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    On the boundaries of the derivative in pop music

    The "Blurred Lines" lawsuit has (pun definitely intended) blurred the lines of how copyright can and should be interpreted and enforced in the popular music world. Popular music of all kinds has for generations been predicated on iteration, from the transmutation of blues into rock and roll, vocal jazz into soul, and on and on. The precedent that a song can be marked as theft because of similar "feel" is one that may cross from a defense of intellectual property into one that has a chilling affect on creative extension of our shared musical heritage (particularly for up and coming musicians who have no resources to fight off a potential copyright claim). How is our culture defining these legal boundaries, and has this process become inherently unfair to those musical artists who are young (ie not in the baby boom generation that notoriously owns much in our copyrighted cultural landscape, since they came up alongside the new mechanical media that enabled mass-marketing of musical works), and without financial resources to defend against such suits? Was "Blurred Lines" genuinely too derivative of Marvin Gaye’s work, or is this a case of judicial overreach?

    • Using a particular genre of music, like pop, alternative, or folk(etc.), as well as what culture you would be referring to, would be a good way to keep the article on track. The influence of instrumentation, into how this affects an interpretation of similar "feels," could also add another dimension to the article. – BlackLion 7 years ago

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    Latest Comments

    I disagree with a fundamental thesis of your piece–the idea that someone cannot be taught how to learn. I think at its best, this is the function of higher education, not to teach specific disciplines (though we certainly do that as well), but primarily to teach students how to learn. How to access information, how to expand their worldviews, how to inquire. I have taught every grade from Kindergarten through graduate school in one form or another, and if there were no way to teach students how to learn, all of my efforts (and those of my colleagues) would be worthless, and I don’t think they are worthless. I think even more challenging is inculcating in students the fiery desire to learn. I can help you understand how to broaden your mind, but I cannot broaden your mind. I can help you understand how to deepen your research, but I can’t make you decide that you need to do research in the first place. I can hope to inspire this desire in students, but I can’t give it to them wholesale. One of the topics I teach is mixing for music (records, live shows, etc). I always make it clear to my students that the best mixers have listened to thousands of pieces of music, in all genres. Like writers needing to immerse themselves in language and reading (even without consciously looking for lessons), mixers need to immerse themselves in listening–the training (in writing or mixing) derived from these activities is both immense and to an extent subconscious, but it must derive from the learner’s desire to experience more, to gain context, to learn. If you are hired to mix a jazz album, but you’ve never mixed jazz, you may not know how to approach it…whether you want to adhere to tropes or subvert them, if you don’t know the genre, it’ll be hard for you to enter the conversation. I can teach you how to find different artists, how to determine what the history of the genre tells us about styles and standards, what professional practice in the genre demands…but you have to want to learn that stuff in the first place. I think anyone with a real desire to learn can be taught how to learn, but someone with no desire for learning can’t be made to desire it without their own willingness, passion, and engagement.

    Can you Teach Someone how to Become a Writer?

    Luhrmann is one of the only working filmmakers today who is willing to utterly abandon realism for a kind of heightened emotional state in his work (as opposed to, say, super hero films, that abandon realism but typically in trade for spectacle and little else, though there are exceptions). This I think has resulted in varying degrees of success. I adored Moulin Rouge (though I do think the characters, as some commentors point out, are at best two-dimensional…that’s not the point, though), and as someone who lived in Brooklyn for a long time and has worked in hiphop, I connect really strongly to The Get Down (in fact, I think that at least the pilot, which so far is the only one he directed, may be his strongest work). That said, I thought Gatsby, while interesting stylistically, was ultimately a crashing failure of a film. He captured the high intensity of the lush Gatsby life without much flair for the quiet interior anguish of the remaining story. Baz has never been subtle, and when he works to tell a quieter or more nuanced story, he isn’t typically as successful as when he’s embracing the kind of full-flush energy of youth. I think part of the recipe here is not just characters who are writers, but who are young, romantic, aspiring writers. That romantic aspiration is central to his vision. He directed La Boheme on stage (the opera that inspired the musical Rent), another work that is focused on the flush of youth and idealism. He is a poet of the idealists, and I think his decidedly nonrealistic style bears this out in visual and temporal form–everything is bright, over-designed, bursting with visual information and sweeping through events on an endorphin high.

