Bad form? Olivia Rodrigo comparisons reignite pop plagiarism debate

Longpigs’ Crispin Hunt says Rodrigo should not be chastised for taking inspiration from musical forebears

When Elvis Costello jumped to the defence of the singer Olivia Rodrigo this week, he inadvertently exposed the faultlines in the debate over what constitutes pop plagiarism.

Rodrigo’s album Sour has dominated the mid-year best of lists with its lyrics about Gen-Z apathy, acrimonious breakups and “cathartic rage”, but she has also faced criticism.

Courtney Love accused her of “bad form” because artwork used to promote Rodrigo’s Sour Prom concert film looked very similar to the cover of Live Through This by Love’s band Hole.

Costello, meanwhile, said similarities between Rodrigo’s song Brutal and his 1978 hit Pump It Up were “fine by me”.

“It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did,” Costello wrote on Twitter, referencing his own musical touchstones, Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business.

The comparisons have reignited the perennial discussion about where inspiration stops and brazen imitation begins. Crispin Hunt, the former frontman of the Longpigs and director of the Ivor Novello awards, says Rodrigo should not be chastised for taking inspiration from her musical forebears.

“Part of the evolution of music is taking other ideas, it’s a communal experience. It’s essential, so I think Elvis Costello’s stance is very grown up and very honest, whereas Courtney Love’s point here is a bit childish,” he says.

Hunt says attitudes toward those who draw from music history have shifted recently, with the Robin Thicke Blurred Lines legal battle with the Marvin Gaye estate acting as a turning point. That case, says Hunt, was about a groove rather than a melody or a lyric, which he believes set a precedent. “Up until then it had always been a melody,” he says. “You couldn’t really copyright riffs or grooves.”

Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay a total of nearly $5m to Gaye’s estate after a jury decided their song Blurred Lines copied Gaye’s track Got to Give It Up. Since then, Led Zeppelin and Katy Perry have fought high-profile copyright cases, which went in their favour, but Hunt says the legacy of Blurred Lines remains.

“The Marvin Gaye thing opened a whole new can of worms. If you’re gonna go down that route then Nile Rodgers could sue everyone in dance music because he was the first person to create that distinct disco sound,” says Hunt.

This week Dave Grohl, who was in Nirvana with Love’s late husband Kurt Cobain, illustrated just how incongruous some musical inspiration can be when he said he was inspired by disco drummers when creating the sound on their most celebrated work.

“If you listen to [Nirvana’s 1991 album] Nevermind, I pulled so much stuff from the Gap Band and Cameo and [Chic’s] Tony Thompson on every one of those songs,” he told Pharrell Williams in an interview.

Dave Grohl

Hunt believes that in the future when artists and songwriters are inspired by previous work, the issue of songwriting credits – and royalties that they will incur – will become the main point of contention.

“If you look at what happened with Uptown Funk, they ended up with something like 15 writers on it, with all the members of the Gap Band,” Hunt says. “I think that’s going to be the norm: if you are going to kind of borrow directly from other people, you should treat it as a collaboration and credit those people.”

Contributor

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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