounds a lot like “Got to Give it Up” by Marvin Gaye.

To the first point: No, the uncensored video isn’t family viewing in most households. But I propose we all get over the breast thing and relax. No one’s being assaulted, exploited (I’m sure the supermodels in question were paid handsomely for their voluntary participation) and no kids were involved. Lesson: If you don’t like bare breasts, what the hell is wrong with you?

Second: If trying to convince the good girl at the party to get down with you somewhere other than the dance floor is a crime, then all of rock music should be locked away forever. The guitar as an extension of the penis is part of what makes rock just a tad dangerous, and the lead singer’s role as seducer of women is part of the canon. It seems to me that the problem arose when white suburban mommies who listen to Top 40 radio blissfully unaware of all the truly misogynistic lyrics out there suddenly realized what their third-grade kids were singing along with in the back seat and got all offended. Lesson: Either be more aware of what the songs you’re listening to are saying, or find a different cough*better*cough radio station.

Third: *shudder* Oh, dear god. Let’s just not go there.

Fourth: Nearly identical groove and bassline, lots of cowbell, a similarly placed “Woo!” here and there, which add up to a song that does, indeed sound a lot like “Got to Give it Up.” Lyrically, they’re unique songs, and the only vocal in “Blurred Lines” that comes close to matching even the quality of Gaye’s is that of Pharrell Williams. So do those who say “Blurred Lines” is a complete rip off win? Not by a longshot.

It’s important to remember that every artist – EVERY SINGLE ARTIST – starts out by stealing. Let’s call it “artistic borrowing.”

Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly stole from themselves, repeating the same riffs in nearly every song. The Beatles wanted to be Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The Rolling Stones wanted to be every old bluesman who ever lived. And then all the bands that came after copied them, and so on and so on, until they all settled into their own individual sounds that we now recognize as unique.

It’s much more evident in music, but it happens with writers, too. Ask anybody and they’ll tell you that someone somewhere inspired them so much that the later writer tried to copy – or at least imitate – what the first writer did. I’ll cop to it in front of the entire Internet – I wanted to be the next Douglas Adams or William Gibson. What eventually emerged in the form of Immaculate Deception contained a taste of both, but not so much that you could say I ripped off either.

And, could you sit down with the late Mr. Adams or have a chat with Mr. Gibson, it’s likely both would tell you who their influences were. In fact, Gibson is on record as admitting that he was trying to bring the Beat-era sensibilities and literate-junkie vibe of William S. Borroughs into modern science fiction, which he felt had gotten pretty moldy and stale by the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Another great example of artistic borrowing in music that you’re probably not aware of is in the Pete Donnely song “Can’t Talk at All.”

Recognize that guitar line? It’s directly pulled from “Tighten Up.” The difference here is that Donnely freely admits that he borrowed the line on which to build an entirely new song. Even the video is an homage to old-school R&B. There’s no denial. He announces to the world that he’s standing on the shoulders of giants to create his own piece of art.

Yes, it’s easy for critics and music purists to get on Robin Thicke about the origins of his song, and the fact that he preemptively sued the Marvin Gaye estate to head off any copyright battles certainly wasn’t cool. Still, I suspect the lawyers for Thicke’s record label had more to do with that than he did.

But when it comes to accusing artists – whether they’re painters or musicians or authors – of stealing, remember that when we strive to create, we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants and just hoping that in some way we can, ourselves, measure up.

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