Our favorite pop song is bubbly, infectious, and – possibly – illegal.
Billboard’s latest number one, “Closer” by The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey, is a dance-hall grind peddling nostalgia, that “we ain’t ever gettin’ older,” but its melody has garnered attention not only for its breeziness but its similarity to The Fray’s 2005 hit “Over My Head (Cable Car).”
Two of the band’s members are now credited as songwriters on the track, in an attempt to retroactively prevent such lawsuits as that by Marvin Gaye’s children against Robin Thicke and Pharrell for “Blurred Lines,” which Gaye’s children claim was derived from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The court slapped the producers of the former number one with a $5.3 million fine, cut from an initial sum of $7.4 million.
It has made the modern musician tread on his toes – better late credit than never, as in the Chainsmokers’ case, than to drown in legal fees. Sam Smith gave credit to Tom Petty for “Stay With Me.” Bruno Mars gave credit to Gap Band for “Uptown Funk.”
Billboard reports both these songs won record of the year at the Grammy’s. The most recognizable music of our time is, essentially, plagiarized. While it would not be so terrible if the power duos had merely collaborated, or if permission had been granted in advance, the frequency of copyright infringement hints little effort is made to circumvent such “similarity.”
The defense for such behavior is that “music simply isn’t made that way anymore,” “that way” referring to a songwriter and a pencil. Now synth-pop and electronica credits kids with laptops as the primary creative geniuses on tracks – Calvin Harris, Avicii, DJ Snake, The Chainsmokers.
They churn digi-beats to optimum danceability, lace sky-high female vocals over the top, and sit back and wait for that Number One hit. It is not poor practice – we all crave the upbeat, and a confessional lyric is better than a violence-condoning one – but the legal and moral looseness of digitally enhancing someone else’s melodies is inexcusable.
While an already beloved melody may be an easy way to ensure monetary success, the originals of prior eras – Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head” – were risks once. Distinctive voices sell too, but only if they are produced.