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How an artist "steals" inspiration makes a huge difference.


Welcome to WEEK 210 of MUSIC is Not a GENRE (Video Episode #36) Appropriation, Adaptation, Homage, Integration – How You “Steal” Makes a Huge Difference

Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)

Every artist steals. There’s a famous quote, echoed by Stravinsky, Bowie, Steve Jobs, that goes, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” It’s an open secret among all artists. What it’s saying is that nothing anyone creates comes out of a black hole. Some musicians sometimes wear their influences on their sleeves – like Oasis re the Beatles, or Janelle Monae re Prince. Others naturally take a more subtle approach. Earlier in an artist’s career you can usually hear the stealing more blatantly – like Bowie with the Beatles, or Greta Van Fleet with Led Zeppelin and MAN do I hope they broaden their palate. As artists develop, they’re better able to incorporate their theft into the whole of what they do, in part because they’re just stealing from way more sources.

Of course, there’s stealing and then there’s stealing. If someone is fully lifting a song or an idea from someone else without credit or compensation, that’s not kosher in any way. If someone is doing original music, but of a type or in a way that is cashing in on another person’s or group’s hard work and innovation, it’s legal but it’s kinda shitty and unethical. Thankfully, the bulk of musicians love music so much that they’d never want to cheat anyone. In the first case they’d give credit and hopefully also compensation. In the second they’d approach it as a homage to some favorite artist or style.

Paul Simon took the idea of homage one step further and actually incorporated and INTEGRATED the artists themselves - Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Anyone who knows this album knows the results were tremendous. And while there’s certainly a conversation to be had about race and cultural appropriation here, I believe all artists involved in this one came out on top and with much respect and love to go around.

When I started writing songs, I used favorite artists as templates: the Beatles, Chicago, Prince, the Cure, the Femmes etc. As I developed, and especially now, I have so many influences that the mish-mosh that results is all ME. But there’s NO DOUBT you can still connect the dots all over the place. I have proudly pointed out exact lines or phrasings or instrumental parts or production values and told people exactly where I got it from. Nine times out of ten they’d never think of it. Even if they did, so what? Good music is good music, no matter where it comes from. But to prove the point a little more blatantly, here’s a BRAND NEW song that was clearly influenced by both the White Stripes and Lenny Kravitz:

Do you remember this album? Do you like it? Do you like Paul Simon, and if so was this a favorite of yours, or did you prefer his 1960s/70s work? What are your thoughts on this “stealing” idea? Or appropriation, adaptation, homage? Discuss dammit!

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