That’s the dispute in the trial currently in its second week in Los Angeles federal court, with the soul singer’s children Frankie and Nona Gaye claiming “Blurred Lines” infringes their late father’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up.” The prolific producer (and The Voice judge) took the stand on Wednesday, with his co-claimant Robin Thicke present in court for the first time this week.
His testimony offered an inside look into the recording of one of this decade’s most successful songs, which was revealed in court Tuesday to have earned over $16 million. He testified that never in the songwriting process did “Got To Give It Up” or Gaye’s influential recordings enter his head. Only in promotional media interviews later did he start comparing the tracks, he said. (Thicke testified similarly, with the noteworthy addition of claiming he was drunk and high on Vicodin during every one of his interviews.)
But he conceded there’s a similar feeling to “Blurred Lines” and the Gaye composition. “I must’ve been channeling —” he paused — “that feeling, that late-’70s feeling. Sometimes when you look back on your past work, you see echoes of people. But that doesn’t mean that’s what you were doing.”
His testimony opened with a philosophical exchange with his attorney, Howard King. King first had him explain his manner in the hostile deposition he gave in April, including repeatedly responding “I’m not comfortable” to the Gaye family attorney Richard Busch‘s inquiries about his musical education. Busch was “purposefully trying to get a rise out of me. It was very frustrating to me because I have such tremendous respect for Marvin Gaye,” he testified, adding, “I pride myself on being a peaceful person.”
Then King asked what he does professionally. “I’m a musician,” he responded. “I’m happy doing what it is that I do. This has been an incredible journey.” He continued, “Music can be medicinal. When people are going through things, they make a record about it.”
The proceedings then turned to Williams and Thicke’s recording process, which took place over several days in June 2012 at Burbank’s Glenwood Place Studios. The first couple of days didn’t produce results, Williams testified. He started generating new ideas on the third — “I call it surfing around. You start with chords or drums. In this case I started with drums,” he said. Thicke was not present, but Williams testified it’s not unusual for him to begin recording without the artist present.
He said that while Gaye’s music didn’t influence the songwriting, his other producing work in the studio that day did. “I had Earl Sweatshirt in one room and Miley Cyrus in the other. I was doing a bunch of country-sounding music with Miley,” he said, so when he went to work on Thicke’s track, bluegrass and “yodeling” were on his mind. “It was like blending this country sound with this up-tempo groove,” he said of “Blurred Lines.”
In about an hour, he sent the instrumentals to his engineer Andrew Coleman, who testified that Thicke still wasn’t there by that point.
Thicke testified in previous proceedings that the songwriting was nearly entirely done by Williams. “I remember bouncing ideas back and forth with him, but we didn’t keep any of mine. His were better,” he told the court on Feb. 25. He said otherwise in media interviews because he was jealous of Williams’ work, he said. “I felt it was a little white lie that didn’t hurt his career but boosted mine.”
Williams too testified that he wrote basically every lyric and vocal melody on “Blurred Lines.” (He earned about $5.2 million from the song, compared to the $5.6 million Thicke took home.) Thicke joined him late in the evening, and they immediately started recording the vocals, Williams testified.
“We were bobbing and dancing to it. It was a cool night,” he said. But he confirmed several times in the day’s proceedings that “Got To Give It Up” and Gaye’s other work never consciously influenced his songwriting on “Blurred Lines.” They didn’t intend to insert a rap verse from T.I. a.k.a. Clifford Harris Jr., who is a claimant with Thicke and Williams, and it was only added later (T.I. earned $704,774.)
“Why wouldn’t you want to copy Marvin Gaye?” King asked Williams at one point.
“He’s one of the ones we look up to so much. This [court] is the last place I want to be right now,” he responded. “The last thing you want to do as a creator is take something of someone else’s when you love him.”
The case centers on whether the written music of “Blurred Lines” too closely resembles the sheet music for “Got To Give It Up”, for which the Gayes hold the copyright. Judge John Kronstadt ruled in January that the family doesn’t own the commercial recording of “Got To Give It Up,” so they’re attempting to demonstrate the songwriting in “Blurred Lines” follows what’s written in their sheet music, including lyrical melodies and the bass line. In his cross-examination, their attorney questioned Williams on whether he saw similarities between the songs.
Williams mostly disagreed, pointing out that some of the note progressions the Gayes’ musicologist Judith Finell had compared were pitch-shifted so they sounded more alike. “It allows you to put virtually any song together,” he said. In response to the argument that the lyrics “Move it up, turn it round, shake it down,” in “Got To Give It Up” inspired the “Blurred Lines” lyrics “Shake around, get up, get down,” Williams said the lyrics’ similarity doesn’t mean they were copied. “In the average black family of the ’70s, that’s what we do when a song comes on,” he said. “That’s what my dad used to say.”
Other testimony on Wednesday included Williams’ manager Caron Veazey, Universal marketing executive Nicole Bilzerian and intellectual property valuation expert Doug Bania.
The trial will continue on Thursday with testimony from Thicke’s manager Chris Knight and possibly Thicke himself.