On Originality and Its Opposite

The music community was all aflutter lately with the news that Marvin Gaye’s estate had prevailed in the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit.

I was a bit surprised at the reactions I saw from the people in my community. The general feeling seemed to be that this legal victory was a bad thing. The basis for this perspective, as far as I can tell, is either a kind of post-modern/death of the author/nothing is original kind of mentality (one I’m all too familiar with from endless earnest debates in my university years) or a position of unvarnished self-interest: “oh shit, now we’re going to have to worry about being sued just for being influenced by stuff.” Andy Herman articulated this point of view, as well as giving a thorough overview of the case, in an LA Weekly opinion piece with an ever so slightly hyperbolic title.

I could say something about how strange it is that people who are otherwise reliably on the far left of most issues suddenly turn into laissez-faire free marketeers when it comes to the issue of musicians being compensated. Especially when many of those people are musicians themselves. But I feel that might go off track of the main point I wanted to make.

It’s certainly true that all art is influenced by what came before it; creative impulses don’t come out of a vaccum, though some brilliant and/or bizarre work might seem to.

I’ve stolen a lot from other musicians in my own work—sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly; sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally, more often somewhere in between the two.



For example, in the song “A Thousand Pardons” from the first WP album The Elements of Style, I spent a lot of time agonizing over changing a melody because I thought it resembled that of a Luna song—while somehow missing the fact that the instrumental bridge is lifted directly from Guided By Voices’ “Striped White Jets.” And my style of singing blatantly apes the Magnetic Fields, who I was listening to a lot at the time. (If Robert Pollard or Stephin Merritt want to come after me, I will happily buy either of them a drink—I think that’d be about equivalent to a fair portion of the money I’ve made from this song over the years.) (And yes, I’m aware that Luna, GBV and Magnetic Fields are all artists who used overt pastiche in their work. It was the 90s, what can I tell ya?) (And yes, I’m also aware that I’ve just used three parenthetical sentences in a row. It’s my own blog and I can do what I want.)

But I like to think I wouldn’t just take someone else’s song, shamelessly duplicate it, and then try to pretend I hadn’t—which is what, as Herman documents in his article, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams did with “Blurred Lines.”

When I read Herman’s article, I was reminded of a passage in Randy Bachman’s autobiography where he talks about his mentorship of Canadian classic-rock band Trooper. Bachman recollects as follows:

The method I employed with the group was fairly rudimentary. First, I suggested they list their ten favourite songs. […] I then told them to pick one song from the list, keep the whole song and chorus, but sing a different melody over it using the same lyrics. Add a new guitar solo as well. Once they had a new melody, I told them to change the lyrics. […] Then change the phrasing and breaths. Finally, take the chord progression they had been using from the song and alter the tempo. Now they had a new song derived from their influences.

Now, some might call this a coldly calculated attempt at commercial hit songwriting that has nothing to do with creativity. Others might say that it’s as fiendish an example of creative thievery as the “Blurred Lines” case, but one in which the thieves cleverly covered their tracks. It is kind of brazen. (From another perspective, longtime friend and WP collaborator Steve Raegele suggested to me that it’s what all pop songwriters do, just not as consciously.)


But the point is, the Bachman method at least goes to the trouble of putting enough of a twist on the original that something new comes out of it. I think it’s fair to say Pharrell Williams is a creative enough guy that he could be expected to do the same.

When I realize that something I came up with (or thought I did) sounds too much like something else, I change it. Or I drop it. Or, in some cases, I leave it in and take my chances. Obviously that’s what happened in this case, and they got caught on it. I don’t see what’s so awful about that, to be honest.

If I’m wrong, and Herman is right that this will precipitate an avalanche of lawsuits, maybe that will motivate people to put a little more effort into putting twists on their influences—or just to be a little more original. Is that such a bad thing?

Death to Clichés: Singer/Songwriter Worship

Some time ago, I was at home watching the George Strombolopolous show (why, I don’t know) and ol’ Strombo was giving a breathless intro to his next guest.

“These guys have [however many] top ten hits, blah blah blah. And… [pause for effect] they actually write their own songs.”

