Christine and the Queens has become embroiled in an extraordinary controversy in her native France. In June, two listeners published separate videos to YouTube identifying the generic music samples – from recording and music creation software Logic Pro – that appear in her recent single, Girlfriend, and accused leader Chris (born Héloïse Letissier) of being a “scammer” and an “imposter”.
The issue persisted in France sufficiently that yesterday Chris issued a statement. In French, she explained: “If on Damn dis-moi [the French name for Girlfriend] I sampled some royalty-free loops, it was to deliberately search for a generic reference sound that I could pervert from the inside. I wasn’t worried about doing it and I would happily do it again if another song justified it.”
She has hardly hidden her use of such software. Last year, she told Vanity Fair of her earliest musical explorations: “I asked around: ‘What is the easiest way to write music?’ I was told: ‘GarageBand, on Mac.’ I went to buy a computer.” But the whole kerfuffle is nonsense. Royalty-free sounds are manufactured deliberately for musicians’ use, and computer-assisted songwriting is no more a creative shortcut than building a song around, say, a staple 4/4 drum beat.
As Chris points out: “Whether a pop classic or a royalty-free instrumental from YouTube, collage, rewriting, quotations, sometimes thieving a melody – all that is at the heart of a thousand songs that I love. Debate about the purity of creation is void; we live in a society that spits and digests, and pop music is an impure space. That’s precisely why I love it.”
In fact, generic samples and presets have been used in pop for decades – if you pick a fight with Christine and the Queens, so you pick a fight with everybody. Here are a few examples you might know.
GarageBand: vintage funk kit 03
GarageBand aficionados range from Skepta to Kanye West and Frank Ocean. Take the “vintage funk kit 03” preset, which perhaps most famously powered Rihanna’s 2007 single Umbrella, and was used on Dan Black’s Symphonies and Maroon 5’s One More Night. It provides a great drum beat in a button, and it’s much easier (and cheaper) to use than going to the trouble of sampling James Brown’s legendary “Funky Drummer” Clyde Stubblefield.
Moog: vox humana
Love that inimitable synth wail on Gary Numan’s Cars? Press the vox humana button on an old Moog Polymoog 280a and it’s yours. This 1978 analogue synthesiser came with a variety of preset sounds (offering the unpromising delights of “string 1” or “rock organ”) and produced one of the earliest – and still one of the best – examples of preset use in classic pop. The Numanoid loved the piercing string sound so much it appeared throughout his pioneering 1979 album, The Pleasure Principle. The original synth is now a collector’s item, but a multitude of web forums tell today’s musicians how to recreate the famous vox humana sound.
Roland CompuRhythm CR-78: rock 1
A humble preset on Roland’s primitive drum machine produced one of the most recognisable grooves in pop history. The CR-78 came with such wonderfully futuristic and sexy sounding factory-supplied beats as waltz and bossa nova. Darryl Hall used the unpromising “rock 1” to write Hall & Oates’ 1981 classic, I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do). Michael Jackson subsequently used that song’s groove in Billie Jean, and CompuRhythm grooves are rife in pop hits of the period, from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Enola Gay to Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight and Blondie’s Heart of Glass.
Casio VL-Tone: rock-1
By the 80s, presets contained an element of songwriting. This basic drum track with a melody can be spotted on hits as diverse as White Town’s No 1 single Your Woman and Mansun’s Take It Easy Chicken (both 1997) and Fergie’s 2006 hit Clumsy. It infamously forms the basis of Trio’s mega-selling but industrially irritating smash, Da Da Da (1982).
Yamaha DX7: e piano 1
Yamaha’s seminal 1983 keyboard remains as synonymous with 1980s pop as big, bad hair and outsized shoulder pads. It ushered in the digital revolution and came loaded with tons of perfect presets, which meant that MOR pop giants from Phil Collins to Chicago had an orchestra in a box. The DX7’s electric piano preset (a cleaner, synthetic Fender Rhodes substitute) subsequently became the go-to songwriting tool for power balladeers for decades. Hear it on Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You.
E-MU Systems: wind chimes and shakuhachi
In any hypothetical chart of the most popular presets ever, sounds from synthesiser company E-MU Systems would be up there. The excellent website Who Sampled Who notes that sounds from E-Mu’s 1984 wind-chimes birds and streams (loop garden) presets appear on a whopping 98 pop songs. That pesky chirping bird in 808 State’s 1989 acid house-era smash Pacific State is from this preset, as is the keyboard sound in Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, 25 years later. The same year’s shakuhachi, a synthetic bamboo flute preset, first appeared on the Fairlight CMI, an expensive 80s synth played mostly by rich rock royalty such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, who used it on his 1986 chart-topper, Sledgehammer. The same instrument’s “orch5” keyboard stab also appears on no fewer than 100 songs, including Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal Planet Rock.
The famous choir sound on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was reportedly created by the band singing vocal parts for hour upon hour, and then spending three weeks piecing the recordings together using 180 overdubs. Imagine being able to do something similar in seconds. This became possible in 1988 with Korg’s M1 synthesiser’s “universe” preset, the pick of a game-changing gadget packed with instant musical instruments from pianos and guitars to entire drum kits. Understandably, even Queen – once notoriously anti-synths – opted against more hours of hard labour and got one themselves.
Loopmasters Sample Boutique and Zero-G software
Today’s musician really is spoiled for choice when it comes to professionally produced and curated packs of presets and synth patches. Zero-G have been producing this stuff since 1990, and you can hear their samples used in old dance tracks such as the Prodigy’s Weather Experience to Haddaway’s What Is Love? – or more recently in the work of Rammstein and Skrillex. Kanye West uses Zero-G’s Africa voice 161 from 1991 in his 2012 track Clique, while “Africa 13 111” appears in Big Shot, Kendrick Lamar’s recent coupling with Travi$ Scott. Meanwhile, users of Loopmasters’ Sample Boutique libraries range from Deadmau5 to David Guetta. Kendrick Lamar’s FEEL (2017) uses two of the company’s off-the-peg samples – “COF_125_Am_LaidOut_Underwater” and “COF_134_B_Changed_Dopey”– and if preset sounds are good enough for pop’s first Pulitzer prize winner, they’re good enough for everyone.