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Are There 'Blurred Lines' Over Summer's Hottest Song?
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. It is time yet again for our weekly visit to the Barbershop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week - NPR editor Ammad Omar, he's in our D.C. studios, as is Corey Dade, he's a contributing editor for The Root. Joining us from Boston is Neil Minkoff, healthcare consultant and contributor to National Review magazine. And we have Jeff Yang, columnist for The Wall Street Journal online and he joins us from New York. Ammad, you are manning the shop today. Take it away.
AMMAD OMAR, BYLINE: That's right, I'm holding it down for Uncle Jimi for a week. Thanks, Celeste. Corey Dade - how we all doing guys?
COREY DADE: What up?
JEFF YANG: Yeah.
NEIL MINKOFF: Hey, hey, hey.
DADE: It's all good.
OMAR: Corey Dade, new secretary of the National Association of Black Journalists, 11 vote winner. Congratulations, sir.
HEADLEE: You'll have to call him Mr. Secretary for the rest of the...
OMAR: ...Is it like a Pam from "The Office" secretary or like a Ban Ki-moon secretary? Which one are we talking about? Either way, man, congrats. Great work.
DADE: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.
OMAR: How are we doing up the coast? New York and Boston?
YANG: It's all good.
MINKOFF: Doing good, doing good.
OMAR: All right, let's get things started, guys. We've all heard Robin Thicke's smash hit "Blurred Lines," it's one of the songs of the summer, but Marvin Gaye's son, Marvin Gaye III, says his dad's sound is getting ripped off by Robin Thicke.
HEADLEE: Yeah, but it's Robin Thicke and his collaborators, Pharell Williams and Clifford "T.I." Harris, who filed the lawsuit. It's a preemptive move. They've asked a court to declare that "Blurred Lines" does not copy anyone else's music.
OMAR: Right. They say, plaintiffs who have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies, reluctantly filed this action. So now everyone's lawyered up and I guess it's going to go to the courts. So let's hear both songs and see if there's something there. "Blurred Lines" and Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT TO GIVE IT UP")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
OMAR: All right, so just for the record, I'm going to preemptively sue Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke for getting that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day because that always happens.
HEADLEE: It's a little late to sue Marvin Gaye, but OK. The estate, yeah.
OMAR: Marvin Gaye III, he's in charge of the estate now. Anyway, I don't know. Personally, I think there's a little difference, and a lot of songs are similar, but I'm no lawyer. Let's throw it to you guys. Jeff Yang, you're a culture critic. What do you think?
YANG: Let me criticize the culture here. You know, the funny thing is that there's a deep back story around all this. There were - apparently, there was an article in GQ in which Robin Thicke was interviewed about the song in which he said, hey, you know, we were listening to this song, "Got to Give it Up" in the studio and saying we should do something like this. And so there's this antecedent in which he effectively admits to having been at least deeply influenced by Marvin Gaye's music, as all of us were. But at the same time, there's also now a story out there that he actually offered a settlement to the Gaye family, like six figures, and they said, no, we're not going to do that. There's more going on here. I just think that the bad look here is kind of this weird defensive "stand your ground" copyright lawsuit that he's tossed up there.
DADE: Stand your ground. All right.
MINKOFF: Wow. How'd you pull all that together?
OMAR: All right. Neil Minkoff, hey, hey, hey. What do you think?
MINKOFF: Hey, hey. So this comes up all the time in pop music. Where is the line between being influenced and copying? And so, you know, the guitar riff in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the exact same one as Boston's "More Than A Feeling," and to my ears, Bruno Mars' new single sounds a lot like Michael Jackson's "Rock With You." This is, you know, one of these dividing lines that's almost impossible to capture...
YANG: ...Blurred lines...
MINKOFF: ...And I think the issue here is exactly what somebody touched on - it's not the artist, it's the estate of the artist. And I think that makes all the difference.
OMAR: Corey Dade, Parliament-Funkadelic's "Sexy Ways" was also mentioned in the lawsuit.