Oh, that’s sort of interesting, I’m thinking. I wonder who that might be? After all, writing your own songs is a symbol of seriousness and integrity, distinguishing a true artist from the mindless garbage of mainstream corporate entertainment.

“Please welcome, Nickelback!”

Years earlier, I’d been researching an article about the mysterious persistence of Eddie Vedder-influenced vocals. (The article was never published—although I did get paid for it twice, which I attribute to an act of contrition mixed with corporate sabotage on the part of the editor). During this research I had the mixed blessing of reading several interviews with Chad Kroeger, the lead singer (and songwriter!) of Nickelback. Aside from bragging about how he doesn’t read books, the quote that sticks out to me is (paraphrased from memory, I can’t be assed to re-research it):

“I like the business side of music just as much as the creative side. Maybe even a little more.”

I might also mention the mashup of two of their songs, revealing that their structure is precisely identical (another thing that Kroeger bragged about was his mastery of writing a hit, which he had down to an exact science—obviously, very exact).

(In fairness to Nickelback, I will say that I took their side during their beef with Matthew Good. Nickelback you can at least love to hate).

My point is this: why does it matter whether or not a performer writes their own songs?

I thought of this today when, during the flash riot of people falling all over themselves to outdo each other in deprecating Lana Del Rey, someone proclaimed: “She doesn’t even write her own songs!” as if that proved some kind of point.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Ms. Del Rey’s music may be, I think this criticism needs to be retired. It’s so obviously grounded in a post-Dylan/Beatles rockist mentality that’s just hopelessly retrograde by now. I like a good singer/songwriter as much as the next person, but being one is not a benchmark for quality. At all.

In a nutshell:

Elvis didn’t write his own songs.

Sinatra didn’t write his own songs.

Nickelback write their own songs.

Therefore, writing your own songs in and of itself is not all that.


Calling Out Haters

To quote Paul Stanley: people, let me get this off my chest.

With the ridiculous game of hype and backlash escalated even further with the end-of-year Top 10 lists, some have been using this opportunity to slag off my old pal Leslie Feist.

Now, if you think her music is boring, or if it’s too “soft” for your musical machismo, that’s fine – a matter of personal taste.

But to people insinuating or saying outright that she’s some kind of manufactured pop star, I must say with respect: you don’t know shit.

She has worked really hard to get where she is and she started at ZERO – working her ass off, making huge sacrifices, playing gigs in front of nobody for no money and eating air sandwiches for YEARS – and I know this for a fact because I did a bunch of those gigs with her.

So here’s a thought: next time you’re about to idly criticize someone, try walking a mile in their shoes – or better yet, eat a big bowl of STFU.


Music, business (Part 3: The Reckoning)

A little while ago I was complaining to someone about my lack of success (in a long list of other things that were/are wrong with my life). In the course of this I mentioned offhandedly that I loved playing music, and she interrupted me:

Do you love it?”
“Yes,” I said. It seemed like a strange thing to ask.
“Well, isn’t that success?”

I chewed on that one for a while and finally had to conclude that no, that is not success. But it is happiness, even if only in brief, occasional little bursts.

At this advanced age, I’m unlikely to become an overnight (or any other kind of) sensation (although Robert Pollard was my age when Guided By Voices broke, so a guy can always dream).

But I have to ask, what is the absolute worst-case scenario? Probably something like: I have a minuscule audience and barely break even on my expenses. (I hope you will forgive me a moment of self-pity when I say that this is not drastically different from the actual scenario).

What then? It’s not like I would stop writing songs, recording or performing. I don’t think I would be able to even if I wanted to. (Whenever I do harbour the notion of abandoning it all, as in The Godfather III, just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in).

It might seem self-evident, but the fact that my music doesn’t make business types see dollar signs when they hear it, and that it doesn’t fit into whatever the latest micro-trend might be, doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself.

As my brother, a wiser man than me, said in this interview, music is its own reward. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in an atmosphere where a few (very few!) artists’ genuine, hard-won success has filled the community with delusions of grandeur.

Truth is, there are only three kinds of people who can “make a living” in the music biz:
1. Trust fund kids
2. People who are comfortable with a quality of life one step above that of a homeless person
3. People who are really smart and serious about the business side of things.

