Recently, Marvin Gaye’s estate made headlines when they were speculated to be in talks to sue Pharrell Williams for similarities between Williams’ 2014 hit song “Happy” and Gaye’s 1965 song “Ain’t That Peculiar.” This follows a long legal battle between Gaye’s estate and Williams and Robin Thicke, who were accused of plagiarizing Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up” in their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines,” and ultimately, the court awarded the Gaye family more than $7 million in damages.
Artists have been stealing from each other for decades. As I* famously said yesterday, “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” So I guess that means there’s a multitude of great writers in popular music with all the court cases involving copyright infringement. There’s even one that pits Creedence Clearwater Revival label Fantasy Records against estranged CCR frontman John Fogerty over similarities between a CCR song that Fogerty wrote himself and a solo record for which Fogerty is the sole writer. I could provide you with more examples, but that’s not the question I want to ask this week. What I’m curious about is if there’s even something you can call “original” in popular music?
I’m inclined to say no. Just inside the last year, there have been three major releases that teeter on the line between inspiration and plagiarism.
The first is Kelly Clarkson’s “Heartbeat Song,” released this January. Clarkson’s single has since garnered more than 9 million hits on YouTube and 25 million plays on Spotify in the three months it has been commercially available. “Heartbeat Song” is an infectious tune that gets stuck in your head fairly easily, but that isn’t necessarily just Clarkson’s doing. The single seems to borrow heavily from early 2000s pop-punk band Jimmy Eat World, specifically from their single “The Middle”; the chorus and verses use nearly identical vocal phrases.
Meghan Trainor has also been the subject of scrutiny with her single “All About that Bass.” “All About That Bass” was released in June 2014, and it quickly gained hundreds of millions of views on both Spotify and YouTube. “All About That Bass” spawned a multitude of articles on the potential anti-feminist messages the song inadvertently sends. (Check out The All State‘s opinion on the body acceptance movement here.) In addition to the anti-feminist sentiments in the song, “All About that Bass” also closely resembles the song “Contact” by psychedelic rock band Phish. Both are written in the same key and utilize an almost identical melody.
Sam Smith won basically everything at the Grammy’s, and for good reason. His most recent record, “In the Lonely Hour,” featured his two most popular hits “I’m Not the Only One” and “Stay with Me.” Both are earworms making use of Smith’s angelic vocals, with “I’m Not the Only One” spawning a remix with A$AP Rocky. “Stay with Me” is problematic, though, because it borrows heavily from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “I Won’t Back Down.” The two are so similar, in fact, that Smith ended up crediting Petty as a writer in the credits for “Stay with Me.”
Popular music is becoming something of a bastardization of a bastardization. Clarkson was influenced by Jimmy Eat World, who were in turn influenced by Horace Pinker, and Trainor was influenced by Phish who were influenced by Frank Zappa, or maybe I’m full of it and Clarkson and Trainor have never heard of any of these artists. As I said last week, a ludicrous number of creative things have already been done musically, so it doesn’t surprise me when a song is released that sounds shockingly similar to something from a few decades ago. There is original content in popular music, but it’s becoming increasingly scarce. Some songwriters have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mentality, so if recycling a vocal harmony from a popular record from years past means millions of hits on YouTube and money in their pockets, can you really blame them?
Have a fantastic Tuesday.
*Just kidding. That was actually T.S. Eliot. Or maybe it was Pablo Picasso or Mark Twain? I don’t know; it’s been attributed to a boatload of writers over the past century. That kind of makes the point a little more poignant, don’t you think?
Sean McCully is The All State‘s assistant news editor. He’s all about that mid-range on Twitter.