Not long ago, Robin Thicke seemed an unlikely candidate for pop stardom, let alone pop infamy. He was a curio: a white Canadian-American showbiz scion (his father is the 1980s sitcom actor Alan Thicke), who, over the course of the 2000s, transformed himself into a midlevel R&B star with a sound steeped in suave ’70s soul and a core fan base of black women.
Then came 2013, an annus mirabilis that devolved into an annus miserabilis. Mr. Thicke released his sixth album, “Blurred Lines,” whose catchy title track shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for 12 weeks. Suddenly he was a pop titan and a target, buffeted by online outrage. Critics scorned him for the racy “Blurred Lines” video, which many found sexist; some deemed the song’s come-ons (“I know you want it”) “rape-y.” He came under fire for a sleazy, campy performance with Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. He was accused of appropriating black music, a charge given extra juice by a lawsuit pitting Mr. Thicke and Pharrell Williams, a co-writer of the song, against the heirs of Marvin Gaye. The heirs alleged copyright infringement, citing similarities between “Blurred Lines” and Gaye’s 1977 disco-funk classic “Got to Give It Up.”
Some of the criticism seemed capricious, singling out Mr. Thicke without regard to the larger pop context. But the singer did little to help his cause, answering the accusations of sexism with ill-conceived jokes; undergoing a messy public breakup with his wife, the actress Paula Patton; and giving testimony in the “Blurred Lines” trial that was by turns obstinate and incoherent. The result was bad news not just for Mr. Thicke’s reputation, but for intellectual property law: a $7.4 million ruling in favor of the Gaye estate that stunned a music industry that has always made room for pastiche, homage and creative cannibalization of the musical past.
Mr. Thicke has been lying low for several months, spending time with his young son, writing and recording music and readying an appeal in the “Blurred Lines” case. Recently he sat for an interview at a recording studio in Los Angeles where he was finishing work on an album, to be released this year, that is tentatively titled “Morning Sun.” Mr. Thicke spoke for the first time about the “Blurred Lines” verdict, and reflected, in words that seemed cautiously chosen, on a novel professional dilemma: how to move forward with a career that reached its high point and nadir at the same moment. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation and brief follow-ups by phone and email.
Q. What was your reaction when you heard the verdict in the “Blurred Lines” case?
A. I was surprised. Very surprised. Obviously, that’s why we’re appealing. I know the difference between inspiration and theft. I’m constantly inspired, but I would never steal. And neither would Pharrell.
The story of the writing and recording of “Blurred Lines” in your testimony was different from the version you gave in interviews when you were promoting the record. In fact, you testified that you were intoxicated at the time of those press interviews and that you misrepresented both the extent of your role in writing the song and the influence of “Got to Give It Up” on the song.
Do you stand behind that testimony?
What I will — what I can say — is that when I did the deposition, it was two weeks after my separation from my wife. I was going through personal hell at the time. And I was careless in the deposition. I can’t go into the details of what was said in the deposition beyond that, because of the ongoing litigation.
Do you think that your attitude was complacent, or too confident, going into the deposition?
My personal issues were all that mattered to me at the time. That’s why I use the word “careless” to describe my attitude at the time. Obviously, I didn’t give my all to the trial. It simply wasn’t as important to me as what was going on in my personal life. I was lost at the time. I had lost my way.
In Pharrell’s testimony, he asserted that “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” have a similar “feel” but made a distinction between “feel” and plagiarism or copyright infringement.
It comes right down to knowing the difference between being inspired and stealing. Why would I want to, or have to, steal from anybody to make my music? Inspiration can be subliminal. As a songwriter, you’re obviously trying to create a brand-new feeling that comes from your heart. But you can’t help but be inspired by all of the greatness that came before you. In popular music, you know, there’s only so many chords being used. On the Internet, there’s this thing where this band plays the same four chords, and they do 75 hit songs with the same four chords in the exact same pattern. That just shows you some of the limitations in popular music.
A lot of people have expressed disappointment with the verdict. They’ve argued that the similarities between the two songs are vague and expressed concerns about the chilling effect the decision could have on popular music.
For me, it will not, it has not, changed my process in any way. But yes, many artists and writers have voiced their concerns to me about this. And if the verdict holds up, I believe that it will have a ripple effect on the arts and the industry in general. I mean, if you made the first superhero movie, do you own the concept of the superhero?
The verdict seems to have already had repercussions, for you and for other artists. On “Morning Sun,” you give co-writing credit to Barry White. Was your decision to include White due to the verdict?
I know I have a target on my back, and my team wanted to be extra cautious given the past year. And until the court decides on inspiration and “feel” in music, I wanted to make sure I would never be in a difficult situation with one of my idols ever again.