DADE: That's right. That's right.
OMAR: Do you think there's some merit here?
DADE: Absolutely there's merit. I mean, pop music is based on, especially when you're talking about R&B-ish pop music like "Blurred Lines," it's all based on previous hits. I mean, the truth in the matter is, they went back and they were jacking for beats. It's what they do. This is like the old battles between rappers and funk stars from the '70s. You know, it doesn't pat legally, you know, it's a smart move on his part to try to protect his copyright, but at the same time, it doesn't pass the smell test. I mean, you're going to go and sue the icon of modern R&B music, the family of his estate, just to stop them from suing you. You know, I don't know.
OMAR: Yeah, it's an interesting move. And just as a note, George Clinton tweeted his support for Robin Thicke. So...
HEADLEE: ...Well, there you go. He got the nod. You're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by journalist Ammad Omar of NPR, The Root's Corey Dade, Jeff Yang of The Wall Street Journal online and healthcare consultant Neil Minkoff, who also writes for the National Review. Ammad, back to you.
OMAR: All right, we're going to talk a little bit more music. If you've heard the kids singing about poppin' tags, it's probably from the Macklemore song of "Thrift Shop." Here's a quick clip if you haven't heard it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")
OMAR: So that's the clean, NPR friendly version, but in the not-safe-for-radio version Macklemore swears a decent amount in the song. And he says in a Rolling Stone cover article that parents are all right with that because he's white. He says, quote, it's just different and would the success have been the same if I would have been a black dude? I think the answer is no, unquote. Corey Dade, you're a black dude. What do you think?
DADE: Well, thanks for that revelation, Ammad. All right.
OMAR: Just a fact.
DADE: You know, the truth of the matter is, yeah, he would not be as popular as he is now. I mean, music is bereft - I mean, is long - you know, has a long history of white singers, white artists, coming in and appropriating inherently black music or at least music that is dominated by black artists. This is nothing new. But what I like is that he acknowledged - as he put it - his white privilege. And if, quite frankly, more whites actually acknowledged their white privilege outside of music and in the broader populace, we'd be better off all the way around when you talk about race relations. I think more specifically, you know, I think he's exactly right. I think people need to understand - even white parents themselves - why they feel good about Macklemore's music, why they feel good about letting their children listen to it because Macklemore looks like one of their kids.
Now Macklemore says himself, if you were to take his lyrics and put it in the mouth of Jay-Z or any other black rapper - Lil Wayne, etc. There would be an aversion to it, I think. I think at the end of the day, this is great. I like the fact that he acknowledges it. If he only had a flow, we'd be good.
OMAR: Neil Minkoff, you're the resident white guy in the shop today, what do you think?
MINKOFF: Lucky me. So I'm going to say, unquestionably, I think that this has more to do with the record company than the fan base though. Because both Eminem and the Beastie Boys have talked about an opposite phenomenon. So when Run-D.M.C. took the Beasties out on their first tour, their particular concern that they've talked about in interviews was, could this group connect with a black fan base that was the heart and soul of the hip-hop movement. And Eminem has said that he felt that he was singled out for criticism for homophobic lyrics and cursing because he was white and that it was a double standard because it was acceptable for traditional hip-hop artists. So I think there's just this discomfort with it on all sides when there's somebody different entering into the market.
OMAR: All right, I'm neither white nor black so I'm going to give you guys my take. I think with the song we just heard, "Thrift Shop," I think Macklemore has a point. That's one song that I think, like Corey said, if you give it to a Jay-Z or a Lil Wayne, probably wouldn't be that popular. I think though, on the other hand, you take the song "Same Love," which was about gay marriage, I think if you had a black rapper rap about that, it arguably would have been an even bigger deal that he rapped about that. And then his latest hit, "Can't Hold Us," I think that's just a genuine hit song that would've been great for anyone, whether they're white, black, or other, I think that would've been a big hit. Anyway, Jeff Yang, have anything to say on this?
