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If the riff sounds familiar, well, that's the point

August 12, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

ELTON JOHN'S recent public outburst about the Internet's effect on pop -- he suggested that a five-year cyberspace shutdown might be the only way to renew the music's creativity -- was greeted with eye rolling and the general consensus that he should splurge on an iPod. But his consternation is understandable.

The music industry is in tatters; the noise that amateurs once kept to themselves emanates from every corner of cyberspace, and between the money-obsessed mainstream and the hype-addled underground, there's no agreement on what will endure. For a traditionalist like John, it's a scary time -- old standards are dying fast.

Consider one of the enduring myths of pop: that originality is paramount. This idea has always been pretty much a lie, given the history of music-making as a borrower's art. In an essay on the merits of playing copycat published in the February Harper's, Jonathan Lethem traced the origins of American pop to the "open source" culture of blues and jazz and noted that recording techniques, which allowed for literal duplication of sounds, have steadily enhanced the artful cribbing pop's innovators employ.

"As examples accumulate," Lethem writes, "it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production." (Lethem later reveals that he "stole, warped, and cobbled together" his entire essay, including this idea, which came from the book "Owning Culture" by Kembrew McLeod.)

Lethem's point might seem obvious to any sample-chasing hip-hop fan or Dylanologist who's traced the master's loving thefts over the decades. Yet the idea that a song or a sound can be unique remains potent, especially for musicians themselves. Artists like to believe their self-expression is really theirs; perhaps even more importantly, the financial structure of the music industry, which rewards creativity when it's copyrighted, has upheld the idea that one person can "own" a song.

Avril Lavigne is the latest allegedly unwitting magpie to suffer under this system. She's been accused of a host of rip-offs, including the chorus of her monster hit "Girlfriend," which so closely resembles a 1979 song by the power-pop band the Rubinoos that it's spurred a lawsuit. Lavigne's former collaborator, Chantal Kreviazuk, subsequently accused her of pilfering ideas (Kreviazuk recanted her accusation after Lavigne threatened to sue her). And then it surfaced that another new Lavigne song might not be so fresh: The beats and vocal cadence of "I Don't Have to Try" mirror those her fellow Canadian Peaches employed in 2003's "I'm the Kinda."

One would think a striver such as Lavigne would crumble under this scrutiny, but the very fans who've been eagerly tracing her transgressions are beginning to make a case for forgiving her. On YouTube, some videos make the argument that Lavigne is just part of a chain: A new single from "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens sounds uncannily like an older Lavigne hit, Mexican pop star Belinda is copping her style and -- hey, you! -- the Rubinoos borrowed their barking chorus from the Rolling Stones in the first place.

The Web as wet blanket

THIS is why the Internet is killing originality, as an idea, anyway: When every source is so easily available, no one can pretend they're alone. Scholars such as McLeod and Joanna Demers ("Steal This Music") have argued about the effects of copyright law on creativity, and last year Timothy English published "Sounds Like Teen Spirit," a compendium of too-close-for-comfort songs (did you know Nirvana might have re-purposed that famous opening riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling"?). But the written word is never as convincing as hearing the musical connections themselves, and the huge archive of recording available online allows for instant comparison.

Where once an old blues that Dylan borrowed from would be known by only the obsessive few, now anyone can argue about it in voluminous posts on the Expecting Rain message board. Hip-hop had already made the patchwork nature of pop obvious years before through the collage technique of sampling. Cyberspace has made everyone a participant in the DJ culture of "digging in the crates." Artists still might want to make music no one has heard before, but they're forced to admit that even their most creative moments are just part of a long chain.

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