For centuries, art has been iterative. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818, and it was made into a play in 1927, which became a film in 1931, which became, you know, a bunch of other films and Halloween costumes. When Kanye West was first beginning his solo career, he did it largely on the back of his incredible beats and samples, which were taken from a huge array of soul and funk classics.
It’s just how art has always seemed to work. Someone writes a new work, and that inspires another one in someone else. Quentin Tarantino was obsessed with movies, and then he made movies that mash all of those influences together. Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain did it, too. Everyone seems to have been inspired by The Beatles, who themselves were inspired by Buddy Holly and Little Richard.
But lately, that legacy has been overwhelmed by a rash of lawsuits and settlements. The Marvin Gaye estate successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell for using elements of Gaye’s music in the hit, “Blurred Lines.” In the aftermath, the likes of Katy Perry and even Led Zeppelin have had to win in court over challenges alleging plagiarism. Even in those cases, the trials could be expensive and embarrassing, so the newest trend is to just settle and split songwriting credit.
Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson have had to add credits to “Uptown Funk” to avoid lawsuits, and more recently, teen superstar Olivia Rodrigo awarded songwriting credits to Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff, as well as Hayley Williams of Paramore and the band’s former guitarist Josh Farro. And I get it, I certainly want artists credited for their work, and I’m a huge fan of Paramore, Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff. But it strikes me that we’re on a dangerous path. There are only so many sounds, there are only so many chord progressions and melodies. Art has always been iterative, it just hasn’t always been so litigious. And none of these examples seem like actual “theft,” they feel like inspiration to my untrained ear.
These artists may be well within their rights to file lawsuits, demand co-writing credits and seek royalties, but that doesn’t necessarily make it feel any better to the fans. At the end of the day, artists form a community that is constantly giving and taking inspiration. I wish parodies, homage and inspiration could be celebrated, not beaten to a pulp.
Elvis Costello was recently notified on Twitter that Rodrigo also seems to have borrowed a guitar riff from his song “Pump it Up.” Costello responded by saying “It’s how rock and roll works. You take broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did.”
I wish more artists and artists’ estates could acknowledge that fact, too.
I’m Evan Rook.