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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Blurred Lines, Part Deux: Appropriation vs. Expropriation

Yesterday, my good friend, fellow music-lover and ridiculously super-smart guy, Steven Thomas (Asst Professor of English and Director of Film and Media Minor, Wagner College), published  on his blog a response to and critique of my post from a couple of days ago on the Thicke/Pharrell/Gaye lawsuit ("On Blurred Lines, Pop Music, Pirates/Thieves and Memphis' Mustang Sally"). His is a really great piece and has given me a lot to think about, so please do stop now and read Thomas' essay here: "Blurred Lines and Musical Conditioning." In sum, Thomas argues that I downplayed Thicke and Pharrell's real (and really serious) offense by employing a number of disanalogies in the course of making my case.  According to Thomas, my hand-waving and mere tut-tutting at Thicke and Pharrell's appropriation of Gaye's artistic production isn't justified by claiming "all pop music is appropriative!" (as I, admittedly, did) nor is Thicke's and Pharrell's appropriation comparable to the generic examples of "riffing" that I provided as evidence for my claim. On Thomas' account, I failed to appreciate the critical difference between homage and imitation, by which I think he means the critical difference between appropriation and expropriation.  He doesn't say this explicitly, but his essay suggests that the manner in which I figured the constitutive and constituting "conditions" of pop music production were fabricated in such a way that, in effect, conflate (qualifiedly objectionable) appropriation with (always objectionable) expropriation

To wit, Thomas worries that I failed to appreciate that copyright infringement of the Thicke/Pharrell sort is just as serious as piracy, which I did acknowledge as a serious problem for the music industry.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Blurred Lines, Pop Music, Pirates/Thieves and Memphis' Mustang Sally

Yesterday, a Los Angeles federal jury awarded $7.4 million to the family of late, great R&B singer Marvin Gaye for copyright infringement by contemporary pop-icons Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.  The jurors determined that Thicke's 2013 chart-topper "Blurred Lines" copied elements of Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up." Although they were instructed to consider only the written melodies, chords and lyrics of the two songs, one might not be too off-base in suspecting that the jury arrived at their judgment on the basis of the song-titles alone. Thicke and Pharrell definitely blurred the lines.  Ergo, secundum Gaye, they got to give it up. Case closed.

But it's not that simple, really.  Pop music is an art form that depends upon "familiarity." Pop songs are on the whole a mix of universalizable lyrical tropes, tried (and tried and tried and tried) and true structural compositions, standard chord combinations and progressions, recognizable hooks (now, "samples") and formulaic production values... with only just a slight seasoning of originality thrown in at the end to accommodate what are inevitably periodic and recurrent trends.  If a song is avant garde-- really, truly, groundbreakingly "original"-- then it isn't, by definition, "pop."

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Trigger Warnings, Spoiler-Alerts, Philosophy and Film

Over the last couple of years, the practice of including "trigger warnings" on course syllabi or articulating them aloud in classes that include potentially disturbing, offensive or triggering content has become the institutional norm, if not also a requirement (as it is more or less becoming at many institutions). What detractors remain don't really question the fundamental advisability of trigger warnings anymore, but rather the practical details of their definition and scope.  As someone who teaches almost exclusively in the areas of moral and political philosophy, I've struggled a great deal with parsing the often subtle distinctions between "disturbing," "offensive" and "triggering" content.  Like any other decent teacher and moral agent, I do not wish to cause my students harm, though that does not necessarily mean that I do not wish them to sometimes reckon with material they may find disturbing or offensive.  In fact, I think there are a great many instances in which such reckoning has tremendous educational value, either because it provides students an opportunity to more carefully consider the true nature of the offense or, just as frequently, because it provides them an opportunity to revise what they have taken, indefensibly, to be "offensive."

I suspect that I am not alone among (especially nontenured, female) philosophy professors in being even more anxious about potentially "offensive" material discussed in my courses given the recent ugliness of the Abbate/McAdams case. I've been lucky, I think, to have avoided a situation like Abbate's so far.  Although I'm quite positive that students have been disturbed or offended by some of my course content, none have registered an official complaint or been moved to speak to me directly to that effect in the last ten years. That streak ended in my Philosophy of Film course a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Relativism, Revolutionary Fictionalism, Moral Facts and #TheDress

[Disclaimer: this post is a brief, quickly-composed and so incomplete response to a number of tangentially-related events and essays from the last several days.  I have a lot more to say about all of them, including how they are not merely tangentially-related, but not now.]

If you haven't already, you should read yesterday's Stone article in the NYT by Justin McBrayer entitled "Why Our Children Don't Believe There Are Moral Facts." There, McBrayer bemoans the ubiquity of a certain configuration of the difference between "fact" and "opinion" assumed in most pre-college educational instruction (and, not insignificantly, endorsed by the Common Core curriculum). The basic presumption is that all value claims-- those that involve judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse-- are by definition "opinions" because they refer to what one "believes," in contradistinction to "facts," which are provable or disprovable, i.e., True or False.  The consequence of this sort of instruction, McBrayer argues, is that our students come to us (post-secondary educators) not believing in moral facts, predisposed to reject moral realism out of hand. Though I may not be as quick to embrace the hard version of moral realism that McBrayer seems to advocate, I am deeply sympathetic with his concern.  In my experience, students tend to be (what I have dubbed elsewhere on this blog) "lazy relativists." It isn't the case, I find, that students do not believe their moral judgments are true--far from it, in fact-- but rather that they've been trained to concede that the truth of value judgments, qua "beliefs," is not demonstrable or provable.  What is worse, in my view, they've also been socially- and institutionally-conditioned to think that even attempting to demonstrate/prove/argue that their moral judgments are True-- and, correspondingly, that the opposite of their judgments are False-- is trĂ©s gauche at best and, at worst, unforgivably impolitic.