How do you do, fellow kids? It’s me, your friend Emily VanDerWerff, here to rap at ya about the concept of “originality” in art and why it’s overrated.
Why now? Well, the teens of the internet have discovered that Olivia Rodrigo, the 18-year-old pop sensation of the summer, whose “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U” have both been massive hits, is a big ol’ copycat.
At least that’s the allegation suggested by a viral video outlining all of the ways that Rodrigo’s songs on her debut album Sour sound like songs from other artists, notably Taylor Swift (whom Rodrigo has cited frequently as a key inspiration), Rogue Traders, Billie Eilish, and Paramore.
Let’s check the receipts! (Said the decidedly non-teenager adult woman writing this article.)
oh they got her tea pic.twitter.com/UOvsDqCDcU— - (@keptittcute) June 27, 2021
“NO ORIGINALITY, ALL SHE DOES IS COPY!” concludes the video, and after watching it, you could well be tempted to reach the same conclusion yourself.
I think that conclusion is worth being skeptical of. At least one piece of “evidence” in the video is just a sample — the piano backing track from Swift’s 2017 song “New Year’s Day” pops up in Rodrigo’s 2021 song “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” and both Swift and her co-writer Jack Antonoff are consequently credited as co-songwriters on the Rodrigo track. Swift has even kinda sorta adopted Rodrigo as one of her artistic children, which is sweet.
But the other examples in the video are probably close enough to raise eyebrows, at least a little bit. So consider my own eyebrows partially raised on most counts. (Though not all! Despite the protestations of several of my colleagues, I continue to not hear how “Good 4 U” and Paramore’s “Misery Business” are all that similar.)
Other viral social media posts have accused Rodrigo of ripping off key elements of her aesthetic, particularly in the “Good 4 U” music video, from the indie band Pom Pom Squad. I’m not sure “dressing as a cheerleader” rises to the level of copycatting, but the addition of long latex gloves ... maybe?
June 24, 2021
Courtney Love has also bristled at the similarities of a recent Rodrigo promo image to the cover of Live Through This, the landmark 1994 album by Love’s band Hole. At least in this case, Love has occasionally seemed like she might be having fun with the whole thing and isn’t too upset about it. But you never know!
My skepticism about all of this doesn’t stem from a desire to defend Rodrigo. I am not an Olivia Rodrigo superfan. Though her singles are great, I think her album swings too wildly and too often between “pop-punk rave-up” and “plaintive ballad.” Still, she’s clearly an incredibly talented young songwriter who will have every opportunity to forge a long, fruitful career full of catchy songs whose hooks are hard to deny.
Plus, any blame for at least some of the “rip-offs” featured in the video should be distributed equally among Rodrigo’s collaborators, like co-writer Daniel Nigro or “Good 4 U” video director Petra Collins. If we accept the premise of the argument — Olivia Rodrigo is a big ol’ copycat — then shouldn’t at least some of the responsibility lie with the other people working with her who have surely heard of Taylor Swift and/or Billie Eilish?
The main reason I’m so skeptical of the “copycat” argument, however, is that even if Rodrigo has made her influences very clear, there’s not really anything wrong with that. All art is built out of other art, and what makes it original is the way an artist remixes and recombines the things that have inspired them. That’s all Olivia Rodrigo is up to, and while she’s being criticized because she’s a hot star of the moment, it’s a criticism that shouldn’t really hold water, no matter which artist is being accused. There’s a fine line between “plagiarism” and “paying homage,” but most good artists (including Rodrigo) know exactly how to stay on the right side of it.
And anyway, the bigger question at hand is: Why, in an era where a sprawling amount of human artistic expression is available to us in a mere number of clicks, are we so obsessed with “originality”? The easy answer is that we’re looking for something that stands out amid the sprawling amount of human artistic expression available to us in a mere number of clicks. But I would argue we’re also looking for that originality in the wrong place.
Originality in culture largely doesn’t exist. Even works we call “original” subvert and remix other works.
A paradox of the way millennials and Gen-Zers approach art is that most millennial and Gen Z artists, steeped in internet culture as we are (yes, fellow kids, I am a millennial), have a seemingly infinite wellspring of influences to draw from, and then we mash up those influences in increasingly baroque ways.
Yet when we talk about art, especially on the internet, we too often assume that if we can spot any similarities between one work and another, earlier work, the artist who came second has failed some originality test.
