and Common Pop: How the "Freshness" of American Music is Circling
By Kathleen Davis
The argument has been made -- perhaps a gazillion times -- that there
is no such thing as a new idea. In fact, I had a professor teach an
entire class one warm Thursday afternoon -- for over an hour and a half,
actually -- that there are only approximately 16 unique plotlines and
that every other story on God's little green Earth is a combination,
a regurgitation, of those 16.
Like working with old-school legos to make a house or a police station
or a very square shopping mall, they all start with the same building
(As a side note, ever notice that whatever one makes with the traditional,
mostly square legos look very much like a Frank Lloyd Wright "prairie
Anyway, back to newness . . . and the lack of it. So, OK, 16 plot lines.
I can see how, unfortunately, those would be recycled incessantly. It's
difficult to be new and cutting edge when clarity and the blank page
are your parameters.
But, surely, creativity has always had one particular outlet that allowed
evolution: music. Music has always been evolving, growing, expanding?
Right? It hasn't gotten stale and old and regurgitative like poetry
Lady sings the blues
While the 20th Century saw the birth of a whole slew of new music forms
(jazz, blues, rap, R&B -- most of them almost direct descendants
of ragtime; so P. Diddy should really give a "shout out" to
Scott Joplin at his next award show), this new and shiny 21st has seen
the sad and sorry rise in that one not-so-unique music form: sampling.
You know "sampling," darlings. That's what Vanilla Ice got
busted for in the early '90s when he lifted a riff from Queen and David
Bowie, and that's what modern rappers subsist on today for fear of lacking
a good, catchy "hook" to bring in the mass-CD-buyin' masses.
Now, I know that, somehow, rappers (okay, one, but it's not as if Jay-Z
is a small-time player) have managed to make samples from musicals like
Annie and Oliver somewhat "cool" (although
I'm not sure I'm a real believer in that "coolness," as it
seems to rely entirely on a culture of attitude and not at all on real
talent), sampling the American musical has now crawled on its bloody
stump feet into the pop music scene with Gwen Stefani's (of No Doubt)
currently of the rotating unnatural hair colors -- "Rich Girl."
Here's a quiz question for you: What musical does that song sample?
You can do it.
Now, are you sitting down?
Fiddler on the Roof. Yes. It does. A lot -- not just a repeated
eight bars or short phrase like those previously mentioned rap songs,
but almost word for bloody stump word. Sampling has gone insanely out
of control -- a cultural ameba bent on eating new songwriting talent.
There is new songwriting talent out there somewhere, right? Under a
rock? Behind a tree? Studying business marketing at a local community
Each loud . . . "swaqwk" and "honk" . .
. would land like a trumpet on the ear
Who knew the lyrics to "If I Were A Rich Man" would resonate
so poignantly with today's generation extra? Certainly not me, darlings.
Certainly not me.
The first time I heard "Rich Girl," I almost sent a stream
of Arizona Green Tea (with honey and ginseng) out my nose. It was hard
to keep the laughter inside.
Honestly, how can I really take these "artists" seriously
if the best thing they can think to steal from is a decades-old Broadway
musical that they don't think the kids will know and that I only remember
from the days when UHF had little to choose from but crap and musicals?
And, is that near anonymity why rappers, and now Stefani, sample these
songs and not, say, Ray Charles' "Busted" (my personal fave)
or even Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?" Is
this why they avoid Paganini and Bobby Darin? [Ed. note: Since this
was initially written, Akon has sampled Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely."
Kathleen Davis was heard sighing loudly.] Is it that need to not
get caught stealing? Do they think no one will ever find out?
Or, conversely, do they just think no one will give a rat's ass?
Whichever answer is the correct one, it's still pathetic -- although
lazy. And, I do admire lazy. I would dye my hair hot pink, dress like
a punk rock Charlie Chaplin and belt out Hindi-beat covers of tunes
from "Bye, Bye, Birdie," if that would lead to a life of less
What's the story, morning glory?
What's the word, humming bird?
Have you heard about Hugo and Kim?
[Insert Lil' John screeching, "What?" here.]
That does not, however, make me a talented singer or songwriter. On
the contrary, it would make me only a talented marketer.
Perhaps these singers are missing their true calling: PR. I've also
said so about Marilyn Manson. I'd be willing to make that list longer.
Still, I'm not sure I won't try it with my next poem. If I "sample"
lines from classic poets like Yeats, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman and
Elliot and then mixed them all up real good, is it now my own poem?
Or, to be my own, do I need to have studio musicians lay a track behind
I could read it in my best e.e. cummings voice (he sounded like Winnie
the Pooh, you know).
Really, darlings, all joking aside, it all comes down to this: In my
poetic -- and sometimes pathetic -- existence, "sampling" is
still known by its scientific genus: plagiarism.