Saturday, March 14, 2015

Musical Chairs

This song came out last summer, but I just heard it today for the first time (yes, I make little effort to keep up with what the kids are listening to), and quite liked it:

A cursory glance at the Google informs me that Nothing More is a Christian band, but whatever. Either a song is good or it isn't. (And for this sort of "bro-metal" style of music, somewhere between Five Finger Death Punch, Avenged Sevenfold, and Tool, it's done quite well. But I get why many people do not like that sort of music in general.) I like the song, the musicianship, the message. I like Spock's Beard, too. I liked Kansas when I was a kid. Hell, I revere J.S. Bach, whose output was mostly devotional. If that makes me a bad atheist, well, I've been called worse. But this really is a scathing look at modern American culture.

(Of course, the irony is not lost that the band just signed a large deal with Eleven Seven Music Group, which isn't Warner Bros., but it ain't selling shitty cassettes out of the trunk of the bassist's mom's Buick, either.)

Anyhoo, I offer that as a palate cleanser to the musical topic I really want to look at, which was apparently the only musical news this week -- that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke got stuck with a mammoth fine for plagiarizing Marvin Gaye. I think any genuine fan of music in general, and certainly every musician, should be wary of that decision, but also consider all sides of this.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I can take or leave the song in question; it neither offends my sensibilities nor gets my dick hard. It's bland, inoffensive, and unchallenging, like most music, popular and otherwise. It tries to conceal its deficiencies in that regard with the hugely popular video, featuring some amazingly hot chicks and Thicke's smug countenance emceeing the proceedings. I grew up on a steady diet of soul and R&B as a kid, and it is at least a competent, if uninspired, iteration of the style. I would hate to imagine what Williams and/or Thicke would sound like outside a studio, with nothing but an instrument and natural voice, but then apparently Thicke got a piano into the courtroom and played some variations of his song and Gaye's song, so he has to have at least some musical talent there.

So on the one hand, Blurred Lines is derivative, to say the least. It's not as blatant as some -- remember, even Saint George Harrison got sued for this sort of thing -- but anyone familiar with the original will hear it right away. I don't think it's unreasonable to speculate that you would not have Blurred Lines if Got to Give It Up did not exist. There's clearly a strong influence.

Now the question here -- musically, ethically, legally -- is, at what point does influence become stealing? It's a question that fans, musicians, musicologists, and random passersby have all attempted to answer, with the best of intentions, and varying levels of success.

You don't need me to tell you the answer, because Nona Gaye told us all -- when it makes money. That is the sole criterion here, just as it's always been. And while I don't see the value necessarily in dumping a pile of money on someone because of something her father did forty years ago, that's kinda the way it works. It's also an unfortunate provision of our archaic copyright law, which was set up to ensure continuing revenue streams for the then-new recording industry.

And the poor record companies, to the extent they still exist, have a rough time extracting pelf from the peasants, when not only do fans no longer pay for recordings, but musicians are able to record, produce, and distribute their own music. The revenue stream is now in live performances and swag, and even then, the only way to make any real money on it is to bundle bands together into huge outdoor festivals with multiple stages.

Music piracy is and should be a real concern, but never doubt that the people who really want to compose and record their own music will always do so regardless of how much money there is to be had. The more pressing concern is what the mass audience perceives and expects from their musical experience, if they're just after another event and another event to record on their iPhones and post to demonstrate their presence, or if they want to seek out and hear sounds and ideas that can genuinely transform the way they perceive their world.

The biggest tragedy out of this lawsuit, I'm sure you'll agree, is that the Black Guy Pees appear to still be intact. This is a sadness that no mere court of law can address.

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