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Haven't I Heard This Song Before?

Aug 23, 2013
Originally published on August 23, 2013 7:12 pm

Over the last couple of weeks, the sounds of pop's biggest hits have been distractingly familiar. Almost as soon as it hit the Internet, "Roar," the brand new smash by Katy Perry, was accused of sounding an awful lot like the recent song "Brave," by Sara Bareilles. A legal dispute now surrounds the No. 1 song in the country, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," over its similarity to "Got to Give It Up," the 1977 hit by Marvin Gaye.

Today on All Things Considered, NPR's Neda Ulaby talks with NPR Music pop critic Ann Powers about the history of pop sound-alikes. "Songwriters have borrowed from each other, played off each other. People have claimed the right to songs in the public domain," Ann says. "This is part of the art of pop."

But not all borrowing is equal. This got us thinking about the different ways musicians act as mimics.

Sometimes intellectual property laws are involved. If a musician takes a song she loves and incorporates all or part of the actual recording into a new song, that's sampling. Releasing the new song requires the permission of whoever owns the original recording and, often, a financial agreement. (You can trace our current understanding of the copyright laws around sampling to a 1991 suit by Gilbert O'Sullivan against Biz Markie for the use of O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" in Biz's song "Alone Again.")

If a deal can't be reached, or the sound of the original recording isn't quite right, the musician can re-record an element of the song she loves, say a little snippet of melody or a particular drum pattern. This is called interpolation. The re-created element can be a nearly exact replica or just vaguely similar. Sometimes, an interpolation can be so close that it's hard to tell if it's any different at all — think of Vanilla Ice's famous denial that "Ice Ice Baby" was sampled directly from Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure." If it's really a new performance, permission is not needed, but the writer of the original song gets credit and, if there are royalties, a share of the money. (Think of cover songs as extended interpolations.)

Then there's the shady, mysterious land that occupies the area between what we'll call "inspiration" and "coincidence." Here's where things get contentious. Pop music history is full of tributes, riffs and echoes that make us turn to the radio and go: "Haven't I heard this song before?" Sometimes, it turns out, we have.

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There's been a mini-boom on the radio this summer of songs that sound like other songs. This week, it's hitmaker Katy Perry.


KATY PERRY: (Singing) I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath, get to rock the boat and make a mess.

BLOCK: Now, check out this tune from earlier this year by lesser known Sara Bareilles.


SARA BAREILLES: (Singing) You can be amazing.

BLOCK: There's also the huge hit "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. It sounds an awful lot like Marvin Gaye's "Gotta Give It Up." And the list goes on. NPR's Neda Ulaby says no matter what the song of the summer is, the pop music word of the summer is interpolation.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Interpolation is a polite word for borrowing.


ULABY: Like when Aaron Copeland interpolated the folk song "Simple Gifts" into his orchestral suite "Appalachian Spring."

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: This is just how music works.

ULABY: That's NPR music critic Ann Powers.

POWERS: It is part of the art of pop. Songwriters have borrowed from each other, played off of each other.

ULABY: An art, Powers notes, that's been historically unfair to African-American musicians in particular. But popular music is built from other genres. What's borrowing and what's ripping off?


THE SUPREMES: (Singing) You can't hurry love, no you just have to wait...

POWERS: "You Can't Hurry Love," for example, was originally borrowed from a song called "You Can't Hurry God."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) You can't hurry God, oh no, you just have to wait.

ULABY: Ideally, interpolation involves credit and compensation, but the lines are, well, blurry.


ROBIN THICKE: (Singing) Everybody get up.

ULABY: Robin Thicke co-wrote and performed "Blurred Lines" partly as an homage to Marvin Gaye. He said he was inspired by this song of Gaye's, "Got to Give it Up."


ULABY: In that case, says Ann Powers, the question is...

POWERS: Does an artist have a right to pay tribute to a classic song in a way that echoes that song? I think they do, actually.

ULABY: And there's a big difference between that issue and the similarities between Katy Perry's newest hit and the song by Sara Bareilles.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) (unintelligible).

ULABY: Popular music sends to sound alike and maybe that's what we like about it.

POWERS: Familiarity with just a touch of novelty.

ULABY: The questioning of copying came with an upside for the lesser-known singer, Sara Bareilles. In the past week, digital sales for her song, "Brave," have gone through the roof. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.