On Stolen Songs, Snowflakes, Fingerprints, and DNA

We’ve all done it—heard a new song that’s clearly inferior to the music we came of age to, and cried foul.  The “ripped off song” even seems to have become its own YouTube genre at this point.  One of my favorites is this one: 

If you didn’t bother to view it, I can sum it up here.  Thirty-four songs—James Blunt, You’re Beautiful; Richard Marx, Waiting for You; Alicia Keyes, No one; Mika, Happy Ending; Amiel, Lovesong; Black Eyed Peas, Where is the Love?; Alex Lloyd, Amazing; The Calling, Wherever You Will Go; Bush, Glycerine;  Thirsty Merc, Twenty Good Reasons; Lighthouse Family, High; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul to Squeeze; Bic Runga, Sway; Ben Lee, Cigarettes; Maroon 5, She Will Be Loved; U2, With or Without You; Crowded House, Fall at Your Feet; Casey Chambers, Not Pretty Enough; The Beatles, Let it Be; Red Hot Chili Peppers [again?], Under the Bridge; Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror; Elton John, Can You Feel the Love Tonight; Men at Work, Down Under; Banjo Patterson, Waltzing Matilda; A-Ha, Take On Me; Eagle Eye Cherry, Save Tonight; Toto, Africa; The Offspring, Self Esteem; Blink 182, Dammit; One Republic, Apologize; Tim Minchin, Canvas Bags; Natalie Imbruglia, Torn; and Missy Higgins, Scar [whew!] are all stealing Journey, Don’t Stop Believing,

Although it’s hard to see how the artists who wrote their songs before 1981 could have stolen anything, it’s smart.  And funny.  And accurate.  And, for YouTube, exceptionally well done. 

Yet Axis of Awesome, the group behind the video, must also understand, since they also included their own song, Birdplane (thirty-five songs, then), in the medley, the following problems:

1) These songs are all using a standard, conventional rock chord progression.  What they’re calling a stolen song is really just called a rock song.  Would anyone create a medley of blues songs and say, “They’re all following the same pattern!”  (Blues songs all follow the same twelve-bar pattern; it’s what makes them recognizably blues songs.)  If we keep the same chords here—in the key of C, it would be C/G/Am/F—and were a little more flexible, we could in fact include all of the blues (C/F/C/G/F/C, with occasional variations),  all 1950s doo wop and adaptations (C/Am/F/G), and, really, most of pop music (C/G/F, which covers everything from Wild Thing to Hang on Sloopy to What’s the Frequency, Kenneth).

 2) In their original and complete forms, these songs sound much less alike then when reworked, restructured, rerecorded, decontextualized, and resung by the same singers over the same tempo accompanied by the same piano.

Yet in fairness, other videos, like this and this, understand a lot less about music.  But at least they leave the original recording, so that you can hear, however briefly, that once the vocal comes in, or the song changes to the next section, all of a sudden, the songs don’t sound that much alike anymore.

My favorite—and, with 10,000,000 hits, clearly other people’s favorite, though, is this one:

Here, comedian Rob Paravonian makes a similar point as Axis of Awesome, about the humorous but relentless similarities between pop songs, here framed as Pachobel’s personal  conspiracy against him. But even he takes some liberties with the songs; again, it’s the same person singing over the same guitar, sometimes as few as a single line to make his point.

This is not to say that any similarities between any songs are OK.  In the 1950s, white artists like The Beach Boys and Pat Boone certainly did rip off black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, respectively.  (Perhaps more in another post.) And it’s funny that Green Day, in many ways a more interesting and original band than the hipsters give them credit for, seems to wind up on these lists an awful lot.  

But still, if people are so quick to judge songs as derivative, why are we also so eager to declare people’s uniqueness?  Aside from the occasional Chuck Palahniuk character, most of us heartily believe that we’re special and unique.  Unique like fingerprints, even though fingerprints are all nearly exactly the same and their uniqueness only comes into play if you’ve, say, committed a jewel heist.  Unique as snowflakes, although all snowflakes are all white and all cold and all too small to see the differences and all melt too fast to really compare them anyway and for any practical purposes are all interchangeable.  In sum, Everyone agrees that Everyone is unique. Which is not very unique of Everyone.   Fight Club’s Tyler Durden seems to be unique in his opinion that we’re not unique.  And he’s [spoiler alert! That’s right, I’m giving away the end of Fight Club! Um, you have had thirteen years to see it, people] a figment of the narrator’s psychosis, not a real person at all. And a fictional character on top of that.  

I can already picture a Youtube video montage of random people, scrolling through faces that stole the idea of having two eyes, and one nose, and a mouth with lips AND teeth.  Barring accident or abnormality, it turns out that people are like fingerprints and snowflakes: they’re all mostly the same. 

THE MOST STOLEN FACE IN HISTORY!

But despite the overwhelming similarities, I do believe that we’re really all different, beyond fingerprints, beyond gender, race, color, size, clique, style, and the other ways in which people vary. Because we are all truly unique at the genetic level, our DNA representing the chord progressions of our lives, the similar-yet-a-little-different sequences that make us who we are. 

I’m no biologist, so I know I’m oversimplifying and maybe getting some things wrong, but it seems to me that humans are essentially  structured like a song: our DNA is composed (music/biology overlapping word) of only four different bases (basses? OK, a stretch), abbreviated, like chords, by a letter: adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).  And DNA also like a song, creates difference through sequence and pattern.  No, there’s no T chord, but if you go with the letter F instead, and make A into A minor, you have the famous progression, C/G/Am/ F—the same one in Don’t Stop Believin’, the Most Stolen Song.  Yes, it’s a stretch (it is T, not F).  And a coincidence, even if you accept the stretch. 

But a song’s uniqueness is very much like each person’s—similarly patterned, generally unsurprising, but also recognizable, the same way in which we instantly greet our friends, family, and loved ones without each time thinking that their faces all form the same boring pattern.  A great example for me is Glen Hansard’s Falling Slowly, from the movie Once.

It’s that same chord progression again—mostly C/F/C/G, with occasional Am, almost a melancholy version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  But like the people most important to us, it also feels like the only one if its kind: heartfelt, occasionally surprising (the falsetto leap on the word “time“), and, as we all aspire toward, unique.  

Time: over again! 70 minutes.

Jesse Kavadlo

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2 thoughts on “On Stolen Songs, Snowflakes, Fingerprints, and DNA

  1. Al Kavadlo says:

    This is my favorite blog post of yours so far, Jesse! It includes all your best topics: pop music, fight club and, of course, the ubiquitous human struggle to find ones individuality while simultaneously trying to fit in.

  2. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks, Al. I write about what I’m thinking, but it’s interesting that specific themes and even structures seem to be emerging, seemingly outside of my control. I’m already planning a self-evaluation, or a “What I Learned from Blogging,” when I hit six months in May or June.

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