Subscribe

(Credit: Olivia Rodrigo)

How Robin Thicke plays into the Olivia Rodrigo 'good 4 u' plagiarism story

Olivia Rodrigo’s third single from her debut LP Sour, ‘good 4 u’, raised quite a few eyebrows upon its release. For one, it was a notable change of pace from the singer, whose previous single ‘drivers license’ and ‘deja vu’ were downtempo and emotionally heartbroken. ‘Good 4 u’ was fast, aggressive, and highly sarcastic, taking Rodrigo out of the weepy balladeer territory she initially presided in. However, her path into pop-punk sounded a bit like something else entirely.

The sonic similarities between ‘good 4 u’ and Paramore’s mid-2000s songs were pointed out immediately. Stylistically, it was a no brainer: soft-loud dynamics, scratchy guitars, throaty vocals. It didn’t take an expert ear to discern the obvious influence that Hayley Williams had on Rodrigo’s music. There were occasional cries of the song being a rip-off, but this is how rock and roll goes, and there’s a razor-thin line between inspiration and theft — and there always has been.

Apparently, that line was a little too thin for Paramore’s publishers, who sought, and obtained, songwriting credits on ‘good 4 u’ for lead singer Hayley Williams and former guitarist Josh Farro, the primary songwriting team for the band’s first three albums. Although Rodrigo has yet to make a public comment about whether she was influenced by Paramore, the court of public opinion seems to have ruled that she has, and it’s likely that Rodrigo and her team acquiesced before the matter could get any bigger.

Looking closer at the two songs, the similarities seem to fall away under harsher scrutiny. The songs are in different keys (a half-step difference, with ‘good 4 u’ in F# minor and ‘Misery Business’ in F minor, but still), and the melodies having as many notable differences as they do similarities. So how were Paramore’s publishers able to claim “interpolation” and obtain songwriting credits for their clients? Because there is a notable precedent that would likely cause Rodrigo and her team legal headaches if they had pushed back: the lawsuit from Marvin Gaye’s estate that rewarded Gaye songwriting credit for Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ based on sonic similarities to ‘Got to Give It Up’.

The ruling was controversial for the reasoning that was given being vague and open to incredibly wide interpretation: ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’ were in different keys and had distinct melodies, but because ‘Blurred Lines’ was found to copy the “feel” and “sound” of ‘Got to Give It Up’, Thicke and co-writer Pharrell Williams were required to pay over $5 million in royalties to the Gaye family, along with adding Gaye’s name to the songwriting credits. 

In the wake of the lawsuit, over 200 musicians filed an amicus curiae brief that, as a result of the lawsuit, any artist with even a tangential claim that another song was inspired by theirs could sue for undue credit. With such a nebulous definition of what officially constituted copyright violations, the door was now open for seemingly ridiculous lawsuits. Theoretically, Van Halen’s estate could sue any recording with guitar tapping on it. Little Richard’s estate could sue Paul McCartney over ‘I’m Down’, and it’s admitted inspiration from Richard’s style of rock and roll. Any artist who could find similarities in arrangement, composition, or lyrical focus could seek damages, regardless of intention.

There seems to be little doubt that Rodrigo’s team was aware of the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling and how it could be used against ‘good 4 u’ in a court of law. The reality of the musical comparisons didn’t actually matter because of the precedent that was set by Robin Thicke and Pharrell. Instead of letting a potential copyright claim get that far, Rodrigo cut her losses and award Williams and Farro credit. She could have fought it, as Led Zeppelin had done with Spirit when it came to ‘Stairway to Heaven’, but the dangerous precedent that remains in place could easily have been cited against her. Whether appropriate or not, ‘good 4 u’ and ‘Misery Business’ will forever be linked, not just in rumour but in ASCAP credits and royalty payments. And it’s all thanks to Robin Thicke. 

Comments