The Blurred Lines of Musicological Expertise

In the past 24 hours, there’s been a flurry of people declaring the recording industry dead, and a whole lot of articles (and, dare I say, blog posts) that purport to explain what really is the upshot of the “Blurred Lines” jury verdict. It’s all rather melodramatic, and I hesitate to add to it. But I think there are a few points worth making here.

Robin Thicke in performance. Used here under a Creative Commons license.
Robin Thicke in performance. Used here under a Creative Commons license.

For one thing, everyone needs to shut up about how this verdict will have a “chilling effect” (that’s always the phrase they use) on musical creativity. It’s not going to happen. The popular music industry will soldier on exactly as before, making sure that money remains in the hands of the gatekeepers who run the business. Why? Because the people who run record labels are quite skilled at finding ways to pass costs onto artists while keeping profits for themselves. This verdict poses no threat to business-as-usual for record labels and the avaricious people who run them.

But in following coverage of the trial, I’ve been taken aback by the role of “expertise” in the testimony. Reporting on this story has often framed the trial issues as “musicological” in nature, as Marvin Gaye’s heirs relied on the testimony of musical experts to elaborate the similarities between “Got to Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines.” The claim I found most troubling was Judith Finell’s description of the role of the musical expert: “The musicologist’s job is to understand the important and unimportant parts of a musical work. It’s my analytical description.”

Let’s ignore, for the moment, the hugely problematic nature of the exact “musicological” evidence given by Finell. Let’s even ignore that her credentials as a “musicologist” are, at best, extremely suspect. (OK, not totally ignore: she does not hold a Ph.D. in musicology, and her record of musicological publication is nonexistent.) That short description of the “musicologist’s job” is as distant from and irrelevant to the work of musicologists as possible. I know not a single musicologist who would describe her work as distinguishing what is and is not “important” in a musical work—primarily because there is absolutely no objective way to make such a determination. Elements of a musical work only have meaning to the extent that they are heard and understood by people with particular cultural positions and values. It is not only misleading to objectively assert that “Blurred Lines” copied the Gaye song because it allegedly shares three of the four notes in its hook. Doing so is downright irresponsible.

But I’m willing to give Finell a pass on this point, since she is not a professional musicologist, but rather, is a consultant working (in this instance) for the Gaye family. Much more troubling is the participation of the prominent Harvard ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson. Monson’s testimony included the claim that the Thick and Gaye songs both included a “ii-V-i” chord progression, which sounds very damning for Thick—until one realizes that this is literally the most common chord progression in Western tonal music. You would be much more hard-pressed to find a song that didn’t include this chord progression. Monson also told the jury, in a remark that was rightly struck from the record, “[The similarities] suggest that while ‘Blurred Lines’ was being written, ‘Got To Give It Up’ was playing in the background.” Such a claim quite obviously has no basis in any available evidence.

Unlike Finell, we cannot simply dismiss Monson’s testimony based on her qualifications as an “expert.” As one of the leading scholars of African American music, her credentials are impeccable. Which only makes her participation in this trial all the more baffling and irresponsible. Why in the world would such an accomplished scholar stake her reputation to a claim that there are some similarities between these two songs?

I don’t have a concrete answer, of course; only Monson could tell us this. But it seems to me that she has impaired, rather than bolstered, any reputation or value that musicology might have had in the popular imagination. (I’m certainly not so naive as to believe that most people have spent any substantial time before this trial thinking about what musicology is, or that they will do so ever again.) Collectively, Monson and Finell’s testimony was presented by the Gayes’ attorney as objective data that, based on their expertise in music, proved a decisive similarity between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” Musicology was positioned as a science—a clear misrepresentation of a discipline that straddles the boundary between the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Of course, this was a savvy move by the Gayes’ attorney, because music is not commonly seen as an area where one can have “expertise” as a scholar. (I’ve lost count of how often, when I tell people that I’m a music professor, I am asked what instrument I play. The expertise that we develop as musicologists simply doesn’t register in the mainstream.) People can identify pieces of music; the subtle and hidden cultural meanings and social values of that music is typically invisible. So instead of engaging in the sort of argument that most musicologists would have about these two songs—concerning, perhaps, the racial history of musical appropriation, the cultural meaning of copyright law, or the long musical practice of pastiche—what we actually get is a quite shallow representation of music as a scientific, rather than a cultural, entity.

Finell has no responsibility to the musicological scholarly community, because (so far as I can tell) she’s not a member of it. But Monson has perpetrated a musicological farce, and her participation in this trial has reinforced the marginalization of musicology (and, I would argue, the Humanities in general).

So if you ask me what this trial was really about, my answer is that it was about education. The upshot of this trial, in my view, is that nothing changes in the recording industry, although a lot of people will wring their hands about it, and that the important role of musicology and the Humanities has been eroded through the egregious misrepresentation of what it is that we do as scholars.

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2 thoughts on “The Blurred Lines of Musicological Expertise

  1. I have no background in music, but what this suggests to me has a lot to do with our perception of the ‘expert witness’. A trial is evidence-based rather than interpretive, thus whatever the field of the expert witness, he or she is forced into the position of a scientist, forced to give yes/no answers. The trial process takes an analytical view of music (or any art, for that matter), whereas music is much more than the sum of its parts.

    Also, from a cynical, transatlantic point of view, all this says a lot about America’s favourite participatory- and spectator-sport. Litigation.

  2. Marie: I think you’re exactly right. The nature of “expertise” is precisely what is at stake here, and I think that we tend to take a too narrow view of what constitutes “evidence,” particularly in a legal context. I’m no legal scholar, but this case seems to highlight a clash of approaches to argument and evidence: a scientific approach (yes/no) on the one hand, and a cultural/musicological approach on the other. Musicologists make arguments about music that far exceed things that might be widely recognized as “musical,” and none of this came out in the coverage of the trial/verdict—because, as you suggest, it’s not useful as evidence in the legal context as we know it. A depressing thought, in a sense; it makes me wonder if there were really any viable alternate narratives here, or how we musicologists might shift the kinds of conversations about music that happen in popular culture.

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