Elvis Costello Doesn't Care That A Pop Star Copied His Riffs; Says Every Musician Does That

from the good-for-him dept

Is there any cooler musician than Elvis Costello? Honestly, one of the more annoying things about writing about the ins-and-outs of copyright law and creativity is realizing just how many of my artistic (music, filmmaking, writing, etc.) heroes turns out to have absolutely dreadful opinions about creativity and inspiration, often ignoring how they got to where they got, and instead focusing on pulling up the ladder behind them and squeezing as much cash as possible out of others. So I’m always concerned when I learn about musician I like opining on these issues — especially over the last few years. You had the Marvin Gaye Estate cash in on a pop song that didn’t copy any Gaye song, but just had a similar “feel.” And that opened the doors to a whole bunch of similar lawsuits of aging rockers (or their estates) demanding money from newer artists.

But Elvis Costello apparently has decided to take the much more sane, much more creative, and much more supportive route. A few different artists have started whining about a new album by Olivia Rodrigo. It started with Courtney Love complaining about the promo artwork on Rodrigo’s new album being somewhat similar to Hole’s album “Live Through This.”

To be fair, Love didn’t get that upset, admitting “It happens all the time to me,” but she did call it “stealing” and saying that “not asking permission is rude” and “bad form.” I don’t think it’s any of those things. At most it seems like an homage. It might also be kind of an accident. The two sets of images are not really that close. And this is disappointing to see from Love, who twenty years ago famously wrote up one of the greatest screeds mocking record labels and the RIAA for their reaction to the internet.

But, then someone noticed that Rodrigo’s music also seemed to have homages in it. Billy Edwards said that her song “Brutal” seemed to be a “direct lift” from Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up.” Listening to one after the other, you can definitely hear the similarities in the guitar riff, even though the songs themselves are extremely different.

But… rather than freak out about it, Elvis Costello stepped in on Twitter to make it clear that (1) he’s fine with it, and (2) this is how music works. Indeed, he points out that it’s how he wrote some of his own songs as well — “you take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy.”

In fact, with the hashtags on that tweet, Costello notes that Pump It Up is itself a kind of remix of Bob Dylan’s famous Subterranean Homesick Blues, which itself was inspired by Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business.

As Costello rightly notes, this is how music works. Artists build on ideas of what’s come before. It’s homage, and how creativity works. You take ideas and inspiration from those who came before, and then you make your own thing out of it. And, in the long run, everyone does benefit. New fans learn the new songs — and as they get deeper into it it also helps them rediscover the pieces on which it was built as well. Only foolish people think that creativity springs forth disconnected from all else — or that every single inspiration must get a piece of whatever successful ideas newer artists come up with.

So, kudos to Elvis Costello for being quite clear in recognizing the nature of creativity, inspiration, and homage.

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Comments on “Elvis Costello Doesn't Care That A Pop Star Copied His Riffs; Says Every Musician Does That”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Mind blown

Wait wait wait, do you mean to tell me that musicians don’t just appear out of thin air, having developed their own music and styles completely unaided and with no influence from those around them and those that came before? That instead they are shaped and guided by the music that they grow up surrounded by and naturally incorporate bits and pieces into their own works, whether consciously or not, creating new music of their own that builds upon what came before just as those previous works build upon what was before them and therefore it is not only natural but entirely expected that there would be similarities?

Learn something new every day…

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Mind blown

Why, it’s almost as though creativity is a collaborative effort and not something that people do on their own!

I dare anyone to name a work that wasn’t at least partially inspired by something that came before it. In fact, I encourage they name specific works. It will be fun explaining the influences and "homages" to them.

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Bobvious says:

Re: Re: Mind blown

Here’s a specific example:

Haven’t you noticed how all those copyright lawsuits use completely new words in every suit? Not a single word has been reused from any other lawsuit, or document on the planet, ever. The creativity of these lawyers is amazing.

Of course we have to credit them for working with those musicians who had the fortune to have been born into a totally music-free and influence-free existence, then remained in that bubble until the moment they start to write songs, and then STILL remain completely unaware of any other music on the planet.

No 4/4 and C major for these people. They can come up with new time signatures like pi/7 and keys like K flarp. That’s why were all so impressed that it sounds like nothing else that we’ve heard, because no-one else has ever written anything even remotely like it.

Of course this only applies to those artists who work with the major labels. Everyone else is a born plagiariser.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Mind blown

"If not excised in some manner, culture will die and the world’s of Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brazil, Neuromancer , Robocop, Max Headroom et al will come into fruition."

Humans can put up with almost any conditions, no matter how inhumane, before rising up. As long as conditions degrade gradually, that is; witness the USSR or most of the revolutionary history of China, Europe and Africa.

Where copyright is concerned a safety vent exists. Copying media is still as easy as breathing, meaning that the laws surrounding it, albeit obnoxious in the extreme, has few severe effects as it’s casually ignored in the same manner as jaywalking.

When copyright causes serious effects it’s normally unrelated to entertainment media; Both Erdogan of Turkey and a German intelligence agency have used copyright to circumvent freedom of speech and freedom of information laws.

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Anonymous Coward says:

this applys to comicbook s, tv,movies, how many ideas and tropes appear in many tv shows,
italian gangster,mexican bandit,superhero who has a mysterious past,buddy cop duo,

every creative person is influenced by the music ,tv, movies they grow up with.
theres a limited range of notes and chords that can be used in pop music.
it would be very hard to create an album thats totally new with no influence
from anyone else

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There’s always the seven basic plots theory:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots

Also, if people want to claim that merely coming up with a sequence of notes first should be able to claim all ownership on that sequence forever should understand that they live in an era where computers can work out every possible combination quite easily.

