We recently saw the release of new albums from Jack White and The Black Keys (events which readers of this site should be very much well-aware), and while we were happy to hear new music from these great artists, that was not all that returned. If you were to read up on any of the news surrounding these releases or the reviews themselves, you were bound to find the same tired joke/trope/criticism in every piece: these artists were merely “ripping off” old music. Often this would be accompanied by the added attack that these were white men getting rich off of black music. While there is an element of truth to this, it’s time to stop resorting to this same hackneyed cliche.
In the past, this was once a novel and significant complaint. There were vast amounts of people that had overlooked or were ignorant of the exploitation of artists throughout our history, and this form of criticism helped illuminate the struggle they endured. It’s why Chuck D’s lyric that “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” could strike a chord with so many people, both in the fierce resistance by some of an attack on their idol, but also by the support of other communities who could point to how they were left out in the process of cultural appropriation.
It’s taken for granted at this point by many that Elvis built his “revolutionary” rock’n’roll sound off the rhythm and blues music of contemporary black artists like Little Richard. But this attitude that Elvis “stole” black music is an ultimately shallow analysis and illustrates a pointlessly reductive attitude. It’s a charge made without context. Elvis acknowledged the influence of black music and performers throughout his career, and made sure to point it out to others; his career shouldn’t be viewed in the same way as say, Pat Boone’s.
The problem with approaching music in only this way is that it completely reduces the role of the performer. A song is made up of several components, from the chord changes to the rhythmic patterns to the lyrical content and so on. While the strength of one part may dominate over the others, to rely solely on that part would make for boring and crappy music. The fact that we have a whole feature on this site (Covered) where we analyze different performances of the same song helps emphasize this point. Personal interpretation as well as individual technical skill are both vitally important elements and can significantly change the effectiveness of a song.
[This is where I would put up a video clip of the scene from Spinal Tap where the band spontaneously begins singing “Heartbreak Hotel” at Elvis’s grave, but you’ll have to make do with just the audio.]
The focus on deconstruction of the elements of a song to a simple common origin ignores the collaborative nature of music, and how new works of art are always indebted in some way to past works. New music is built on the ideas of old music, often through slight tweaks or modifications. A slight change may seem insignificant on paper, but the effects in reality are often significant–by changing the emphasis of the beat, you can switch a polka (hit the 1 and 3) into a rock song (hit the 2 and 4). Therefore to identify a song as employing a traditional 12-bar blues structure and then calling it a day is ridiculous. It invites the assumption that we have already found the One True Blues Song, and everything post Robert Johnson has been a waste of time.
You can play this game with just about any artist. The Ramones play sped-up Beach Boys songs, Nirvana is a slicker version of the Pixies, Rachmaninoff puts the bombast of Beethoven and the lyrical romanticism of Chopin in a blender, and so on. I’ve been guilty of this myself, namely when I complain that the EDM scene today is solely a rehash of the work Aphex Twin did over a decade ago, that it’s just “Windowlicker” with a heavy dose of “Come to Daddy”. But why limit ourselves to music? I mean, there’s no need for new video games when we already have “Pong”. And for that matter, what are you doing on your computer, when you have a perfectly good television over there? It doesn’t take much to show that the entire exercise is pointless.
None of this is to say that “rip-offs” don’t exist; artists still have to contribute something to the exercise. But pointing out that elements of a song bear a resemblance to previously recorded music is not an end in and of itself. Because Television used the double-hit ringing guitar in “Marquee Moon”, does that mean that Interpol can’t use a similar figure in “Obstacle 1”? It should be obvious to any listener that the two bands achieve different results using the same concept, with each having their own merits.
This should be just as clear with Jack White and The Black Keys. Yes, they are heavily indebted to old styles (namely the blues, but country and folk play roles as well) and they wear influences on their sleeves, but to deny the fact that each of them add significant personal twists on old ideas is idiotic. They’re also ready and willing to point out their influences and to try and convince their audience to check them out–Jack White is quick to mention Son House, and The Black Keys released an EP of Junior Kimbrough covers.
The “rip-off” argument at this point is close to outliving its usefulness, and comes off now as lazy and a desperate attempt to impress others with the appearance of some music knowledge. Hopefully we’ll see the end of it soon.