Ironically, the very internet that has facilitated our ability to outline and delineate these similarities is the same one that gave artists their long list of influences to mash up and puree.
You can see this tendency in the Rodrigo copycat video, but it has its roots in websites like TV Tropes. In and of itself, TV Tropes, which attempts to codify a whole bunch of common storytelling tropes, isn’t arguing that nothing original exists anymore (a separate issue). But the site does make it far easier to notice how almost all stories (and almost all art) are constructed from bits and pieces of other stuff. And that’s before you consider YouTube channels like CinemaSins and Honest Trailers, which delight in pointing out similarities between films as if those similarities are disqualifying.
What’s interesting is how quickly “this thing is like this thing” has become perceived, by some, as a slight against whichever thing we’re talking about that’s newer. As a critic, I frequently encounter readers who will see me compare, say, a modern horror movie to a film made by John Carpenter in the ’70s and react as if I’m saying the new film is somehow bad for being influenced by one of the greatest horror filmmakers ever. But my statement is value-neutral: I draw comparisons between works as a critic because I’m interested in the ways that artists form continuities of vision across time and space, as they influence each other and are influenced in return.
If I say, “The home invasion sequence in Jordan Peele’s Us has a lot in common with the home invasion sequences in John Carpenter’s Halloween,” I’m not riding down the former in favor of the latter. I’m just drawing a link between two films I love. I could extend the chain of influence further still — Halloween is obviously influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for instance, and Peele’s work has gone forward to influence lots of other filmmakers, at least some of whom have done fascinating things with his blend of horror tropes and social themes.
Certainly, there are wildly original artists, including some who invent new genres or types of art. Even still, they often tend to deconstruct or blend art in ways that haven’t been thought of before — which is to say they’re just recombining art in new ways, not completely inventing new forms.
Picasso’s invention of cubism introduced a seismically new way of looking at the world, but it wouldn’t exist if he didn’t already know as much as he did about creating art in more traditional ways. What’s more, Picasso and French artist Georges Braque arrived at the idea right around the same time, so even if Picasso initially inspired Braque, they were inventing cubism almost in tandem.
Similarly, when Federico Fellini supposedly invented the mockumentary with his 1970 film I Clowns, he was building on the legacy of other movies that had bumped right up against the idea of a “fake documentary,” notably the 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night, which is almost a fictional documentary about the Beatles, starring the Beatles, but not quite.
Shakespeare, a writer whose work contributed endless numbers of new words and phrases to the English language, largely told stories he appropriated from other sources, from propagandistic historical accounts designed to assuage the royalty of his era to plays with roots in lots of other countries and sources. And even a wildly original filmmaker like David Lynch finds that originality mostly in the way he tells his stories, not the stories themselves, which are largely pastiches of other American films and TV shows. (Twin Peaks is largely a primetime soap opera; it just has a lot of scenes that reveal the rotten core of the American dream.)
Musicians are similarly indebted to their influences. Listen to early Taylor Swift and you’ll hear a whole lot of influence from ’90s country. Listen to early Bruce Springsteen and you’ll hear a whole lot of influence from Bob Dylan. The entire genre of rock ’n’ roll music is a mishmash of various styles of Black music appropriated by white musicians, while hip-hop as an entire genre is built on the idea of pulling together bits and pieces of other songs to create new beats that artists can perform over.
We can zoom out even more. The human ear only “likes” a certain number of chord progressions and finds others jarring, so the vast majority of human music throughout history uses those very chord progressions. (You’ve heard of the “three-chord song,” right?) Heck, the “Dies Irae,” a tiny snatch of music from the 13th century, has been used and copied and sampled literally thousands of times.
Nothing is new, nothing is original, and nothing is devoid of influences.
What’s more, artists often don’t realize what they’re doing. They may set out consciously to do one thing without realizing they’re picking up on some other idea entirely. I routinely go back to my own writing and realize how heavily I’ve been influenced by something I didn’t realize I was thinking about. Ideas get stuck in our subconscious, and when we’re not paying attention, they leak out.
So did Olivia Rodrigo grab a handful of stray note progressions or chords in writing her songs, and end up writing music with lots of seeming similarities to the work of other artists? Sure. But to attribute that to a deliberate desire to just rip off those other artists misses the whole point of art, I think. It also underlines something core to what’s wrong with how we talk about pop culture right now.
