Updated below. Most people, including probably, the Beastie Boys, haven't thought about the song "Girls" in a decade. This week, I've thought about it twice.
I’m half standing, half dancing in the back of a dark Brooklyn bar. The deejay, some dude wearing a fitted Toronto Blue Jays hat, is spinning old school Jay-Z and new school Rick Ross. The crowd of mostly wasted 20 somethings is grinding on each other and pretending they know the words, or at least the beat. One Bawse song fades out, and I hear the vibraphone of Beastie Boys’ “Girls” fade in.
It’s the worst deejay decision made since that time I tried putting mid-'90s emo on at a party in college. A couple of wasted people keep dancing, but the majority of the people do what I do—we stop, look around, think “really?” and don’t know how to proceed. Most people, including me, have stopped dancing and have certainly stopped singing along.
A few days later, GoldieBlox, a toy company trying to inspire girls to go into engineering, released a parody of the song. The Beastie Boys quickly threatened to sue, but GoldieBlox made the first move, suing the Beastie Boys in California federal court to get their parody declared as a fair use of the song. If you haven’t seen the video, the company does a pretty good job of explaining what's going on in their suit:
In the lyrics of the Beastie Boys’ song entitled Girls, girls are limited (at best) to household chores, and are presented as useful only to the extent they fulfill the wishes of the male subjects. The GoldieBlox Girls Parody Video takes direct aim at the song both visually and with a revised set of lyrics celebrating the many capabilities of girls. Set to the tune of Girls but with a new recording of the music and new lyrics, girls are heard singing an anthem celebrating their broad set of capabilities—exactly the opposite of the message of the original. They are also shown engaging in activities far beyond what the Beastie Boys song would permit.
"Girls" has always been one of those songs you get kind of embarrassed hearing. One of my early memories is of my mom—who never really was the overprotective type—changing the radio station in the car when I started singing that song as a kindergartner.
“Why’d you change the station?,” I asked.
“We don’t like that song,” she said.
It's not clear that the Beastie Boys like the song, either. I’m not going to pretend to know what Ad Rock and co. were going for with the song. I don’t know if they were trying to provoke, if they were trying to be cheeky, if they actually believed some of the shit they were yelling about. Some of the band’s more recent comments makes me think it was the latter. The band apologized for some of the homophobia they showed on License to Ill in a letter to Time Out New York in 1999, and in 1994’s "Sure Shot," Adam Yauch raps “I want to say something that’s long overdue / the disrespect to women has got to be through / to all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.” Girls has never been played live.
That’s what makes it all the more surprising and disappointing that what’s left of the Beastie Boys has threatened to sue GoldieBlox for copyright infringement. In their suit, GoldieBlox says that the Beastie Boys’ lawyers have said the parody is a “big problem” that has “very significant impact.”
Here’s the thing, though. No one is against musicians retaining their intellectual property, and no one is against allowing musicians to sue when their intellectual property is co-opted by some company without compensation (the Beastie Boys did it heavily on Paul's Boutique, but that’s really not the point, or the problem). Also not the point, but worth mentioning: GoldieBlox’s “Girls” fits pretty perfectly into the definition of “parody,” something that has been treated as a fair use, even for commercial purposes, since the Supreme Court decided Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (involving 2 Live Crew’s Pretty Woman) in 1994.
In the United States, women make up just a quarter of the science, technology, engineering, and math workforce. Women earn 19 percent of all engineering degrees, 26 percent of all math and computer science degrees, 38 percent of physical science degrees, and 38 percent of earth, atmospheric, and ocean science degrees. It’s the reason the tech sector is the way it is, and it’s the reason why women could have it increasingly tough in the U.S. economy going forward. It’s where the jobs are. It’s a problem. GoldieBlox isn’t going to fix that, but they might help a bit.
GoldieBlox is a for-profit company, so it’s understandable that a musician would want them to license a song before using it. But when that song is one that you’ve essentially disavowed, a song with views on women that would have been outdated in the '50s, it’s time to let it go. When the parody is one that empowers girls, a parody that tries to right an extremely important problem, it’s time to let it go. Let. It. Go.
Update: The Beastie Boys have written an open letter about the situation. Here's what they had to say:
Like many of the millions of people who have seen your toy commercial “GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg & the Beastie Boys,” we were very impressed by the creativity and the message behind your ad.
We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering.
As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.
When we tried to simply ask how and why our song “Girls” had been used in your ad without our permission, YOU sued US.
Without the full letter the Beastie Boys originally sent GoldieBlox, it's tough to make a judgment whether their lawsuit was warranted. The courts have generally protected parody as fair use and as free speech, we'll see if they decide GoldieBlox's song falls into that category.