Many listeners noted similarities between Marc Ronson and Bruno Mars’s recent song “Uptown Funk!” and the Gap Band’s “Oops Up Side Your Head” from 1979. The “Uptown Funk” songwriting credits were revised to include members of the Gap Band.
Well, I can sing both of those songs at the same time. It’s the same notes, the same cadence — everything’s the exact same. That’s why I think that’s a very fair decision.
Then there’s the case of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” whose melody resembles the one in Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” In January, Smith agreed to pay songwriting royalties to Petty.
Again, those songs are the same. The same notes, on the same timing, in the same rhythm. The two songs are exactly the same.
Some commentators have noted a resemblance between your song “Love After War” and Gaye’s “After the Dance.” My reaction when I hear that song is: you’re winking at “After the Dance” — making a cheeky allusion to it.
Definitely not. Definitely not.
Really? The groove is very similar.
Never. Never. Most of the songs that are good, they happen in five minutes. I sit at the piano and it pours right out of me. It’s not until later that somebody mentions, “Ooh, that feels like ‘After the Dance,’ ” or something like that.
There are other instances when I listen to one of your songs and I think, this is an obvious homage to X or Y artist. A song like “Get In My Way” from the “Blurred Lines” album, which sounds to me like a Gap Band tribute. Am I wrong in hearing that?
I think you’re wrong. Vocally, I’m inspired by [the former Gap Band lead vocalist] Charlie Wilson’s riffs and some of his style, so when I’m attacking a song like that, some of his vocal energy gets into my soul. But in no way am I trying to copy it — I mean, I just wouldn’t copy it. I have many different personalities, vocally. [Laughs.] And depending on where the feeling comes from, it sometimes dictates the personality that I embody.
In the deposition, you said that you’d been drinking and taking pills during the time of the “Blurred Lines” press interviews. Are you still doing that?
No. There’s a thing that Marcel Proust referred to as supersaturation. When the past, present, and future all become very clear and high-definition and surround-sound in one moment. My supersaturation came right after I performed on the BET Awards [in June 2014]. I dedicated the performance [of the song “Forever Love”] to my ex. And I came home, and my best friend of 20 years, Craig Crawford, said, “I saw your BET performance.” And I said: “Oh yeah! What did you think?” You know — excited. And he goes: “I gotta be honest with you, buddy. You’re kind of playing yourself. You look like a sucker.” And it hit me that I’d lost my perspective. What I thought was romantic was just embarrassing. And he said, “You should just go away for a while.” So I shut everything down. I took some time off to be with my son, and to be with my family and close friends. And the more time I took off, the more everything became clear.
So when you talk about a gesture being embarrassing instead of romantic, is that the way you feel about “Paula” (2014), the album you released at the time of your breakup?
Look, my songwriting has always been autobiographical, and always will be. The “Paula” album was no different. I was struggling through my toughest time, and I decided to share it. And I remember my team and my record company didn’t want me to put it out, but they stuck by me. In hindsight, the only thing I would have done differently was, I wouldn’t have promoted it or sold it. I would have given it away. That would have kept the purity of the message intact.
You were criticized for appropriation, for being a white artist who plays black musical styles. What was your reaction to that critique?
When “Blurred Lines” first exploded, I had this chip on my shoulder: “Hey, wait a second! I’ve been doing this for 15 years, guys!” And then, you know, I started to force it a little bit. The ego is a very dangerous place. I was supposed to be living the dream, and yet I was in a nightmare because of a crumbling marriage. I had finally reached the pinnacle of success — on paper, I had it all. But I wasn’t happy. And so you start grasping for something else to make you happy. Drugs and alcohol became a way for me to cope. And then you start saying things in interviews, desperate for a little extra attention. And then it becomes a sympathy tour.
Obviously you’re aware of the “rape-y” talk that surrounded “Blurred Lines.”
Pharrell and I have never and would never write a song with any negative connotation like that. I think the song on its own — I don’t think that would have existed. Once the video came out, that changed the conversation.
In an interview with GQ, you made a joke about that video, which drew criticism: “What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.”
I was in Ron Burgundy character, just telling a bad joke. I would never — that was just sarcasm.
The moment when I put my son first in all my movements and decisions is when everything changed for me. I’d been in love with my high school sweetheart for 20 years, and I knew nothing else — and when that fell apart, I lost hope and faith in the good things. And then with some time off to just put my son first, I realized how special my life is, just with him. Everything got better from that moment on. So that’s what my new album is about.
Do you have anything to say about how you will approach your appeal in the “Blurred Lines” case?
Well, I can’t speculate, but I sure hope it comes out a different way for Pharrell and me, and also for the future of creativity. You know, there are friends of mine, other musicians, that have spoken out publicly about this, about the injustice of the decision. Adam Levine, John Legend, Stevie Wonder. Unfortunately, they’re not on the jury. [Laughs.]
Source: NY Time