Music is a process of copying, borrowing, growing, evolving
College students scream the words to Sublime’s “What I Got,” plastic red cups (filled with God knows what) in hand as Friday night fades away. Parents relax on the back patio of suburbia as Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” eases from the family turntable. Nightclubs thump as Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” pounds, instantly getting people off their asses and to the dance floor.
So what’s the big deal? Every group has a “staple” song, one that defines the band. But what would we think if we knew that all three of these staple songs — and many others — were not as original as we thought? It just so happens that the melody to “What I Got” is lifted from The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” “This Land Is Your Land” is really a Baptist hymn, recorded previously by The Carter Family. “Gold Digger,” though less subtle, samples the Ray Charles number “I Got a Woman,” which itself was borrowed from the gospel tune “Jesus Is All the World to Me.”
Crap. So three of my favorite songs aren’t even “the real thing.” They’re fake. Screw Sublime. Damn Woodie Guthrie. Yet another uncool move by Kanye, but I guess that’s expected. Even Ray Charles! The one guy who everyone thought had the right to be singing the blues is jacking his material from other people. I’m pissed.
But let’s take a step back here before we get all worked up. Should the fact that these songs don’t belong to these artists make a difference in how we evaluate them? Not necessarily. People are stealing music left and right, as we can see. But if we don’t care about who wrote the song, and the melody of these covers is the same as the original version, what do we care about?
Besides the bare essentials of the song (the melody and chord changes), there are two critical components to consider: style and personality. Style pertains to the factors that are crucial in helping answer questions like, “In what section of Tower Records would I find this band?” and “What type of vibe is the artist trying to give off?” Style is crunchy guitars in Metallica’s Master of Puppets. A rainy day in Pittsburgh might call for the murky, brooding style of Interpol’s “NYC.”
Personality is much harder to define and assess than style, simply because it comes in so many more forms than style does. Personality answers questions like, “What is the artist trying to say?” and, “Just who is this guy that I’m listening to?” Personality allows us to trust the artist, to see their world and their ideas. It’s the force that makes you pick that ’fro out when Sly Stone yelps, “Daaance to the music!” When Chuck D from Public Enemy raps, “911 is a joke,” it’s his convictive personality that makes you question modern authority figures. It’s a powerful thing, this music.
So next time you crank a tune at a party, put on fluffy headphones before you go to bed, or just kick it in the dorm, don’t fret over who wrote the song or who has the right to be playing what. Does this music resonate with you, or not?