Is Anything Original?

I love July Talk, in case I’ve never mentioned it before. An amazing Canadian indie-rock band that actively makes an effort to make their concerts safe spaces and does not shy away from politics, baring a very feminist philosophy and using their platform to point out social injustices, particularly in Indigenous communities. Their new record, Touch, came out in September 2016, for which they’ve already won a Juno and a Prism prize for. My favourite track from that record is Beck + Call, a song about being stuck under a lover’s thumb, featuring backing vocals of Inuit throat-singing from Tanya Tagaq.

So imagine my shock and horror when I read his tweet, retweeted by Ian Docherty, a member of July Talk:

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This couldn’t be true. Indie bands are supposed to be independent, original! Could my beloved alt-rock band July Talk sound the same as my beloved alt-rock band The Black Keys? I had to google this.

Sure enough, the intros have the same beat/rhythm. (Please do yourself a google as this basic plan won’t let me upload video/audio.) I was shocked, shocked I tell you! How dare something not be completely original and never heard of before and – you get the point, I didn’t really care. Sure, they have the same beat, but the songs go in different directions and have different sounds to them. I don’t consider a single beat/rhythm/note to be exclusive and that to use it in more than one song to be a copy- it’s when more than one of those elements are used. For example, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” uses all the same bass-line, piano keys, and cymbal “tsk”s as Queen’s “Under Pressure”. It was a blatant copy. Beck + Call vs Howlin for You, though? Just a similar beat.

The argument really begins to flare up when we talk about remixes, particularly in hiphop, an entire genre built upon the concept of cutting and pasting sounds. I love Netflix’s The Get Down, so when Grandmaster Flash was referenced in this video I got very excited, mainly because it reminded me that he’s actually a real guy and not just a character from the show.

One of the bigger themes from season 2 of The Get Down is questioning the legitimacy of hip hop music. Set in the Bronx in the late 1970’s, The Get Down explores the birth of hip hop through the eyes of (dreamy) Ezekiel, as he explores his passion in poetry through hip hop, while his (even dreamier) girlfriend Mylene pursues her career as a rising disco star.

Mylene hates that Ezekiel is into hip hop, stating that it’s not even “real music”, and that it won’t get him anywhere in life. (Uh, way to be a supportive partner, Mylene!) The Get Down also faces the problem of copyright laws; they want to get big but how can any label sign to them if the work they make is with copyrighted songs? They’ll get sued into oblivion, causing them to be stuck in a rut of only underground gigs, with no way up.

The messages brought up in The Get Down are ones that I personally don’t think about very often, but that I agree with. I don’t believe that remixes are complete ripoffs, in fact nowadays most remixes have the title(s) of the original songs used as their titles. It’s in cases like Led Zepplin, where they use iconic bits but perhaps play it in a different key and refuse to credit the original source, that it turns into copyright infringement. I feel like certain remixes could almost be classified as parodies sometimes. If it’s just 2 or more songs cut and pasted together, with nothing original added from the DJ, like a mashup, then they didn’t really rip them off, did they? They never claimed to have written the songs they mashed together, they simply reworked them. But a remix with only a few distinctly recognizable elements of another song with added orignal work from the creator? Well then, that needs some credit.

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