YANG: I guess I split the difference too, right. You know, so I've got two kids and they love this song and yes, they do self-censor the language, in front of me at least. It's kind of funny though 'cause my mother, who doesn't listen to a lot of pop music, has heard this on the radio and thought it was very catchy, but her issue with it wasn't the cursing, or the bleeped out cursing, but - you know, why buy clothes at a thrift shop? Anyway - they're dirty. So to me, I think, there's a lot of similarity, obviously, between these two stories that we've been talking about. You know, Robin Thicke and Macklemore, both of them are very clearly owing a huge debt to, you know, antecedents and ancestors, culturally and otherwise, of their musical traditions.
And the difference is one is suing, you know, the family of one of the guys who was his greatest inspiration and the other is acknowledging that there is a debt, you know, and a debt to a certain extent to be paid even in the present tense. One where there is both privilege but also realistically there are, you know, dollars to be had and made. And the history of - you know, as, I think, Corey mentioned, white performers stepping in and essentially playing, remaking, you know, consuming and regurgitating stuff that prior artists have done is long and ongoing. So...
HEADLEE: ...I am neither black dude, brown dude, or dude of any kind but let me just say that one of the things Eminem was complaining about was 'cause his music was being marketed to African-American young people. And that's one of the things that set him apart. Macklemore is in rap and hip-hop being marketed specifically as somebody that we can finally market to white youth. I mean, that's kind of the different - in where the record companies come in.
MINKOFF: Well, that's true, Celeste, except for the fact that since the late 80's - early 90's, the majority of rap consumers have been white...
HEADLEE: ...It's true and that's one of the things...
MINKOFF: ...Like 70 percent. So whether they're marketing it for...
HEADLEE: ...That's one of the things Macklemore actually points out and he talks about that as - literally exactly what you were saying, which was acknowledging where the music comes from and that to a certain extent's been appropriated.
MINKOFF: Yeah and no matter where you market to the end result is, white kids are always dominating the marketplace, period.
OMAR: Interesting. Anyway, since we're talking about race and having such a good time doing it, we're going to take it to another issue about race. Jeff Yang, you kind of brought this to our attention. You wanted to talk about a New York Times article, the writer's a mother and she talks about how frustrating it is when people say things about her children like, quote, mixed-race kids are always so beautiful. So, Jeff, I'm not sure if I quite get it so I'm going to let you take the first stab at this one.
YANG: All right, so it was actually titled that, you know, the quote, mixed-race kids are always so beautiful. And it was by an Asian-American mother whose children are biracial. Her husband is white, her kids are very cute, I'm sure. But the issue that she had was that she frequently - as many of my friends who have multiracial kids note - people come up to them and speak of their kids in this very, kind of, blanket way as if they are sort of the products of a bizarre breeding program to generate aesthetically attractive youth. And this whole notion of assigning a particular attractiveness to people who are hybrids, or something, is something which a lot of multiracial individuals dislike. It's - to use a phrase or reference point from my geek past, it's kind of like, you know, in Dungeons & Dragons when you're half-elf you get plus two on charisma or something.
OMAR: But when is a compliment just a compliment, you know? What if I said, hey, you know, I think Lebanese people are very good-looking, isn't that the same principle there? Or if I said, you know, black children I think are beautiful, isn't that the same idea there? Where does it go too far? Corey, you have a thought? Or Jeff?
DADE: Well, beauty is - this is Corey - beauty is always in the eye of beholder. Beauty is highly subjective. It's one of the most subjective things on this planet. But, you know, the truth of the matter is, you know, people of mixed-race and people who look like they are of mixed-race, have always had this bittersweet relationship with the issue of beauty. And in America, you know, on one hand, you know, people who are mixed-race or look mixed-race were ostracized by, you know, their, sort of, person of color side of their family and also by the broader mainstream white family - white side. But then as society has progressed over the years, they have replaced many popular opinions of beauty. For example, Halle Berry - the Halle Berry effect. You know, she has become the standard of beauty. Just like now actress Olivia Munn is becoming more the standard of beauty. So it's - I feel mixed about it. On one hand - pardon the pun. On one hand, you have - I know, sorry. I'm here all week, folks. Tip your waiters on the way out.
