Art Isn't Created in a Vacuum: Here Are a Few of My Favorite Songs That Sound the Same

Can anyone make art that is truly original, and does it even matter if they can't?
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Claire Lower
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Can anyone make art that is truly original, and does it even matter if they can't?

You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to the first ten seconds of “Under Pressure.” It’s not the biggest deal if they misidentify it as “Ice Ice Baby”; the openings of the two songs sound almost identical. However, it is a big deal if they are disappointed that what follows those first 10 seconds isn't “Ice Ice Baby.”

Not because I hold any ill will towards Vanilla Ice (at least he eventually gave Queen and Bowie their song writing credits), but because "Under Pressure" is a much better song. (Worst case scenerio: someone who had only heard "Ice Ice Baby," and didn't know it was derivative of "Under Pressure.")

Depending on when you were born, the above is probably your most famous point of reference of a performing artist trying to "steal" from another performing artist. But each case is usually more complicated than it originally appears, and discussions surrounding them usually end up with someone asking the following: Can anyone make art that is truly original, and does it even matter if they can't?

Two recent events got me thinking about similarities in art, mostly in music. There the was whole Tom Petty/Sam Smith incident over "Stay with Me," which ended up working out okay and having no effect on his chances at winning a Grammy.  And, on a lighter note, a YouTube video highlighting the insane amount of sonic similarity between six different country songs.

The similarities between Sam Smith's "Stay with Me" and Petty's "I Won't Back Down" seems to be an honest mistake, though I find the claim that the writers of "Stay with Me" were "not previously familiar with the 1989 Petty/Lynne song," a little hard to believe. The matter was settled amicably, and both Petty and Lynne now have co-writing credits (and Petty seems pretty amicable about it), but the whole thing is interesting in that Petty doesn't usually make a "big deal" out of this type of thing. (The Red Hot Chili Peppers were accused of plagiarizing "Mary Jane's Last Dance," while The Strokes have openly admitted to taking a riff from "American Girl." Petty took no legal action in either case.)

If you're around my age, you probably remember there being some kerfuffle between The Verve and The Rolling Stones over the sampling of an orchestral version of "The Last Time" in "Bittersweet Symphony." The Stones didn't have much to do with it. They couldn't have. Most of the songs written by The Stones before 1971 don't belong to them, but to ABKCO as a result of a deal made to get out from under Allen Klein.

It was Klein that went after The Verve, claiming that they had taken more from the song than the agreed upon five-note portion. Instead of engaging in a long legal battle with Klein (who was known for his aggressive and ethically questionable business tactics) the band settled out of court, handing over 100 percent of their royalties. It completely ruined them, and is perhaps one of the saddest stories in the history of sampling.

I don't believe that The Verve set out to steal from ABKCO or The Rolling Stones. (That would be, in a word: stupid.) But the whole topic of "sampling," "stealing," and "influencing" is a tricky discussion. Nothing is created in a vacuum and almost all art is derivative of something else. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if due credit is given. In my mind, there are various levels or "songs sounding like other songs." There are homages, samplings, blatant rip-offs, honest mistakes, and so many in betweens.

There are a lot of ways to categorize musical overlap, and I don't think there's a particular "solution" or that it's necessarily a "problem," but I do think it's interesting to think and talk about. Some of my favorite songs sound like other favorite songs of mine. Some are obvious and intentional on the artist's part and some similarities may exist only in my weird brain. (It should be noted that I have taken exactly one introductory music theory class and forgotten all of it.) 

"Mind Your Own Business" by Hank Williams and "Put Down the Duckie" from Sesame Street

One night, I was sipping bourbon and listening to Hank — minding my own business, if you will — when I was struck with the notion that I had heard a cover of this song long ago. I eventually sorted out that I wasn't thinking of a cover, but of a a song I had heard in my childhood called "Put Down the Duckie," wherein a Muppet Owl instructs Ernie that he needs to put down his bath toy if he ever wishes to play jazz sax. (It's actually pretty deep, man.)

After a little googling, it would seem that I am the only one that this has ever occurred to. I would file this under "coincidence," as the melodies aren't identical, they just sound really similar (to me, at least).

"Hitchhike" by Marvin Gaye (and as covered by The Rolling Stones) and "There She Goes Again" by The Velvet Underground (just the very beginning of each)

Nobody stole anything in either of these cases. The Stones covered Martin Gaye's song on their 1965 album, Out of Our Heads, and though The Velvet Underground credits Gaye with the use of the opening syncopated guitar riff, it's interesting that it sounds much more similar to the Stones version than Gaye's. I had listened to the songs separately for years without noticing how similar they were, but it wasn't until I put them both on the same playlist that I realized the openings were practically identical.

It's an interesting gray area. Though the Stones didn't write the riff, they certainly put their spin on the cover, and that iteration is what the Velvet Underground used in "There She Goes Again." It seems like Jagger/Richards deserve some credit, even though they didn't provide anything truly original.

"I'm a Cuckoo" by Belle & Sebastian and "The Boys Are Back In Town" by Thin Lizzie

The similarity here is no mistake. Belle & Sebastian have never been shy about their influences and the "I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy, oh" lyric is their way of letting you know that they know what they're doing. Stuart Murdoch does something similar in "Piazza, New York Catcher," with the lyric "You'd settle for an epitaph like 'Walk Away, Renee.' " I've always enjoyed finding self-aware, referential bits in songs, so I love this type of thing. 

piazza new york catcher live

Murdoch singing "Piazza, New York Catcher" at House of Blues, Orlando.

That being said, "I'm a Cuckoo" has always reminded me a bit of Jackson Browne — not a specific song, but just his sound.

"Father and Son" by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) and "Fight Test" by The Flaming Lips

This one actually breaks my heart. I love The Flaming Lips — or at least I love everything up until Embryonic — but I cannot for the love of anything understand why they didn't contact Yusuf Islam's lawyers before releasing "Fight Test." (It makes me particularly sad because it's one of my favorite Flaming Lips songs, except that it isn't, technically.)

Funny story: I used to think that "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin was "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens, causing me to idiotically proclaim "I don't think they sound the same!" whenever the subject was broached.(Oops.) But once I got that sorted out, I realized that whether they meant to or not, The Flaming Lips had stolen the melody from "Father and Son." 

(I've always thought this song sounded a lot like "Father and Son" as well, but much less so.)

"More Than a Feeling" by Boston, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, and "Song 2" by Blur

It's really just that one, very basic guitar riff, and I only noticed because Chuck Klosterman said something about it in his book, Eating the Dinosaur. It's not like Cobain wasn't aware of it, he's said to have done it on purpose, and used to play Boston-Nirvana mashups at his shows.

I could go on for a while like this, but was, of course, interested in what songs some of the other xoWriters and staffers had always thought sounded the same.

Natalie:

"YESYESYES I have one! 'Uptown Funk' sounds EXACTLY like The Really Wild Show theme tune. It was a kids' show that was on when I was growing up. LISTEN!!!"

Hannah:

The newish War On Drugs song "Red Eyes," to me, sounds so much like Bruce's "I'm On Fire." At least you can tell that's what they're going for. 

Jennifer (Jane's assistant):

I always thought that Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" is very close to Madonna's "Express Yourself." 

So, those are some of our favorite examples. Do you have any favorite songs that sound the same? Do you think there's any truly original art anymore? Am I tripping many balls or does "Put Down the Duckie" sound like "Mind Your Own Business"?