Is Original Music A Myth?

Society has a funny way of allowing art to be treated as purely a product, to such an extent as to be hopelessly ridiculous.

An example of this has been recent news online, as Radiohead have apparently not sued/sued/want to sue/hate grotesquely/are indifferent to similarities drawn between their song ‘Creep’ and a song from Lana Del Ray’s recently released album Lust For Life – ‘Get Free’. Although this issue is being settled out of court, it has once again brought to attention the topic of so-called ‘copy-cat’ songs, where the line is, what is or isn’t worth suing someone over and asking the even bigger question: is it even possible to be truly original anymore?

As a songwriter and musician, I can empathise with the never-ending struggle for musical originality. With the ability to record music in note form and through word of mouth dating back thousands and thousands of years, the question really is how can I possibly write anything – any sequence of notes, of chords, rhythm that can be called unique to me – that no Edwardian composer or confused teen wailing in his room with a guitar has thought of before? Every musician feels this way. The battle for individuality within the world of art is hard enough, but true untouched originality in the world of music may just be impossible.

Songwriters should not be exploited. This point is incredibly important, especially in a time when musicians, composers and songwriters are so often exploited in the form of being underpaid, remaining uncredited or not paid anything at all. I’m first at the charity collection for hard-done-by-songwriters, but does that really justify policing music to the extent of having legal battles over similar chord progressions? As is often said, there are only ‘so many’ notes to choose from. This is an oversimplification, though – there are also only so many chords, so many instruments, so many ways of producing, only so many successful musicians to be inspired by that unless something is a clear and direct copy of another song, legal disputes simply come off as unnecessary.

The idea of music as something shared, something to be inspired by and to pay homage to is completely obliterated by crying ‘sound-alike’. There was a time where composers like Bach and his contemporaries stole whole melody lines and parts from each other before ‘improving’ on them; a time where competition was tough and yet each composer recognised their work as separate. No music was property, and composers saw their work as an opportunity for the development of music as a new student learns from a master’s life work before starting their own and so on. Music was a living thing fighting to grow and change and blur and go a bit mad for a while, openly admitting to ripping off Mozart at the same time.

Coming back to the Radiohead/Lana Del Ray scandal, the similarity is a chord progression in the chorus of both songs: G, B7, C and C minor. Because of how iconic Radiohead’s song is, you can immediately see this jarring similarity, yet Radiohead do not own that chord progression; they own ‘Creep’. There are many differences between the songs – the verses are different, the instrumentation is different, the vocal style is different, the lyrics are different, even the intent is different (in that Del Ray’s song completes her album and Radiohead’s song is a generation defining debut single). It is also important to note that Radiohead have already had issues with this song as they were sued for it sounding like the 1974 Hollies song ‘The Air That I Breathe’, proving that plagiarism claims can easily turn into a matter of chasing artists and songs further and further back until some Motown producer gets the lot.

Maybe Lana Del Ray was inspired by Radiohead (who isn’t?), maybe she wasn’t, but each instance of this sort of phenomenon should be looked at far more closely than they often are, considering the melody structure, the song as a whole and the relation of the artists. Listen to both songs, think about it and make up your own minds. It’ll be clear when someone is taking the piss, and there are so many examples of this in true consumeristic bubblegum pop and elsewhere that we really should be shouting about. And when such a case occurs and the artist hoping they don’t get caught gets caught, they should be challenged on it. I’m looking at you, George Harrison.


[Imogen Hay @ImogenIslay]




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