Robin Thicke and Pharrell Depositions Highlight Blurred Lines of Pop Songwriting

Just when it looked as though Chris Brown would win “pop star wang of the week,” Robin Thicke re-emerged via formerly sealed deposition from his ongoing copyright infringement lawsuit with Marvin Gaye’s estate over “Blurred Lines.” Back in April, Thicke and co-writer/producer Pharrell Williams gave “incredibly hostile” depositions regarding the No. 1 hit’s similarities to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 classic “Got to Give It Up.” Transcripts of their legal questioning have now surfaced, thanks to a new ruling from a judge just as the Gaye family filed a summary motion paper. In addition to revealing a Vicodin addiction at the height of Thicke’s fame, the depositions shed light on a common trend in pop music: Frankenstein songwriting.

If drug problems weren’t at the heart of the lie, Thicke claiming to have played little to no role in the composition of “Blurred Lines” — last year’s “kind of rapey” Song of the Summer and the subject of a thousand thinkpieces — might have actually been a boost to his reputation. The widespread allegations of misogyny — and plagiarism — might have been leveled at music’s golden boy, Pharrell, instead of its punching bag, Thicke. With the career lows Thicke has experienced this year, as he’s attempted to win back his estranged wife Paula Patton via song, it might have been helpful to have some of the initial heat over “Blurred Lines” alleviated. But no, Thicke still seems like a questionable character, albeit in a way that now involves taking credit for what isn’t his — in the midst of a lawsuit over plagiarism, no less.

“I was high on Vicodin and alcohol when I showed up at the studio [to record ‘Blurred Lines’],” Thicke admitted in the deposition, amidst confessions of not doing “a single interview last year without being high.” “So my recollection is when we made the song, I thought I wanted… I wanted to be more involved than I actually was by the time, nine months later, [“Blurred Lines”] became a huge hit and I wanted credit. So I started kind of convincing myself that I was a little more part of it than I was and I… wanted some credit for this big hit. But the reality is, is that Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song.”

That’s when Thicke, who added that he was “jealous” of Pharrell, came up with a “Blurred Lines” origin story about wanting to emulate the groove of “Got to Give It Up.” This was a tale he recounted numerous times in interviews — a method to sell records, he now claims. But why, one might ask, would Pharrell — by far a bigger star than Thicke pre-“Blurred Lines” — let Robin take credit for what isn’t his?

“This is what happens every day in our industry,” Pharrell explained in his deposition. “You know, people are made to look like they have much more authorship in the situation than they actually do. So that’s where the embellishment comes in.”

Lest you need a reminder, Pharrell Williams — one half of the influential and commercially successful production duo The Neptunes for nearly 20 years, former N.E.R.D. leader turned solo hitmaker, and most recent Grammy “Producer of the Year” — is not some naïve songwriting phenom fresh off the farm. If he didn’t write “Blurred Lines” on his own, he would have no reason to take the heat for Thicke; it would only welcome more legal headaches and make him a target for the misogyny claims once hurled at Thicke, who was thought to have penned lines like “I know you want it.” It’s just a reality of pop music, where the performer still gets all the glory (or, in this case, shame) and banks “about 18-22 percent of publishing royalties” for a “co-write” such as this.

Pop songwriting’s ugly little secret is no surprise to those who obsess over liner notes, a place where stars often get credit among a half-dozen other paid hands. A few years back, Britney Spears songwriter Heather Bright praised the star for not taking a credit for any of the tracks on 2011’s Femme Fatale. As she wrote in a blog post (via Vulture):

The media is talking trash about how Britney didn’t write any of the songs on her album … HELLO! Wake up everybody! NONE OF THESE ARTISTS WRITE THEIR OWN SONGS!!!!!! (there are a few exceptions … lady gaga, will.i.am/BEP, chris brown is starting to write a lot of his own stuff … ummmm … and now I’m running out of artists). Anyway … here’s my thing … and I feel VERY passionate about this issue. Britney could have come to me, like all these other A-list artists, and said …

“Hey, you wanna be on my album? I’m gonna need writing credit for that song AND part of your publishing even though I didn’t write anything! And then I’m gonna go on tour and gross $150 million in ticket sales and not give you any of that, even though I’m performing your song!”

I could rattle off a laundry list of artists who I’ve had that conversation with! And I’m on the other end like … “Oh okay … so you wanna rape me, but just with the tip?!” *Prince side eye*

In a later interview, Bright went on to name names: “Rihanna takes publishing [credits/royalties], Justin Bieber takes publishing, Kanye West takes publishing. On all the stuff that they don’t write, they take publishing.”

For Pharrell, the money and credit Thicke took from his wallet and resume are not worth sweating, even on a hit as ubiquitous as “Blurred Lines.” But for songwriters on the come-up — someone more on Bright’s level — these percentage points could certainly make a difference in the long run, particularly when it comes to big singles. Mechanical royalties, which come from record sales and synch licenses for TV/film via songwriters’ music publishers (like BMI and ASCAP), build up over time. Suddenly 20 percent knocked off a songwriting credit doesn’t feel so minor, especially if the hit was a fluke for a songwriter. (Copyright is easily the most confusing aspect of the music industry, BMI has a handy FAQ for those curious.)

There are plenty of other reasons to vilify Robin Thicke, who has historically written much of the material on his seven albums and co-written for Usher and Lil Wayne. And there are certainly other curiosities of this case, scheduled for trial come February, including a racially charged diatribe from Pharrell over white soul singers, in which he surmises that “Blurred Lines” “wouldn’t be what it was — what it is today” if he had sung it himself. But neither make the reality of this behind-the-scenes trend any less greedy.