When I was a kid—probably six or seven years old—I was startled to hear another young child plunking out Heart and Soul on the piano. You see, I thought I was the one who composed it. I found out later that practically every kid in my generation could plunk out some version of Heart and Soul, and that I had subconsciously learned it, played it to myself, and thought myself clever.
Just recently, a federal jury announced their verdict on the high-profile “Blurred Lines” copyright infringement case. Specifically, the court found that Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit song, “Blurred Lines,” co-written by Pharrell Williams, infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit, “Got To Give It Up,” and awarded over $7.3 million to the estate of Mr. Gaye. Which is no surprise. Both Thicke and Williams had publicly cited Marvin Gaye as an influence, and the groove and party-like feel definitely “blur” into the distinctive Marvin Gaye funk. [Here’s a listen to the two side-by-side if you’re interested.]
The case itself set off some debate in the creative community “about the difference between plagiarism and homage, as well as what impact the verdict would have on how musicians create work in the future.” Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Williams and Thicke had insisted that their composition was intended to honor the style and mood of an era and artist. However, the courts decided that their recording had gone too far. But this is not the first time this has happened. Famous plagiarism cases include George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” vs. the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine,” the Beach Boys’ “Surfin USA” vs. Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and even Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbuster’s Theme” vs. Huey Lewis’ “I Want A New Drug.”
One thing I find interesting in this case is the issue of intent. The issue was not whether Williams and Thicke intentionally stole their song; it only mattered that the song was so closely derivative as to be legal plagiarism. Ironically, if Williams and Thicke had only given Gaye a co-writing credit, it would have not only made this a non-issue, it would have made for a more interesting back story.
The thing is, nothing is really original. Every artist stands on the shoulders of the artists who have come before us. Everything influences everything else. And the most we can do is be influenced by the best that’s out there. More than once, I’ve written a song and later realized I had inadvertently copied some portion of another song in it. It is really quite difficult to be truly original.
Certainly, there are a lot of blurred lines all over.
So how does one strive toward true uniqueness in their art? How does one become truly original? How can we unleash our creative muse in order to bear something fresh and new? I think C. S. Lewis has a good word of advice for us all:
“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers with originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
Telling the truth—about our feelings, about our lives, about our triumphs and tragedies, about our singular view of the world—allows us the ability to truly be unique. Because no one has lived your life but you. There is no story that is exactly the same as your own. In other words, Lewis is implying that for artists of faith, the opposite of plagiarism isn’t originality. The opposite of plagiarism is truth.
It is certainly okay to learn the styles of your favorite musicians or novelists, to learn the techniques of your favorite painters or dancers, to learn the methods of your favorite actors or filmmakers. Indeed, there is no other way in which to attain proficiency and artistry. But then we must use those techniques and methods and styles to tell our own unique stories, our own unique journeys.
If I were to guess, I suspect Williams and Thicke weren’t striving toward some greater truth in their composition. With misogynistic lyrics, a tongue-in-cheek racy delivery, and an R-rated video designed to get purposely banned, they were simply and crassly trying to write a hit song. (The single did sell over 14 million.) And unfortunately, this is the state of the arts.
As artists of faith, we need to aspire beyond that.