    From The Get Down to Moulin Rouge: A Look at Baz Luhrmann's Writer-Heroes

    I find it interesting that this article gives examples equally from films Tarantino directed/wrote and from those he merely scripted. Natural Born Killers, especially, evolved quite a bit between his original script and the resultant Oliver Stone film. I am not sure there’s a cogent argument to be made in the distinction other than that asserting authorial intent in works he didn’t ultimately direct seems a bit specious to me.

    I generally find Tarantino fascinating, but I think there are times that he indulges his love of genre and of the shocking aspects of violence to an extent that makes his own humanism difficult to ascertain amidst the noise.

    Your arguments about Django are well-founded, and Kill Bill especially turns masculine hyper-violence on its head with The Bride, but Hateful Eight was a difficult film for me to find sympathetic. To be fair, part of that was because I felt his ultimate deus ex machina ending undermined what could have become a very human story, but another part was the dehumanization of the lone female character in a manner that (at least in the theater in Minneapolis where I saw the film) played for laughs. It is certainly possible that those laughs were derived from discomfort, not from support of the brutalizing of the female character, but for once I wasn’t able to be sure, based on the film itself, whether Tarantino was really subverting or was merely adhering to longstanding rules of exploitation filmmaking.

    When I can perceive him making “high art” out of base materials (a contemporary cultural creation style I am generally quite fond of), as in Pulp Fiction (dime novels and 70s drug movies), Jackie Brown (blaxploitation), Kill Bill (kung fu cinema), I have found him brilliant. In the cases where that conversion of low to high is more obscured (Hateful 8, and in my opinion, Grindhouse), it’s harder (though not impossible) to identify the subversive intent, and in those cases I feel like his art suffers. That said, he is one of our preeminent cultural examiners of our hyperviolent society, and it seems perfectly natural to me that this same fixation that plays bloodily onscreen would lead him to protest the bloody results of police brutality (and kudos to him for it).

    Tarantino Speaks Out: Police Brutality vs. Cinematic Violence

    This is an interesting piece of writing. One of the challenges that we face as a culture is how to digest the messaging of a piece of entertainment/art, coupled with the difficulty of parsing the role of the messenger in the ultimate impact of the message. In the case of Disney (particularly late-period, multimedia conglomerate Disney), there is certainly a corporate drive to be a pinnacle hegemon in the entertainment world, but in pursuing said goal, they have been careful to emphasize messaging that plays into our American self-mythologizing ideals of “freedom” and (to an extent) nonconformity as desirable ideals. However, even reading into the Star Wars universe separate from Disney, we can begin to see difficulties with this narrative. We are rooting for the Rebellion, and rebellion certainly aligns with nonconformity in the American lexicon, but of course, once you join up with the Rebels, you begin to be homogenized as part of a uniformed fighting force. The Rebels aren’t as homogenized as Storm Troopers, but they are still uniformed combatants. There is a suggestive thread of nonviolence in the series (don’t give in to your hatred), which is a deeply nonconformist value in our society, but this is contrasted with a theme of powerful violence as an answer to problems. Yoda, for example (a character who is as close in the original trilogy to a Zen master as any character in a major American entertainment), is shown as lightsaber master in the prequels who must fight his way out of a bind (not use nonviolent resistance or Jedi mind tricks). After all, the title of the series is not Star Diplomacy, but Star Wars.

    I am reminded of Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes), when he discovered that mainstream commercial nihilism can’t be trusted.

    Mainstream Commercial Nihilism Can’t Be Trusted

    It is one thing to produce the Force Awakens (which, full disclosure, I thoroughly enjoyed), and seem to emphasize freedom and a version of nonconformity, it is quite another to ensure that as an entertainment enterprise, the saturation point of that message is so high that to nonconform (by, say, not participating in the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars) is unusual and discouraged. How nonconformist can a mass-market entertainment message truly be, in other words? I was born 1 year after New Hope (or “Star Wars” as people my age will forever call it), and the messaging in those films did serve for my child-self to emphasize the value of doing what is right, approaching the world with empathy, serving freedom, pursuing moral rectitude, and so on. How much of this emphasis that I took was due to my age when I was first exposed to those stories? If I experienced them as a full grown adult for the first time, aware of the marketing machine behind the enterprise, would the message have meant the same thing to me? Hard to say. I think Lucas’ rooting the stories in the global mythological tropes identified by Joseph Campbell went a long way to insuring that they spoke to ideas beyond their commercial circumstances, but I also can’t pretend that this isn’t a capitalist product designed (especially at this historical moment) to make buckets of money.

    At any rate, thanks for an interesting read. Lots to dissect here.

    Star Wars, Nazis, and the Politics of Nonconformity in American Pop Culture