Originality of content is overrated. Originality of voice is underrated.
“Triple Dog Dare,” the last track on singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus’s new album Home Video, is one of those songs I listened to 500 times after the first time I heard it. I didn’t know what grabbed me about it; I just knew the song had me by the throat. “Pay attention to me,” it seemed to say. “I have something in me you need to hear.”
So I looked up what Dacus had to say about the song. By her account, it was inspired by a close friendship she had with another girl in high school, one that flirted with evolving into a romance, or might have if either woman had realized she was queer at the time. In real life, the mother of Dacus’s friend discouraged the friendship because she anticipated the romance that might result. In the song, Dacus and her friend steal a boat and sail off into the unknown, together at last. It’s a bittersweet, completely fictional ending to a friendship that disintegrated in reality.
I didn’t know anything about Dacus’s history when I listened to “Triple Dog Dare” the first time. I just knew that Dacus had captured something about friendships between queer teenagers who’ve yet to figure out they’re queer on a level I found almost elemental.
It’s a theme I’m drawn to, over and over again, because I had a friendship just like that in high school, and the wounds of it remain fresh to this day. In my own work, it comes up again and again and again. My favorite episode of my own scripted podcast is about two women who didn’t know they were queer when they were younger reconnecting after years apart. So it stands to reason I would be deeply affected — and influenced — by Dacus’s portrayal of a similar situation.
One of the failings of the modern pop culture landscape is the way internet platforms have tended to flatten all art into one thing: content. TV, movies, books, music, games — when we’re buried under an avalanche of them, an understandable anxiety to experience as many works as possible becomes evident. To be completely morbid about it, there are only so many more movies I can see, so many more novels I can read, and so many more TV shows I can make it through before I die. Shouldn’t I try to maximize the amount of stuff I consume in that time?
In a word: no. Even though criticism is my job, endless consumption runs the risk of reducing everything I watch to just another notch in the belt. I need to see a lot of stuff to write what I do, but watching too much ends up obscuring deeper themes or more nuanced readings in favor of surface-level qualities of plot and immediately noticeable flourishes. When all we see are those surface-level qualities, it becomes dangerously easy to miss the forest for a handful of brightly colored trees.
A recent example from a very flawed movie: Cruella, the latest attempt by Disney to mine its animated history for new live-action movies, features a moment where young Estella (the woman who will grow up to be Cruella) watches three Dalmatians kill her mother. The moment is so over-the-top and darkly hilarious that it was quickly summarized by some viewers as “Cruella hates Dalmatians because they killed her mother,” because isn’t that a snarky way to condemn a bad storytelling tendency in modern movies meant to strip a corporation’s intellectual property for parts.
But “Cruella hates Dalmatians because they killed her mother” is also a complete misread of what actually happens in the film. Her enmity is, instead, directed at the woman who called those Dalmatians to attack — her mother’s actual murderer. Her desire to punish that woman becomes the character’s driving motivation. Boiling down the movie to its most obvious details obscures what’s actually going on.
Look: If the internet misremembers what happens in Cruella, that’s not the end of the world. It’s a perfectly adequate movie, but no great work of artistic vision. It is, after all, another IP-mining exercise. But the example is illustrative all the same. When you consume so much stuff that the only things that stick out are the most obviously notable sequences, everything becomes a collection of tropes that you can feel intellectually superior for noticing, even if you’re wrong about what they signify.
So my advice would be not to look for originality of content, but originality of voice. Don’t approach art as something you passively consume; approach it as the start of a conversation. What speaks to you in a work? What do you connect with? What conversation is the art having with you? With other works of art?
Here is where Olivia Rodrigo succeeds wildly. She might still be growing into her songwriting abilities, and she might lean too heavily on her influences from time to time, but her combination of those influences and her taunting, wounded lyrics indicate that, yeah, she has stuff to say, even when that stuff is, “Don’t you hate it when your boyfriend breaks up with you?” (I do, Olivia.) That voice is what her fans — and many music critics — have responded to.
Art is perhaps the most powerful tool imaginable to let us gaze directly into somebody else’s brain and find the places where we’re the same and the places where we’re really different. It’s a conversation, carried out asymmetrically, where somebody says, “I feel this way. Do you, too?”
In the best cases, you really, really do.