Sunday, February 23, 2014

Does Pharrell's hit Happy sound like another song to you?

As the writer Oscar Wilde said, "Talent borrows, genius steals." I take that statement to mean that a talented person recognizes the value of another's good work or art and imitates it. A genius, however, takes imitation to a new level, sometimes improving upon the original so much that observers, readers, or listeners don't even recognize the theft. The genius makes it his or her own.

I submit that creative genius is also an ability to take disparate parts and recombine them into something new and fresh that stands on its own.

Perhaps what we see often today is the cycle of creation and re-creation at work or maybe what we see today is evidence that the human mind has run out of ideas. Artists and writers, however, have been facing charges that they have copied or "borrowed from" each other more than they should since the invention of the printing press. The charge is not new, and neither are efforts to explain how and why this copying or "borrowing" occurs. The great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1817 addressed this issue in his preface to Prometheus Unbound.

But how did I end up on this topic today? A Facebook discussion.

Sometimes I look up and I realize that I've written so much in response to a Facebook discussion that I might as well post whatever I've said at my own blog. Does that ever happen to you? When I read a debate on the public Facebook page of talk show host Lisa Durden today, I had that experience. We debated whether Pharrell Williams's super hit "Happy" from the movie Despicable Me 2 sounded like Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips" and "Cool Jerk" by the Capitols.

Honestly, I knew "Happy" felt familiar, but the song did not seem close enough to a specific song to me to matter. I felt what Pharrell had captured was one of the sounds of an era more than a particular song of that era (the 1960s). But full disclosure here: I love "Happy."

Here is what I had to say on FB:
Similarity between songs is not enough to constitute actual theft in the legal sense. Musicians (and poets) have long borrowed from each other and imitated styles in sincerity as well as in tongue and cheek. Tongue in cheek examples of borrowing in music would be Stevie Wonder himself playing "Mary had a little Lamb" at the end of "Fingertips," and Rufus featuring Chaka Khan drawing in the bass line of Bobby Womack's "A Woman's Gotta Have It" at the end of "Stop on By."

Paying homage and so imitating sincerely is what "Alicia Keyes did when she borrowed part of Prince’s “Adore” for her song "Like You'll Never See Me Again." But unlike Stevie and Rufus did with their tongue and cheek borrowing, Alicia plays almost the same notes but off; hence, she alludes to “Adore;” she doesn’t steal it. In poetry, both the tongue and cheek and the paying homage types of borrowing usually fall into the allusion category.

In the case of "Blurred Lines," Pharrell and Thicke went overboard. Also, Thicke made a definite effort to make "Blurred Lines" clearly echo "Got to Give It Up," but now wants to claim otherwise. And again, it seems to me that, they went overboard. Sections of the “Blurred Lines” can be played over "Got to Give It Up Part II" with little disturbance in listening, meaning the two songs almost mesh. [The founder of says that the Pharrell and Thicke definitely pushed the boundaries of the tribute song with "Blurred Lines"]

The same cannot be said of "Fingertips" and "Happy." The similarity between those two comes with imitating a style, not a specific song. Even the similarity between "Cool Jerk" and "Happy" in this instance is not enough to constitute theft but more a case of style imitation. Just as theft in print is determined by how much is borrowed as well as a denial of borrowing, in music it depends on how much of the song is ripped from the other song and a refusal to acknowledge the “borrowing.” [ also has an opinion on "Happy" and other songs, and they explain it in musical terms.]

The best legal cases are when it's so obvious even a first-grader can tell it's the same song. For instance, most people who've heard "He's So Fine" more than once immediately recognized George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was the same song. Harrison lost in court. His theft was classified as "subconscious plagiarism."

Nevertheless, when it comes to beats and bass lines, musicians constantly borrow from one another, sometimes evenly openly admitting that they've done so as is the case in one of the songs I've mentioned in the post I've linked to here, but usually there's some variation: a speeding up of the riff or a slowing down, a change of a note here and there. And when the same beats and bass lines or sounds are borrowed often enough, then the music becomes a style the same way that in poetry certain poem arrangements eventually become poem forms.

And Stevie [Wonder] may be cutting Thicke and Pharrell some slack on “Blurred Lines” because he’s giving the variation more weight than the similarity. [This was written in response to someone else in the conversation saying Stevie Wonder said "Blurred Lines" and "Got to Give It Up Part II" are not the same.]

That's all I said on Facebook, but since I'm writing here again about musical similarities and sometimes out-and-out copying, here is a "borrowing" aka a sampling that I pointed out to another friend of mine, Steven Hart, that made him gasp, "You're right!" When I first heard the opening of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" (the Valkyrie's cry) I immediately recognized the theme from the 1960s TV show Get Smart.  You be the judge; I've posted both below:



Unknown said...

I agree, as soon as I heard "Happy" it sounded so familiar. Finally Wonder's first hit "Fingertips" came to mind. I'm a senior, but have not forgotten what great music we've
experienced. Now I'll compare "Cool Jerk". That song was somewhat different to me, but I agree very upbeat & positive.

deep.mixer said...

Please listen to this track -- especially starting at the 2:0:0 mark. Pharrell is clever at ripping :)

les mccann and eddie harris - compared to what

Raymond said...

I actually think "Happy" borrows more from Eddie Harris and Les McCann's "Compard to what" than anything. IJS

Unknown said...

happy sounds like 'cant keep running away' by pharcyde to me