Everything is derivative. Nothing is new. Or so we think, but every time it rolls around, you get a nice, juicy story about a brand new, blindingly brilliant artist who smashes violently into the scene, displaying unheard-of talent and hitting dizzying heights, and we all stand back … in shock … and awe. A couple of weeks later, something comes up in the newspaper about sampling, about “inspiration”, and plagiarism.
We already have the faux of celebrities, those who cash in on famous family, hotel fortunes, and sex tapes to make themselves even more faux (if there is such a thing – I don’t know). There are the already-fabulously-wealthy gettin’ even filthier rich!
James Cameron is a filmmaker I admire. I love what he tries to do, even if he fails. Orion Pictures settled a lawsuit brought about by Harlan Ellison (another artist I greatly admire) alleging Cameron plagiarized two of his works, “Soldier” and “Demon With A Glass Hand”, to make his classic movie, “The Terminator”. Watching the movie, one can see the enormous similarities in both works, despite Cameron once famously labeling Ellison a “parasite”. That’s all very well and good until we look at “Avatar”, another brilliant if over-the-top science fiction classic. Cameron’s story “borrows” substantially from Poul Anderson’s 1957 short story, “Call Me Joe”. I don’t think James Cameron is a “rip-off artist” to paraphrase slightly from Harlan Ellison. I believe, as a good filmmaker, he tends to take elements from different vehicles in the pursuit of his ultimate design.
In February of 1990, pop duo Milli Vanilla took home the Grammy for Best New Artist. They were busted for lip-synching in July of the previous year. Suspicions mounted well before the Grammy win. Four days after their producer confessed that the duo did not record vocals for the album, Girl You Know It’s True, the Grammy was withdrawn in dramatic fashion.
In February of 1971, George Harrison was sued by the publisher of the song, “He’s So Fine” for using key melodies in the construction of his own song, “My Sweet Lord”. Settling the lawsuit, Harrison claimed he had “subconsciously plagiarized” the song for his own work. Again, this is not a reflection of the artist. It’s hard to come up with something new and exciting when everything’s been done a hundred times over – at least that’s what I tell myself.
We have another February story: “The Adventures of Sam Smith”.
Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” lightly copies Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” with a slower tempo; a piano-driven dirge with a gospel choir and Smith’s own Rick Astley-like falsetto mingling with slap percussion, but it was enough for Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to receive co-songwriting credit and a good share of royalties from sales. Sam Smith recently walked away with four Grammys. No outrage this time.
We’ve made peace with our thieves and we’ve become fully wise to the drug. Notice the similarities between Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug” and Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”? Of course, you do! Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” borrows heavily from a 1987 Chow Yun-Fat Chinese saga, “City On Fire”. The Verve’s magnificent, “Bittersweet Symphony” samples a motif from The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”. Consequently, The Verve receives no royalties for the song. All the money goes into Keith Richards’ veins! I hope to God I’m joking about that.
Of course, this is just fuel for the fire – the outrage and the apathy (“there is no creativity anymore!”) of anybody over the age of 35, who still remembers the first time they heard Nirvana or Pearl Jam or even Tom Petty. I’ve known, on personal terms, many incredibly gifted artists who have never gotten their foot in the door, never gotten that big break. They’ve busted their asses for years, meanwhile, somebody steals a line, a sequence of notes, or a full-on melody and gets a hit single, a sold-out concert tour, and an armful of Grammy awards. Is this fair? No, it is not.
My waste-basket is overflowing with crumpled paper; ideas I’ve discarded because it turned out they weren’t original. I can go for hours working on something, then take a step back and look at what I’ve done and it will come off as derivative or unoriginal. I’m disappointed in myself, and then I try again until I hit on something nobody’s ever thought of before. Stanley Kubrick once told Jack Nicholson during the making of “The Shining”, “Everything’s been done before. Our job is to do it just a little bit better.”
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams comes late to this piece. He spins yarns of bravery and bluster, and we’re all shocked to hear it might not actually be true. Okay, so he fudged the relevant data – that of being involved in these experiences – let’s subtract Williams from the stories and they’re still fantastic, they’re still entertainment. I’ll give him that. I won’t damn him the way so many are damning him. I’ll just chalk it up to creativity. That’s one for our team! Some of this is unquestionably a form of hyperbole (“I caught a fish this big!”). Of course, he does work in journalism, which is about truth … not subjective truth, just plain truth. Ouch.
Perhaps we’ve come full-circle in our attempts to be creative. It’s going to be another record year for movies at the box office based on derivative works, or based on previously published material. These are the movies Hollywood chooses to make, and these are the movies audiences will wait in line to see. I think there’s plenty of originality out there, just nothing anybody wants to plunk down their hard-earned money to see. Reboots and remakes and sound-alike songs already have a built-in appeal. They’re easier to enjoy and understand.
The drug is way too tempting.