Originality in Music

In the past month there have been a number events and discussions that have centred on originality in music. The ‘Blurred Lines’ copyright case, and the NZ X-Factor judges debacle have brought attention to the idea of originality in music and musical performance. It is an interesting legal and artistic stance to promote and require ‘originality’ above all else. Originality is something that popular/jazz/rock/hip hop and other modern genres (as opposed to classical/art music) musicians concern themselves with for good reason- both legally and artistically. Being original means that you stand out as a performer and/or composer, gaining you an audience, popularity and perhaps fame and riches (if you’re really lucky!). Being original (hopefully) saves you the trouble of intellectual property/copyright cases such as the ‘Blurred Lines’ case- but it doesn’t always. Importantly the blurred line here is how much of what musicians do is actually ‘original’? How much can we ever say that there were no influences on a musician’s music, performance, dress or behaviour?

Let’s talk performance and dress/costuming for a moment and look at the NZ X-Factor judging debacle. I’m not going to talk about whether Natalia Kills was over the top and bullying or whether it was badly formed valid criticism, many other places have done that. What I want to focus on is the idea that Willy Moon’s look and performance style are original (in comparison to the poor contestant whom she ripped apart). As the central thesis of her argument Kills attempted to state that Moon’s performance and fashion style were the original and Joe Irvine was outright copying him. Now, putting aside the fact that they would have seen the styling going on in rehearsal and possibly in wardrobe and makeup, is either original? I would definitely say no, both Moon and Irvine (for this performance) were using their outfits to hark back to the Rat Pack styles of the late 1940s and 1950s: suit, skinny tie, slicked back hair, parted on the side, maybe with a quiff. Now perhaps the cut of the suit is slightly different now (what with suspenders going out of fashion), but really what they were both wearing on that night (and host Dominic Bowden as well) were what one might call the standard uniform of the Rat Packers circa 1955. Joe was performing ‘Cry Me A River’- attributed, by the way to Michael Bublé (and the performance was clearly inspired by him), but it is a far older song and has been performed by actual Rat Pack generation singers, and it should be noted that the song was written for Ella Fitzgerald, but made famous by Julie London.

So, we have a talent show contestant performing a mid-twentieth-century jazz ballad in the style of the Rat Packers, inspired by a singer who was himself inspired (overtly so) by the Rat Pack style of performance and fashion. Certainly not original, however, this doesn’t actually matter within the context either of a talent show or a pop performance. He was castigated for not being original by two judges who are neither original in their fashion (Natalia Kills is clearly inspired by Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, and Willie Moon by the Rat Pack), nor in their performance- you can clearly hear where they got their inspirations from in their music, and music videos.

So where’s the originality and does it matter?

Artistically speaking (leaving the legal issues aside), I don’t think it does. Songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote in his book Tunesmith- Inside the Art of Songwriting of a dinner he went to at friend’s house who happens to be a music publisher; at the end of the dinner the host pulled out a book he had compiled of what he boasted was “every melody every written” and bet Webb that Webb could name him a melody and he would be able to find a progenitor in this book. Webb readily agreed and proposed “By the Time I get to Phoenix”- after a considerable period of waiting while his friend trawled through this book said friend found a phrase by Puccini that, with the exception of one semi-quaver, was identical. As Webb goes on to say “In the pop music field begging, borrowing and stealing is so prevalent as to not even cause the proverbial eyebrow to be raised.”

In other words- melodically and harmonically everything’s been done before, and musician’s happily emulate other groups and ideas, and have done probably since the beginning of time. There are plenty of examples in classical music, in jazz, in pop music and hip-hop has practically built itself on the recontextualisation of other people’s music. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- it all comes down to the way you do it…and occasionally what you say afterwards (see Blurred Lines case and many others!). Estates of musicians notwithstanding (and you’ll note that many copyright cases come from people’s estates rather than the musician themselves), frequently musicians are happy if they’ve been credited or consulted in recordings- or in the cases of sampling that the appropriate fees have been paid.

So should we worry about ‘copying’ and ‘originality’ in music? Well, yes from a legal point of view (in other words make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed), but from an artistic point of view not so much. It’s always a good idea to run ideas past other people see if anyone goes ‘that sounds like x’, and then either make sure you’re going about things legally or change the idea, but the push to be ‘original’ is clearly a false idea. Do what you do and don’t worry if other people have looked, sounded or performed a particular way before- trends come and go and return- as witnessed by the Rat Packers, Michael Bublé and, yes, even Willy Moon. If anyone castigates you for it don’t worry just keep what on you’re doing with sincerity and integrity and you’ll find a way.

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