I never set out to hear “Blurred Lines.” No one listens to Robin Thicke songs on purpose. But there it was, coming from, literally, everywhere. On commercials, on the radio, in stores, at work, just leaving work, on the way home from work, on the other end of my phone when my grandmother calls and just starts humming it, being barked in harmony by a pack of wild dogs roaming the alley behind Beauty Bar.
It wasn’t until on a Saturday morning at an hour that could only be classified as “Wait, there’s such a thing as 5:45 a.m.?” and the bassline came pulsing through my neighbor’s walls that I realized I’d heard that song before. And not just behind Beauty Bar.
A few minutes of furious Googling later, I had my answer. It was Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Also known as “One of the several über-’70s songs on the Boogie Nights soundtrack chosen specifically to signify just how ’70s everything is.”
Now here comes Thicke to the Cosmopolitan’s Boulevard Pool August 17 (8 p.m., $35) dragging behind him the summeriest of summer jams, having improbably taken the title from the presumptive heir to the Summer Jam 2013 crown from Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” It’s amazing what a video full of topless models can do for your song.
It’s also not surprising that Pharrell is heavily invested in both songs. Thicke told z that “Got to Give It Up” was his favorite song. He told Pharrell he wanted to do something that sounded like that, so they got together in the studio and recorded their own version of it. The whole thing was written in an hour.
Because while he might be a musician in his own right and one of the most accomplished producers of the last 10 years, Pharrell is equal parts Tin Pan Alley and tobacco company. He doesn’t just give you a product you want, he’s in there with some science, manipulating your pleasure centers for maximum addiction. And he’s doing it, like several others are now, through the power of pop-music necromancy.
Say what you will about the era of heavy-duty sampling. What we’re seeing now is a different beast. This isn’t Tone Loc using “Jamie’s Crying” as the bedrock for “Wild Thing.” This isn’t even Vanilla Ice cribbing “Under Pressure” for “Ice Ice Baby.” (Feel free to add your own examples from cheeseball ’90s hip-hop as you will.) That’s the kind of thing that still, in the parlance of Chopped, “transforms the ingredients.”
Instead, there’s Pitbull’s “Feel This Moment.” It starts like every other Pitbull song. Pulsing beats, swelling chorus, stupid, pseudo-aspirational lyrics. Then, 42 seconds in, there’s the main hook from A-Ha’s “Take on Me.” No rapping over it, no isolation of some drum line, just a blatant “Hey, remember ‘Take on Me?’ You liked that one, right?”
It’s the Family Guy approach to music. At least it distracts you from all that Pitbull in the rest of the song.
That seems to be the point, though, with Flo Rida’s “Take on Me,” and to a lesser extent with Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven.” It’s the same reason Battleship ever became a movie: Because you are familiar with it, and that’s less of a risk for the people bankrolling projects than putting out something new.
That’s not necessarily a new complaint: You can go back to “Stairway to Heaven,” which Led Zep essentially stole from Spirit’s “Taurus.” At least, though, the rules always used to be you either took a lesser-known artist’s work and passed it off as your own, or else you took something and rearranged it enough that it was something sort of new. Now the idea is more to appeal to your audience by presenting them, knowingly, with the familiar.
So what does this have to do with the Zombie Apocalypse?
If you’re not up on your eschatological trends (or if you haven’t been drawn into endless conversations about The Walking Dead), the Zombie Apocalypse is the hottest thing going for the end times. It is, of course, the most navel-gazing of all our apocalypses. There’s not the otherness of a robopocalypse, the Viking doom of Ragnarok or the natural fury of a sharknado. It is us, being devoured by us, endlessly.
But that’s what’s so great about it: You don’t have to get lasered into oblivion by some (literally) faceless Terminator. You can get eaten by your neighbor, Tim. “Hey there neighbor. What’s that? You want to borrow a cup of brains? Well of course. Don’t want to be selfish after you loaned me those hedge clippers 14 years ago and I kept them in my garage ever since.”
This, incidentally, is why video-on-demand is showing more and more first-run movies, such as Only God Forgives and Lovelace. It’s a comfort-zone thing. It’s a suffocating, stultifying comfort-zone thing sometimes, but it’s a comfort-zone thing nonetheless. Which, you know, there’s nothing wrong with having a comfort zone in and of itself. It’s great, up until you realize the only reason you like a song is because it makes you think of another, better song you used to dig (or at least tolerate), years ago.
That and until the wild dogs get to the part where T.I. raps. Then it’s just unnerving.