When I first heard Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," my reaction was the same as millions of other R&B fans: "Hey, that's Marvin Gaye's 'Got to Give It Up.'" Thicke and company not only copped Gaye's distinct bass line, but the defining funk of the cowbell accents. I wasn't entirely surprised, since some years earlier Thicke's "Love After War" was a virtual lift of Marvin's "After the Dance" – just as his "Million Dolla Baby" shamelessly copied Gaye's "Trouble Man."
The list of Marvin's musical children is long: R. Kelly, Maxwell, Usher, John Legend, Miguel, just to name a few. Marvin has become to soul singers what John Coltrane became to saxophonists: the undisputed master. Yet the vast majority of those singers – with Thicke standing as the most recent example – are so eager to emulate Marvin's lush sensuality that they miss the single ingredient that lends Marvin's artistry its spiritual power: his nuanced sense of autobiographical storytelling.
Take "Got to Give It Up." Like "Blurred Lines," it was an across-the-board Number One hit. Marvin wrote it in 1976 at the height of the disco craze. Rather than follow the craze, he fought the craze, crafting an idiosyncratic groove completely foreign from the four-on-the-floor beat that typified disco. Even more radical was the story he told on top of the beat – a tale of a man, much like Marvin, who's deadly afraid of dancing. Gaye paints the portrait of a wallflower "too nervous to really get down," a shy guy whose "body yearned to be free." The song becomes a vehicle to face his fear. And the infectious groove allows him to overcome the fear.
Marvin's message is all about vulnerability and uncertainty. He uses the music to express his human frailty. That's why we love him so much. He's not afraid to say that he's afraid. So the song becomes a journey and the groove becomes a kind of prayer that allows him to move from trepidation to a triumphant conclusion – "Now I've gotten myself together, baby!"
Yet even his triumph veers sharply from the usual boy-woos-and-wins-the-girl scenario. In Marvin's story, the woman is the aggressor. Too shy to pursue her, his hope is that she'll come after him. "I know what you're thinking," he sings, "You wanna turn me out . . . and I'm gonna let you." The fear of dancing becomes a metaphor for the fear of sex. Overcoming that fear requires not only the aid of the voluptuous groove, but a woman willing to lead the way. In telling his truth, Marvin rips off the mask of machismo and allows us to see his fragile heart.
In contrast, Thicke never removes that mask. "Blurred Lines" is all swag. The tired old "I know you want it" motif deadens any sense of subtlety or surprise. In the silly video, Thicke pushes the macho posture to the point of broadcasting, in huge letters above the topless dancers, his claim of being well-endowed.
Robin might want to revisit Gaye's "Ego Tripping Out," written a couple of years after "Got To Give It Up." It's another journey song, beginning in self-absorption and ending in a cry for God. At the story's conclusion, we realize that Marvin has spoofed his own narcissism and come to see megalomania as a cold and cruel prison.
Great artists like Marvin Gaye understand that irony and emotional complexity are necessary tools for making deep, enduring art. Marvin used music to figure out who he was and who he wanted to be. It was a lot more than a sexy groove; it was riding that groove to search within for a truth that's as confusing as it elusive.
David Ritz is the author of DIVIDED SOUL: THE LIFE OF MARVIN GAYE and cowriter of "Sexual Healing."