Originality has been a hot topic in pop music lately, from the contentious court verdict over Blurred Lines to the hilarious irony of Natalia Kills criticising an X Factor contestant for copying Willy Moon. These incidents seem to have inspired a trend among social media’s pop culture commentators for pointing out instances of unoriginality: Meghan Trainor has ripped off Olly Murs. Måns Zelmerlow has been listening to David Guetta. Ed Sheeran copied Marvin Gaye too! Why isn’t he being sued?
I’ve found that these discussions have done nothing to change my personal opinion about originality in pop music. I see originality as one of many positive attributes that a song might have, but certainly not a necessity. Good songs are often catchy, but they don’t have to be. Good songs are often performed with passion and emotion, but they don’t have to be. Good songs are often original, but they don’t have to be.
I find it strange when people criticise a new song for sounding like a song they like. If the copycat song is rubbish, then I can understand why you might mock the artist for copying a good song and missing what was good about it. But if they’ve captured the essence of the original, it’s a new song similar to an old song you like – surely that has to be a step in the right direction. Isn’t it better for songwriters to take inspiration from brilliant pop hits than aim to write a song that sounds like nothing that has been a hit before? In fact, the latter sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, and I doubt any songwriters have ever written a hit using that approach.
Old moany people often point out that most contemporary hits use the same four chords, and there is less variety in melodies than there used to be. And with the increase in the number of songs being produced and released, every song is bound to sound like something. Dance and hip-hop artists are ahead of the pack in embracing this idea, as most of their music is based on samples. They are not shamed for cherry-picking the best bits of other artists’ work to create something new.
I think this attitude is starting to cross over into pop songwriting, evidenced in the increasing use of interpolation. This is where a song incorporates part of the lyrics and melody of another song. Examples include Don’t Stop The Music by Rihanna (interpolating Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’) and the new US hit Somebody by Natalie La Rose (inspired by Whitney’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody). Not only is this a way to re-produce a classic melody to suit the sound of modern radio, but it’s also a way to get around clearing a sample, as an interpolation doesn’t require the original artist or songwriter’s permission (they still get a credit and royalties).
Writing an original hit is an admirable achievement, but it shouldn’t be prioritised over creating the best possible song. For similar reasons, my opinion on cover songs is equally neutral. I’d rather an artist released a good cover than a bad original song. Covering, like copying, is in itself not good or bad – it’s the end result that should be judged.
I care too little about Blurred Lines and Got To Give It Up to wade in on the debate over their similarities, but I do care about songwriters having the freedom to create the best possible music, without being restricted by the pressure to be original. If the best song a songwriter can write sounds similar to another song, it deserves to be released and it deserves to be a hit. If that means giving the songwriter who inspired the new work a credit, then that sounds fair to me. It’s time to stop shaming songwriters for learning from the masters of their trade.
To celebrate the brilliance that can come from unoriginality, here’s a playlist featuring ten great songs that have been accused of plagiarism. Would we want a world without pop music like this?