If you, like me, are none of these, then it’s probably best to separate your artistic pursuits from business concerns.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for my more business-savvy friends. But the fact is that if I look at my own music career as a business, it is not a successful business. If I look at it as something that I do for its own sake, it actually seems worthwhile.

Earlier this year I was unexpectedly offered a job. It was kind of a no-brainer: being chronically broke is a lot less romantic in your late 30s than it is in your early 20s. I took the job, putting my dreams of rock glory on the back burner for the time being, going back to being a guy with a job who plays music for fun.

And strangely enough, I feel better about my music career already.

Music, business (part 2: Personal Rockonomics)

I’ve never been very adept at the business side of things. No doubt this comes partly from my upbringing—though my background is relatively privileged, my parents are neither numerically inclined (there was no hope for math homework help past about grade 4) or particularly capitalistic, either in their beliefs or in their actions (a distinction to be elucidated below).

Then there was my coming of age in the punk/DIY scene, which seared onto my mind the idea that taking money into consideration as part of musical endeavours was deeply morally wrong. Most of my peers soon abandoned this ethic, and I would later discover that people with the most stridently anti-capitalistic views in public are invariably the most ruthless when it comes down to negotiations over money behind closed doors, but by then it was too late for me to shake the ideological imprint.

As a young man, to the extent that I thought about the future at all (which was not very much), I just kind of assumed that an artistic career would arise out of my talents and ideas. This seems shockingly naïve in retrospect. I remember in my first year of university, I had a creative writing prof who declared that for a writer’s career, going to the right parties was just as important as developing your craft. Puffed up with the deadly post-adolescent combination of arrogance and naïveté, I waved away his advice without a thought. Looking back today his statement still seems obnoxious, but undeniably true.

It seems obvious to me now that success (however you define it) in any creative field has very little to do with talent and everything to do with good timing, persistence, schmoozing skills and extreme will power. For a chronic procrastinator with an acute allergy to bullshit and a tendency to get discouraged easily, it is not very self-evident to embark on this route.

To be continued.

Music, business (part 1)

As many of my devoted fans know, I’ve been blessed throughout my life with a lot of very talented friends, some of whom have gone on to varying degrees of success. I’m happy for them and proud of them all, but of course this can also bring up occasional flourishes of envy or of nagging self-doubt—especially when some of these successful friends give me pep talk/lectures.

“It’s the music business,” says one.

“The business side of things is just as important as the creative side—you should think of them as the same,” says another.

“Think of it as a marketing installation,” says yet another. (I admit that this perspective on the situation spoke to me a bit more).

Are these things true? Why didn’t anyone tell me earlier? And would I have even listened?

A few years back I was reading an article by Exclaim’s music business journalist Allison Outhit. Some guy she interviewed gave a quote along the lines of “If you’ve been working hard for 10 years and you’re still not successful, maybe you suck.”

The quote stayed with me, bringing along with it a stark self-questioning: if I’m not successful, does that mean I haven’t worked hard enough? Or that I suck? (Allowing of course for the possibility of a third option, that this guy is a goddamn asshole).

In 2008, I quit my job, where for the first time in my life I had a respectable income and was settling into middle-class comfort. I felt I wasn’t putting enough time or effort into my creative work, and wanted to take a genuine crack at an artistic career, which I had never truly devoted myself to before.

Two years later I found myself, for the first time, questioning the value of carrying on this project in the face of profound non-reaction from labels, promoters, and the whole trend-obsessed music business machine in general.

It’s hard to write about this kind of thing for a few reasons. First of all, I’m very grateful for whatever small impact I’ve been able to make, and I’m also acutely aware that certain things I’ve accomplished (getting played on the radio, touring internationally, collaborating with famous people, etc) are things that some artists only dream of.

Secondly, I generally feel that it’s unbecoming for anyone to bitch and moan about not being more successful.

Finally, if certain people believe that I am successful for the reasons listed above, a pretty big part of me feels that I should let them have that illusion—it’s a win-win situation for us all.

That said, there are some things that I need to get off my chest and goddammit, what is the blogosphere for if not the shameless combination of self-pity and self-promotion?

To be continued.