"theres a limited range of notes and chords that can be used in pop music."

Any music. I’m no expert but I believe that the number of combinations that are catchy and memorable vs. the ones that are nightmarishly discordant are quite ow.

"it would be very hard to create an album thats totally new with no influence
from anyone else"

Many of the greatest bands in history started as cover bands. Most "overnight successes" spent years trying out new songs and took cues from how people reacted to new songs vs. the ones they knew.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"theres a limited range of notes and chords that can be used in pop music."

Any music. I’m no expert but I believe that the number of combinations that are catchy and memorable vs. the ones that are nightmarishly discordant are quite ow.

Not "any music"; Arabic music goes within the 12 notes and into the microtones.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

And if you don’t want to listen to the whole song and try and figure out all the songs in "4 Chords", here is the list:

SONGS in 4 CHORDS
Journey — "Don’t Stop Believing"
James Blunt — "You’re Beautiful"
Black Eyed Peas — "Where Is the Love"
Alphaville — "Forever Young"
Jason Mraz — "I’m Yours"
Train — "Hey Soul Sister"
The Calling — "Wherever You Will Go"
Elton John — "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" (from The Lion King)
Akon — "Don’t Matter"
John Denver — "Take Me Home, Country Roads"
Lady Gaga — "Paparazzi"
U2 — "With Or Without You"
The Last Goodnight — "Pictures of You"
Maroon Five — "She Will Be Loved"
The Beatles — "Let It Be"
Bob Marley — "No Woman No Cry"
Marcy Playground — "Sex and Candy"
Men At Work — "Land Down Under"
Theme from America’s Funniest Home Videos
Jack Johnson — "Taylor"
Spice Girls — "Two Become One"
A Ha — "Take On Me"
Green Day — "When I Come Around"
Eagle Eye Cherry — "Save Tonight"
Toto — "Africa"
Beyonce — "If I Were A Boy"
Kelly Clarkson — "Behind These Hazel Eyes"
Jason DeRulo — "In My Head"
The Smashing Pumpkins — "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"
Joan Osborne — "One Of Us"
Avril Lavigne — "Complicated"
The Offspring — "Self Esteem"
The Offspring — "You’re Gonna Go Far Kid"
Akon — "Beautiful"
Timberland featuring OneRepublic — "Apologize"
Eminem featuring Rihanna — "Love the Way You Lie"
Bon Jovi — "It’s My Life"
Lady Gaga — "Pokerface"
Aqua — "Barbie Girl"
Red Hot Chili Peppers — "Otherside"
The Gregory Brothers — "Double Rainbow"
MGMT — "Kids"
Andrea Bocelli — "Time To Say Goodbye"
Robert Burns — "Auld Lang Syne"
Five for fighting — "Superman"
The Axis of Awesome — "Birdplane"
Missy Higgins — "Scar"

Anonymous Coward says:

Elvis Costello stepped in on Twitter to make it clear that (1) he’s fine with it

Does this matter, though? I recall various musicians, filmmakers, and authors saying they don’t mind unauthorized filesharing—but, often, they’ve sold their rights to some other company who can sue regardless of that opinion.

CyberKender says:

If memory serves....

Larry Niven, many years ago, wrote a short story about a world where copyright had been extended to perpetuity, and the main character’s goal was to get the government to overturn this, as there were only so many possible combinations of the number of notes in music. A bit prescient…

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BernardoVerda (profile) says:

Re: If memory serves....

I suspect you mean the story Melancholy Elephants, by author Spider Robinson.

It’s a good story, and it should be a standard reference in these kinds of discussions.

If you haven’t read it already, here’s a link to an online version (helpfully provided by the author himself).

http://spiderrobinson.com/melancholyelephants.html

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is how music works. This is how all creativity works. All human thought ever is based on that which came before. And the moment someone refers to it as "stealing" or similar self-entitled hypocrisy, they instantly and permanently lose all credibility in my eyes.

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Bloof (profile) says:

One thing I was surprised to discover when teaching myself to play a musical instrument as an adult was how similar a lot of popular songs really are when you break them down, how many are just the same four chords. You can vary the order, the strumming pattern, but using those basic building blocks, you will ‘infringe’ on something eventually just because of how much is out there, so it’s good to see some older musicians out there like Elvis Costello, who understand this and aren’t just going to unleash the lawyers on people first and ask questions later like the heirs of Marvin Gaye and others.

TasMot (profile) says:

But The Estate

No matter what he says now, what would be inspirational would be if he sets up his "estate" now and prohibit it from ever doing a 180 and starting to sue over the very songs he said were OK. Estates didn’t do the work, they just profit off of the deceased artist’s work and they like to increase that income in any way possible (without actually creating any new artistic works).

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MikeVx (profile) says:

Copyright has criminilized the transmission of human culture.

I have said this here before. Others have said this in some form farther up in these responses.

Copyright has effectively criminalized the process by which human culture has operated since we evolved enough intelligence to have culture.

All but a very minimal form of copyright is going to cause societal stress, because the human species is wired a certain way in terms of social structure, and copyright is in direct opposition to much of the history if human social progress. We progress as a species by building on the foundations provided by others. If we have to pay to do that, the engine of progress is towing a pallet-load of cinderblocks with no trailer under it.

Anonymous Coward says:

art copies life copies art

You spend enough time and you can find similarities everywhere…
The album cover is a bit of trope art wise… both are copying real life, so why point it looks out like another album cover…

Here’s an unpopular thought: the beatles album with them crossing the road… yup, just normal life… put it on an album and suddenly it means something… nope sorry. It’s just pictures presenting the allusion, instead of words… it’s all been done already ;p

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