Know Your $7.4 Million Beef: Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and ‘Blurred Lines’ vs. the Estate of Marvin Gaye

YouTube Robin Thicke, 'Blurred Lines'

On Tuesday, the dissolution of Robin Thicke continued apace when a California jury ruled he was indeed financially culpable for his appropriation of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for his career-defining “Blurred Lines.” The number is a whopping $7.4 million, which is notable enough on its own without all the corresponding questions, like where is the legal line between homage and theft? What is the precedent being set for a track to be considered an “original” composition? And how is Robin dealing with this emotionally? For all of these answers and more, we turn to our latest edition of Know! Your! Beef!

The Prelude

Way back in the peaceful days of 2013, when Thicke was happily riding the crest of the frothy “Blurred Lines” up into GQ spreads and superstar status, he’d freely volunteer that his life-altering jam had a debt to Gaye in general, and to “Got to Give It Up” specifically. He was suddenly rich(er) and (more) famous! Sure, he was inspired by the all-time great! Eventually, though, the good times curdled. Somewhere between its 10 billionth and 10 billionth-and-first radio rotation, two things happened: The world got super fucking sick of “Blurred Lines,” and the estate of Marvin Gaye decided it was time to pay up.

Round I: The Preemptive Strike

Generally speaking, these kind of things end up in out-of-court settlements; that’s what just happened — much more amicably — with Tom Petty and Sam Smith. But Thicke and his legal team took a different course, not waiting for the Gaye estate to bring legal action but opting, instead, to preemptively sue to establish the originality of the track. As the lawsuit stated, “Plaintiffs, who have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye … reluctantly file this action in the face of multiple adverse claims from alleged successors in interest to those artists. Defendants continue to insist that plaintiffs’ massively successful composition, ‘Blurred Lines,’ copies ‘their’ compositions.” Several months later, two of Marvin’s children, Frankie and Nona Gaye, countersued, throwing in for good measure the claim that Thicke’s “Love After War” ripped off Gaye’s “After the Dance.”

Round II: The Vicodin Sessions

Being the instigating party was not a good look for Thicke: There aren’t a lot of rules in pop music, but one of them is definitely “don’t sue your heroes’ kids.” And that was just a part of the guy’s crumbling public image, which would go on to be damaged by the “Blurred Lines” backlash — which saw the track not as another frilly party song but, rather, as a representation of non-consensual sexual engagement — and his own flailing public attempts at winning back his estranged wife, Paula Patton. And it was within that particularly negative milieu that we were treated to his leaked train wreck of a deposition.

In a jaw-droppingly careening conversation with the Gayes’ lawyers, Thicke talked and talked and talked. “To be honest … I was high on Vicodin and alcohol when I showed up at the studio,” he explained. “By the time, nine months later, it became a huge hit … I wanted credit. So I started kind of convincing myself that I was a little more part of it than I was … the reality is, is that Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song.”

You’d think Thicke’s personal demeanor would have no bearing on the jury’s decisions, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In opening statements, Gaye’s lawyers threw out a warning: “They will smile at you and they will be charming … Keep one thing in mind: They are professional performers.” In closing, they followed up: “It boils down to this: Who do you believe? … Are you going to believe Robin Thicke, who told us all he’s not an honest person?”

Shots fired! And after he entertained them and everything! Adds The Hollywood Reporter, “The singer attempted to do himself a favor by showcasing that songs can be stitched together with ease and that perceptions about similarity can be deceiving. On the witness stand, he sang a medley of U2’s “With Or Without You,” The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror.” Goddamn. That’s one hell of a medley.

Round III: An Unexpected Victory

All for nought. Relying on comparisons of the sheet music of the two tracks, a “stripped-down version of Gaye’s song,” and a pair of musicologists — who testified of “similarities in signature phrase, hook, keyboard-bass interplay, lyrics and theme of the songs” — the Gayes’ legal team won the day. And, in the process, we learned some things.

Thicke made $5.6 million on the track, Pharrell made $5.2 million, and T.I. netted $700,000 for his guest verse. (A few million more was earned, for a total of $16.7 million; the money that didn’t go to the artists was split between their labels: Interscope, UMG Distribution, and Star Trak.) The Gayes were asking for more than $25 million in damages (that would have included a share of the $11 million they estimated was made in “touring income attributable” to the song). They ended up getting the aforementioned $7.4 million, which still easily bests “the song plagiarism high-water mark of $5.4 million that a California court ordered Michael Bolton and Sony to pay two decades ago for infringing The Isley Brothers’ ‘Love is a Wonderful Thing.’”

How it breaks down: “Thicke and Williams … pay $4 million in copyright damages plus profits attributable to infringement … for Thicke [that] was determined to be $1.8 million and for Williams [that] was determined to be $1.6 million.” Oh, and just to rub salt in the wound: They also owe $9,375 for what has now been legally declared to be theft on “Love After War.”

By the way, T.I. skates away free. Is this the first time in recorded history that a legal decision has gone in favor of TIP? Anyway, enjoy that $700k, sir: You earned it.

What’s Next?

Gaye’s lawyers are celebrating their win with guest columns, possible appeals are already being bandied about, and Pharrell’s team is releasing wounded statements:

While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward. Pharrell created “Blurred Lines” from his heart, mind and soul and the song was not taken from anyone or anywhere else. We are reviewing the decision, considering our options and you will hear more from us soon about this matter.

For the indifferent observer, this is all grist for the “Fuck Robin Thicke” mill. But as Michaelangelo Matos explains on The Concourse, that’s not necessarily how you should be taking this.

First of all: “The idea that ‘Blurred Lines’ somehow caused the Gaye family any financial hardship is absurd on its face — as if purchasing Thicke’s song somehow stopped anyone from checking out “Got to Give It Up” as well or instead. In fact, the opposite occurred — the suit brought so much renewed attention to Gaye’s song that its sales nearly doubled during the trial.” Much more importantly, though, as he notes, “borrowing and rewriting is pop’s lifeblood”; now, “the possibilities [for lawsuits] are endless — and many portend chilling things.” He also quotes the ever prescient Lester Bangs:

According to one theory, punk rock all goes back to Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba.” Just consider Valens’s three-chord mariachi squawk up in the light of “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, then consider “Louie Louie” in the light of “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, then “You Really Got Me” in the light of “No Fun” by the Stooges, then “No Fun” in the light of “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones, and finally note that “Blitzkrieg Bop” sounds a lot like “La Bamba.”

Speaking with Vulture, Clive Davis School of Music at NYU professor Jeff Peretz also found the jury’s decision troubling. “The way it was arrived at was kind of weird.The jury reacted to the hubris and to the arrogance of Robin Thicke and Pharrell … and didn’t really take into consideration the way that these kinds of cases are usually thought through. The songs are different in their melodic and harmonic structure. That’s a mathematical fact. They are very similar in their rhythmic structure and their ‘vibe,’ but up until this particular case, that was never a copyright-able thing.” Also: “We need to establish real, quantifiable mathematical language about what is vibe or feel. It’s like describing the sound of the sea or something, but that’s the conversation that needs to be had.”

Are you happy, the estate of Marvin Gaye? Now we need to mathematically quantify vibe.

Anyway, how’s Robin Thicke handling this? Why, like any of us would: by partying at the Chateau Marmont with scantily clad women in giant hamster balls.


Filed Under: Music, blurred lines, Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, Marvin Gaye, Know Your Beef

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad