12 May 2009

Talent Borrows, Genius Steals?

Not everyone is raving about the new Green Day album; at least some of the folks over at the perennially cooler-than-everything (though they would go as one to their graves denying it) PPMB have some downright snarky and even hostile comments, complaining in this rapidly growing thread about everything from the album's length to its classic rock influences to the band's alleged tendency to borrow or "rip off" riffs and melodies from everyone who's made a record in the past 30 years, including themselves.

Personally, I don't take the rip off claims seriously at all. The majority of them involve someone claiming that the new album "sounds like" (insert name of famous and/or obscure band/rock star from the past). Are their echoes of sounds, themes, even melodies that others have previously worked with? Of course; that's the nature of popular music, of all music, in fact. Many of the most widely known bits from classical symphonies and operas had their origins in some popular but unrecorded peasant melody that the composer happened to overhear being whistled by the gardener or the washerwoman.

It's always tempting to drag out the old "Talent borrows, genius steals" refrain in discussions of this nature, but it would only muddy the issue. To suggest that Green Day, after a couple decades of producing hit records powered by incredibly infectious melodies and harmonies, would suddenly feel the need to rely for inspiration on the output of other, mostly less successful bands, kind of beggars belief. One also wonders why, if it's so "obvious" (at least according to some of the PPMB critics) that Green Day have stolen songs from other writers, nobody has ever successfully sued them for this alleged plagiarism. It's not as though superstars are invulnerable to this sort of thing; even the Beatles' George Harrison got nailed for plundering the "My Sweet Lord" riff from the earlier Chiffons hit, "He's So Fine." But apart from some English guy claiming (and failing) to prove that the song "Warning" (from the album of the same name) was copied from something he wrote, nobody has even tried it with Green Day.

In an era where practically everything that's ever been recorded is becoming easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection, it would seem crazy for songwriters even to try and get away with ripping off someone else's work, especially songwriters so famous that everything they create is under the public microscope. That's not to say that there aren't going to be inevitable similarities, whether conscious or not, between new songs and existing ones. The very nature of the medium, the finite number of chords, notes and lyrical themes virtually guarantees it. In my own songwriting, I've several times surprised myself by finding melodic or lyrical bits in one of my songs that would seem to have come straight out of someone else's song, in most cases one that I grew up listening to. Did I intend to borrow or steal that riff? Not at all; it's just that it was so ingrained in me that it had become part of my musical consciousness. And, to be fair, nobody else ever noticed it unless I pointed it out to them.

There have also been times that I deliberately tried to write a song in the style of a particular artist or genre. Again, not to rip anyone off, but for artistic purposes: typically I wanted to evoke something from that era, as in the case of a song called "1973", where I was telling a story of something that had happened to me in the fading days of the glam-rock era, or to tip my hat and pay some homage, as with what some deemed my excessive Smiths-worship in the later Potatomen era.

Speaking of the Potatomen, I just remembered a time when I was working on a new song while driving up north to Arcata to meet Green Day, and when I got there, I quite excitedly said, "Hey, guys, listen to this riff I made up." Within about 20 seconds, Mike said, "Dude, that's 'Freebird'."

And it was, if you only looked at the chords from the first couple lines. The thing was, I barely knew the song "Freebird" (I mean, sure, I'd heard it, but I was more familiar with wiseasses shouting out requests for it at concerts than with actually listening to it), didn't know how the chords went (at least not until Mike pointed this out), and had absolutely no intention of copying it for my song, which in any event was a totally different type of song ("The Loneliest Boy In The World", which only real Potatomen connoisseurs will recognize, since it was never released on a record).

So was I guilty of ripping off "Freebird"? Should I have changed something about the chords or the arrangement? No, of course not, and we played the song for the next several years without a single person apart from Mike ever commenting on the similarity. Which should prove at least two things: as long as you're working in the field of three or four-chord pop songs, there's going to be a certain amount of duplication (and triplication and quadruplication), and that you shouldn't try to slip any purloined melodies or riffs past Mike from Green Day.


Frederick said...

The majority of the flak the boys are getting is solely because they are Green Day. If it were a handful of different bands that have cred with the Bored it wouldn't be an issue.
I'd be wary of any person who thinks this album is shit.

redrumwriter63 said...

It seems some people will try to say anything to prove how hard core and musically inclined they are (not).