MINKOFF: It's a very blurry line.
DADE: So on the one hand, you have society, you know, making these people out to be exotic. I have green eyes, I have curly hair and suddenly I'm something other than black. And so everyone's like, oh, he's special, he's not normal, he's not usually black, he's not the normal kind of black. But at the same time the more these images come out, the more it actually pushes people to look at us or people of mixed-race as normal, 'cause the truth of the matter is, you know, that's not changing. Fifteen percent of all marriages were interracial by 2010. That's twice the rate from 30 years ago. And you have now 9 million people in the world who are claiming - in the United States who are claiming to be multiracial.
HEADLEE: I am one of those kids that grew up having people say - what are you and aren't mixed-race kids so pretty? And I can just say it always reminded me of the way people also talked about dogs. That they'd say you know mutts are the healthiest because they take the best traits from all the different breeds. Honestly, I never took it as the way that it was intended. I never took it as anybody else who just said something they didn't realize was partially hurtful, but that's how it came across.
Anyhow, we only have a couple of minutes left. So in our last couple of minutes, I just wanted to throw out this to all you guys who possibly have an extra $13,000 hanging around in your bank account, 'cause the fashion designer Hermes, you may have heard of this, has revealed - unveiled, a blue calfskin basketball that they are selling for $13,000 at their Rodeo Drive boutique. And I just have to ask each of you - let's begin with you, Jeff Yang, if you had 13 grand would you buy this sky-blue ball?
YANG: You know, I have a tendency to look at figures like that and say, you know, how do I translate this into something meaningful to me? I would buy 13,000 hamburgers, not like a blue basketball. I mean, it's nice to hear that the one percent plays hoops but...
HEADLEE: ...You think they'd play with that basketball? Neil, what do you think?
MINKOFF: I think the Miami police are going to give it an armed escort to LeBron's house. I think that Hermes did exactly what they wanted to do. They created two gimmicky items with an incredibly high price tag so that we would talk about it and generate buzz.
HEADLEE: And Corey, would you buy it?
DADE: (Snoring) Oh, I'm sorry, what?
HEADLEE: I'm going to take that as a no since you fell asleep.
DADE: Yeah, I'm sorry, next question.
OMAR: I'm with Neil. I think this is a marketing stunt that has proven successful since it's being talked about on NPR. I couldn't have told you what Hermes was until yesterday to tell you the truth.
HEADLEE: Clearly you don't buy Birkin bags. Before we go, I wanted to express our condolences to our regular shop keeper, Jimi Izrael, who's not with us today. Listeners may or may not know he met his wife while working on this program, Teshima Walker Izrael. She was our beloved executive producer. She passed away last week after battle with cancer.
OMAR: Yeah, Celeste, Teshima's the person that brought me out here from Chicago and it's been incredibly tough on everyone here at TELL ME MORE and across NPR, so I can only imagine what it's been like for Jimi. And I just want that to say everyone's thoughts are with Jimi and Teshima's family and Jimi, if you're listening, it is my honor to keep the seat warm for until you get back, man. And our thoughts and prayers are with you.
DADE: Jimi, stay up, bro.
YANG: Yeah, hearts out, man.
MINKOFF: Nothing but love and sympathy.
HEADLEE: Ammad Omar is an editor at NPR, he's in our Washington, D.C. studio. Along with Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root. Joining us from our bureau in New York, Jeff Yang, columnist with The Wall Street Journal online. And Neil Minkoff is a former doctor turned healthcare consultant, also a contributor to the National Review, and he joined us from NPR member station WGBH in Boston. Thanks to all of you.
UNIDENTIFIED PANELIST: Hey, hey, hey.
HEADLEE: Remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio look for our podcast, it's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That is our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we will talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.