As I was writing the last piece, which had to do in part with how we let nostalgia ruin new music, my girlfriend just happened to be reading the above article over at NPR’s website. It is worth a read. The article is about how we shouldn’t let familiarity harden into cynicism when confronting new music. (The same should go for any art.) The article also makes the point that each generation discovers something for the first time, even if those that are older feel too much familiarity with what is out there.
One of the things that bugs me is all of these people that are comparing and contrasting songs to each other on the internet. Artists have been stealing from each other since the dawn of time, and definitely from the beginning of pop music. It is just the instantaneous ability to pull up anything from any time period that is new. The Rolling Stones, who I love, started out ripping off the old black blues musicians, and so on. There is a difference between stealing something and referencing something. Often songs reference other songs or lines from movies or whatever as a way to pay tribute to things that were important to the writer. This can actually give a song depth. No ideas are completely new. It is the combination of old ideas in a new way that moves a form along.
Sampling can be different because you are actually using the exact thing that one is referencing. However, even this can obviously be done creatively enough that the older piece of material can not be ascertained immediately. Even when something is immediately recognizable, if it is combined with new elements it is new. (I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be paying the older artist, as they should. However, that is a different argument.)
The only time I have a problem with stealing in music is when it is done by a new band that adds nothing new to the equation. You see this all of the time right now with these retro-soul bands. In years past it was different kinds of music. They might not be stealing anything directly. However, they often create music that sounds exactly like it could have been created in a past era, without adding any kind of original personality to the mix. Often this music sounds like a faded copy, kind of like the original, but without the excitement of self-discovery. There are so many new bands that are just museum pieces.
What would you rather hear: A song that steals something from the past directly, but contextualizes it in a way that makes it new, or someone doing something that is technically new, but really just a faded artifact of the past?
Add on: If you take a Jackson Pollack painting and make it part of a collage in an interesting way, you have might have something new on your hands. If you paint something that is exactly the same as a Jackson Pollack painting, but just slightly alter the colors and swirl patterns, you are just ripping him off. The first would technically be stealing, but the second example is more egregious in my mind.