Monday, January 26, 2015

A Defense of Sam Smith (by a Tom Petty Fan)

Admittedly, I am not a fan of Sam Smith--not that I dislike his music, it's just not my thing. Now that it has come to light that the popular British singer has to pay royalties to Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne for the similarities between Smith's song, "Stay with Me" and Petty's song, "I Won't Back Down," it doesn't really set me against Smith, either.

(follow the link to hear a comparison between the two songs.)

Now, don't get me wrong, I am a Tom Petty fan, and as such, that is where my loyalties lie; however, it is entirely possible that Smith and his co-songwriters didn't know that they were plagiarizing the Petty/Lynne composition, and that it is an honest coincidence. After all, this was entirely settled out of court, and they readily acknowledged the similarities.

There are Only so Many Notes

As a songwriter myself (though not nearly as good or as successful as either party involved), I can surely relate to this situation. You want to think that what you are writing is your original idea--your lyrics, your melodies--but, with a limited number of notes, scales, and chords, there are only so many melodies out there to capture and call your own.

In fact, western music is structured around only 12 total notes, so there is bound to be some overlap--especially when only certain combinations of those 12 notes seem to really widely connect with people. According to this article, there are literally thousands of songs based off of four chord progressions.

Not to mention, with the inception of hip hop, sampling others' songs--that is, actually taking a snippet of someone's song and using it in your own--has become a tradition. While some purists are against this, many would argue that there is an art to it, and in fact, even though a song features a sample from another song, it doesn't make it any less musical. Just don't let P. Diddy (or whatever the Hell he goes by nowadays) sample any more Led Zeppelin songs.

Seriously though, if Diddy can get away with that, and sampling is generally considered okay, why vilify Smith for an honest coincidence?

He is (By Far) Not Alone

It's not like he pulled a Vanilla Ice.

As you are probably aware, Vanilla Ice's song, "Ice Ice Baby," contains a sample of the Queen and David Bowie song, "Under Pressure." However, he didn't get permission to use it, and in spite of Vanilla Ice's denial--at the time--he was still successfully sued by Queen, and has to pay royalties to the band for his obvious copying of their song.

And Vanilla Ice is by far not the first to be accused of plagiarism. In fact, some of the biggest rock stars of all time have also been accused of it.

For example, Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarizing the opening to "Stairway to Heaven" from the Spirit song, "Taurus." While the courts have yet to make a ruling on this case, one can listen to the songs and see where the comparison is justifiable.

While not discussed very much today, in 1976, George Harrison, a freakin' Beatle, was sued for the "subconscious plagiarism" of his song, "My Sweet Lord." He claims to have used the melody of an old, uncopyrighted Christian hymn, "Oh Happy Day"; however, as the courts ruled, there is a definite similarity to the Chiffons song, "He's so Fine"--written by Ronnie Mack.

Of course, they probably both have the same source material, but Ronnie Mack was the first to do it, which is why Harrison ran into trouble.

Wait Until the Dust Clears

Maybe due to his reaction, and the obviousness of the act, Vanilla Ice is the only one of those three examples whose reputation has really suffered long-term effects due to the plagiarism accusation.

While Led Zeppelin has long been accused of the act, only recently has it gone to court (see this NPR story on the case), and the band is still one of the most popular rock bands in the world, which is evidenced by the fact that, as recently as last year, it was rumored that the surviving band members were offered $800 million to tour (which Robert Plant, supposedly, rejected).

Harrison's case was widely publicized at the time, but his reputation hasn't really suffered, and I would argue that his song, "My Sweet Lord," has probably even eclipsed the Chiffons' song in lasting popularity.

So, before you go and judge Sam Smith--if that is your inclination--just remember that he is by far not alone.

(Note: while familiar both the Vanilla Ice and George Harrison examples, I did use the "Ice Ice Baby" and "My Sweet Lord" Wikipedia pages to verify my information and find specific names/dates.)

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