By Adam Bradley
We’ve all had the experience: you’re listening to the radio on your morning commute or walking through the mall one Saturday afternoon when a tune catches your ear. There’s something familiar about it, but upon further listening you know that it’s a new song. What about it sounds the same as the song already in your head?
One of the biggest knocks against pop music is that it lacks originality. Not only does it seem as if every song is about love — or its less exalted cousins — but the music itself is remixed, reused, and recycled. By its very nature, pop music is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of our musical taste and attention. It’s meant to catch and to keep our ear from the very first note.
Beat- and hook-driven, and usually clocking in at three or four minutes, pop songs comprise the perfect soundtrack for the Information Age. Whereas orchestral performances and jazz sets demand a certain studied attention, even an attitude of repose, pop tunes are meant to accompany our daily lives. You can drive, text, drive and text, run on the treadmill, or accomplish any number of other activities while you listen.
The opportunity costs of listening to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” the number one song on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart, are modest as are, it might be argued, its rewards. On the other hand, Felix Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony or Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige, require some understanding of their respective conventions and a mind free to engage them at length. The price of the ticket is high, but the rewards are generous.
Though pop songs are almost always general admission tickets and though their aesthetic rewards may sometimes be limited, we underestimate their value at our own detriment. For it is in the realm of popular music that some of the most daring artistic innovations are now taking place. To appreciate pop, however, we must rid our minds of one hidebound assumption about artistic creation — that art’s primary identifying quality is originality.
I write in praise of same songs, songs that borrow and even steal. I write in praise of lists made for kisses and eyes of tigers. I’m here to tell you that no pleasure is guilty and that there’s good reason that Led Zeppelin, REM, and Depeche Mode have never had a number one single while Rihanna has ten. You see, when it comes to pop listening pleasure, originality matters surprisingly little.
Imagine a sliding scale of imitation that runs from the cover song on one side to copyright infringement on the other. At one extreme, we have the cover, a new and credited version of an existing song. Covers run the gamut from the kind of slavish imitation that makes you wonder why it was done at all, to reinventions that eclipse the artistry of the original. In 1932 the Ray Noble Orchestra scored a modest hit with a torch song called “Try a Little Tenderness.” More than thirty years later, Otis Redding did a cover of it so exquisite and soulful that all other versions now exist as footnotes.
Given that music is above all a business, however, the act of enforcing copyright has become a zealous pursuit of record labels and rights holders. Artists from Michael Jackson to The Verve, Michael Bolton to Johnny Cash have all been sued for breach of copyright for allegedly stealing songs from other songwriters. These, and other cases like them, are often settled out of court. When they are litigated, however, it opens up a fascinating discussion about art and originality. Take the case of The Chiffons vs. George Harrison, in which the 1960s girl group sued the Beatle for allegedly cribbing the melody for his 1971 solo hit “My Sweet Lord” from their 1962 hit “He’s So Fine.” The judge finally ruled that George Harrison was guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and Harrison was forced to pay over a half million dollars to the plaintiffs.
This case points to the complex relationship between influence and imagination in pop music and in art in general. Most often same songs find themselves somewhere in between conscious cover and criminal copyright infringement in the ungoverned territory of imitation and inspiration.
Just last month, we saw a dramatic illustration of this. During rehearsals in Tel Aviv for her worldwide tour, Madonna was secretly recorded performing a mashup (a seamless aggregation of two songs) of her 1989 hit “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s doppelganger hit from 2011 “Born This Way.” (The clip has since been removed by Warner Chappell (Madonna’s label) and UMPG Publishing (both Madonna and Lady Gaga’s publishing company), but you can see her performing it before a crowd here.) To drive her point home, the Queen of Pop then segued into a song from her 2008 album, Hard Candy, entitled “She’s Not Me.”
Gossip sites were quick to pick up on this diva dust-up and millions watched the clip on YouTube. Gaga responded with incredulity, saying she considered Madonna an inspiration but the song as wholly her own. “It sometimes makes people feel better about themselves to put other people down or make fun of them or maybe make mockery of their work,” the 26-year-old singer told a crowd in New Zealand while on her own world tour. “And that doesn’t make me feel good at all.”
For her part, the 53-year-old Madonna was at first flattered — “What a wonderful way to redo my song” — then indignant to discover that “Born This Way” was far from a cover. “When I heard it on the radio,” Madonna told ABC’s Cynthia McFadden, “I said that sounds very familiar. It feels reductive.” Perhaps she meant derivative, and it certainly is… in part. Listen to the two hooks and one hears a near note-for-note recapitulation in the vocal melodies. But that is where the similarities — striking though they are — end.
That some people talk about “Born This Way” and “Express Yourself” as the same song says at least as much about how we listen to pop music as it does about the songs themselves. It demonstrates our unconscious emphasis on chords and harmonies over rhythms. Rhythmically, the songs couldn’t be more different. The vocal lines too stand out as distinct, save for those few precious seconds of Gaga’s imitation.
Madonna is upset that Gaga’s song was neither a strict cover nor enough of a theft to be a breach of copyright. Appropriately, then, she responded with a mashup that morphs into a cover that morphs into an outright complaint. For the rest of us, though, the similarities in the two songs speak to a much more fundamental fact about how we listen to music. Madonna struck upon a catchy hook, the echoes of which help propel Gaga’s tune to pop success some twenty years later. What matters is the pattern.
Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. All music, pop music perhaps most especially, plays into our desire to find patterns with its hooks and straight-forward melodies and harmonies. But pattern alone is not enough. We thrive equally upon surprise. We want familiarity, but with just enough difference. We want to be reminded of a strain of music locked somewhere in the recesses of our mind even as we the song takes us in a new direction.
As a consequence, pop music relies upon the slippery state of influence that set Madonna and Lady Gaga on a sonic collision course. The resulting tension opens up questions about originality and influence, art and authenticity, and the nature of voice.
Same song? Perhaps. But, then again, who cares? In this age of hip hop, with its complex sampled soundscapes and lyrical allusions, it should now be a given that great music need not be made solely of new parts. It never really was. From the start, pop has been the music of remixing and repurposing, of parody and pastiche. Baby, it was born this way.
Adam Bradley is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the author or editor of several books. He is presently at work on a study of popular song lyrics. He recently contributed an article on hip-hop to the Oxford African American Studies Center.