Last weekend we learned that your grandma's most treasured porcelain doll Sam Smith had quietly and amicablyresolved a copyright dispute with Tom Petty that would give Petty partial credit for Smith's hit song, Stay with Me. The fact that the copyright was questioned in the first place should've come as a surprise to no one other than, maybe, Sam Smith's fans, who likely have no idea who the hell Tom Petty is. There are parts of Stay with Me that are note-for-note the same as Petty's 1989 hit I Won't Back Down, which was co-written by ELO's Jeff Lynne. The similarities were enough that the names of Petty and Lynne will now appear within the ASCAP credits for the song, although it's not known whether the deal means they'll be getting any money for their role in the work. As for Smith and his own co-songwriters, they maintain that what some have called plagiarism was actually just coincidence. They say that until Petty's people called, they weren't aware I Won't Back Down even existed.
Now sure, there are intrepid sleuths on the internet who claim that if you speed the Sam Smith song up and slow the Tom Petty song down, it proves they match exactly. But there are also people on the internet who claim that if you fold a 20-dollar bill just the right way, it proves the Illuminati brought down the World Trade Center. A good rule of thumb: If you need to jump through all kinds of hoops to make your theory plausible, it's probably not as plausible as you think. Smith's song sounds quite a bit like Petty's during the chorus in that it follows the exact same chord progression. But as Adam Ragusea noted over at Slate on Wednesday, you can say the same thing about the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Dani California, which sounds exactly like Petty's Mary Jane's Last Dance and the Strokes' Last Night, which has the same opening guitar jangle as American Girl. Ragusea posits that the reason people seem to keep ripping-off Petty is merely that Petty's stuff is "the musical equivalent of carbon": He's traded in the basic DNA of rock-and-roll so consistently for so long that it's nearly impossible to write a pop song without evoking something he's done.
I think there's actually another reason a song recorded in the year 2014 by a British guy who sounds like estrogen being injected directly into your soul can sound exactly like a song recorded in 1989 by an American rock singer who looks like Janice from the Electric Mayhem after a two week bender. I think it's not only possible but almost certain that the writers of Stay with Me had never even heard I Won't Back Down. The fact is, we've finally reached a point of critical mass in pop culture, having exhausted every possible creative idea and motif that doesn't involve the invention of entirely new technology. The "primary colors" were there all along and there were always a finite number of variations on a theme that could be concocted before every song sounded like something somebody had heard before, every movie looked like something somebody had seen before, all art started to appear the same. Not exactly the same, of course -- you have to allow for progress in the way art is able to be created -- but alike enough to evoke an eerie sense of deja vu. This is especially true when it comes to music.
There's a website called Sounds Just Like that allows you to flip through songs that have the same basic progression or overall sound of other songs. You can go there and play obvious soundalikes like the Offspring's Get a Job and the Beatles Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da side by side. But you can also hear less obviously connected songs like Röyksopp's Edle and Bob James's You're Right as Rain, one an electronic track and the other smooth jazz. There are dozens into hundreds of these songs to cycle through. In fact, while we're all familiar with the phrase, "Good artists borrow; great artists steal," misattributed to Pablo Picasso and seeming to provide carte blanche for all manner of creative thievery -- up to and including, one would imagine, sampling and the repurposing of someone else's music entirely -- the original quote actually may say even more about where we are now. The original quote, from W. H. Davenport Adams in 1892, intimated the opposite: that lesser artists copy outright while truly great artists imitate and improve. In other words, there's nothing wrong with being inspired and building upon that inspiration.
Patton Oswalt said something about the nature of inspiration last year when he wrote about joke thieves. He mentioned how when he was just starting out he'd listened to an old Carol Leifer bit, among the myriad other comics' sets he wolfed down regularly, and it somehow got stuck in his head -- Inception-style -- and he'd mistaken it for an idea of his own creation. So he told the joke live. It killed. But a friend of his had to burst his bubble and let him know he'd just stolen a joke. As with music, there's so much humor out there now -- and with social media, everybody gets to be a comedian -- that it's hard to rattle off a single timely joke that somebody else hasn't already put into the ether. If you do it over and over again, consistently, then, yeah, there's no excuse and you get to be called out as a thief. But it's easy to see one person making the same comment as another at or near the same moment -- and for both comments to be heard by the same group of people -- because everybody now has a microphone. Look at those "hashtag wars" Comedy Central's @Midnight does every night. Count the number of responses that are exactly alike. That's what happens when you have a million people all vying for the same bit of comedy space. And that acts as a microcosm for all of art these days.
The fact is that we're so inundated with media as an outlet for creativity -- and there was so much creativity that came before this era -- that it's almost impossible to have a truly original thought. So does that let Sam Smith off the hook when it comes to Tom Petty? Well, Sam Smith and his co-writers let themselves off the hook by working out a supposedly friendly agreement with Petty, but does this deal open a brand new door to arguments and lawsuits over musical coincidences, providing undeserved writing credit to people who had nothing to do with a song other than having written something that sounds like it years ago in a different genre? While Stay with Me and I Won't Back Down have the same chorus progression, they don't sound alike, They're not alike in spirit. They don't evoke the same emotions -- and emotion is a huge part of music. Nirvana's Come As You Are and Killing Joke's Eighties may have the same basic progression, but they don't sound like the same song. (For the record, I'm a huge Killing Joke fan and Come As You Are is my favorite song on Nevermind and yet, until somebody told me, I never noticed the resemblance.) Likewise, Lady Antebellum's Need You Now may have the same basic chorus progression as Alan Parsons's Eye in the Sky but they're absolutely not the same song. One is melancholy and passionate, the other is prog-rock dreamy. Their DNA may be the same, but what sprung from it couldn't have been more different in the moods they evoked.
I've moved away from listening to a lot of KROQ here in L.A. because I began to notice a trend developing in alt-pop that annoyed the piss out of me: Every song seemed to have a refrain where the band or artist sang out an extended, "Whooa Ooooh Ahhhh Ohhhh," or something to that effect. It turns out I'm not wrong about that, since just yesterday the AV Club posted a clip somebody made that supercuts all the recent songs that do that, and there are dozens -- across several genres. If I wanted to be a surly Gen-X asshole, I'd say it's because the Millennial target audience for these songs doesn't actually bother with lyrics anymore since words and what they can convey don't mean as much in an era of 140-character attention spans and initialed, fragmented textspeak. Regardless, this is a musical trend, so you're getting a bunch of songs that really do sound exactly alike and no one seems to care. How can you really tell if something is plagiarized if everything already sounds alike and we've raised sampling and repurposing into its own accepted art form anyway?
I'd just come out and say that it's all been done, but as it turns out, that's a Barenaked Ladies song. I could say there's nothing new under the sun, but the Bible already took that. So what's left to say?