Friday, February 29, 2008
The Rolling Stones
Abkco : 1966
[Buy It]

The Four Tops
Available on : Anthology
Motown : 1974
[Buy It]

The Beatles
Capitol : 2006
[Buy It]

Pee Wee Crayton
Available on : Complete Aladdin and Imperial Recordings
EMI Int'l : 1996
[Buy It]

Rod Stewart
Blondes Have More Fun
Warner Bros. : 1978
[Buy It]

Bobby Womack
Facts Of Life
United Artists : 1973
[Buy It]

I have a bad cold, and so am weakened, and so cannot have very many original thoughts, and so have been casting around for thoughts I might borrow from others. That process, humiliating in some respects, comforting in others, got me thinking about originality and copying, which is one of the most fertile topics in pop music and indeed in all of culture. Are new ideas even possible? If you spin an old idea slightly, is it yours? If you copy and no one catches you, are you really free and clear, and what does it matter anyway? These are just some of the questions I stole from the bracing and provocative essay "Why Plagiarism is Central To Creativity," by Robert Scrivini.

Robert Scrivini is a man who was invented by a man named Jon Santore and myself, then a boy, many years ago in North Carolina. Today, Jon is a decorated composer, and I am a decorated writer, but back before anyone hung any decorations we were in the Scrivini business. We invented Scrivini because there were many occasions that called for fake people, particularly fake creative people. Who painted that painting, you know, the one I can't quite remember that shows a woman from the back standing by a window? Robert Scrivini, of course. What was the name of the mathematician who discovered the highest known prime? Robert Scrivini, of course. It started as a joke, like everything, like life itself, but eventually Scrivini became something else, an idea, the all-purpose stand-in for every known type of creativity. Scrivini was a true original. He thought of everything. This achievement was enabled primarily by his nonexistence.

Pop music is filled with tangled cases of unoriginality: "My Sweet Lord," "I'll Be Missing You," Negativland. I have always been most interested in instances where individual pop songs nearly replicate other individual pop songs. Scrivini seems to be, too, enough so that he devises a devilish metaphor to explain the phenomenon. Do you know what balut is? It is a duck egg with a fertilized duck fetus inside of it. It is a Filipino snack food. The previous two sentences seem incompatible with one another, I know. Sorry. Both are true. "The pop balut," he writes, "occurs when one thing has another very similar thing inside of it, and the combination produces both appetite and the violent loss of appetite for both things." Scrivini reviews many cases of pop-chart baluts, including a few I also originally experienced on my own. When I was seven or eight, for example, I heard the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb," which is from the 1966 album Aftermath. A few years after that, I heard the Four Tops' 1965 single "Same Old Song." My reaction was similar to the reaction Scrivini describes. I wanted to hear both songs again immediately, and then to never hear them again. The Stones had stolen from the Four Tops outright, and not only that, but stolen from a song that was itself about repetition and replaying. Scrivini has that insight as well: "The theft seems to encode its own confession (though it may have gone unnoticed by the band, which was later accused of copying the melody of k.d. lang's 'Constant Craving' for its 1997 song 'Anybody Seen My Baby?' and compelled to give a credit to lang and her co-writer Ben Mink)." I put the Four Tops song on a mix tape called Beforemath as a form of reparations.

A few years later, when I heard Pee Wee Crayton's "Do Unto Others," I knew far more about the way that white British rockers stole from American bluesmen and early R&B singers. Led Zeppelin is the most obvious example. "Page, Plant and company would never have written a song if they didn't rewrite Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Minnie, and others," Scrivini writes. I disagree: they would have written only "The Song Remains the Same." I was prepared for any level of theft from Led Zeppelin, but other groups' borrowings were still capable of surprising me. Especially when they were so straightforward: Crayton's opening blast of guitar was later, almost laughably, lifted wholesale by John Lennon for "Revolution." For some reason, I didn't mind this case as much. "Revolution" seemed like a better home for the stinging solo (here it appears in the version included on the 2006 album "Love," which George Martin and his son Giles created for Cirque du Soleil). Revolutions, of course, are new things, but also complete rotations that return to the point of origin. Paul Gaugin said that "Art is either plagiarism or revolution." He should have conceded that it can be both.

Scrivini cites Crayton, and Lennon, and the Gaugin quote, but he is most satisfying when most obscure. At the height of disco, Rod Stewart released Blondes Have More Fun, an album that contained the monstrously popular "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" The song, of course, derailed (or maybe rerailed) Stewart's career, completing the transiton from sensitive singer-songwriter persona to cock-of-the-walk sex jester. "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" remains one of the best disco singles, as well as one of the easiest to parody. The problem is that it was already a parody. Five years earlier, Bobby Womack had released Facts of Life, the last of a string of classic early-seventies albums that included Communication and Understanding. The album fared somewhat poorly and helped send Womack into obscurity. But Rod Stewart heard the album, I'm sure, not just because the similarities are too glaring but because Stewart would certainly have followed Womack's career--Stewart was obsessed with Sam Cooke, the man who first signed Womack and his brothers to SAR records in the early sixties, renaming them the Valentinos, and who employed Womack as a guitar player. (Speaking of taking what isn't exactly yours, Womack married Cooke's widow, Barbara, after Cooke's death.) So what was Stewart thinking? Was the plagiarism unconscious? Was it an homage? Was it an attack against a powerful forebear in a time when he was fortuitously (or tragically) diminished? In the end, it registers as something Oedipal, wonderful, and terrible, all at once. Scrivini, here, reaches for an original interpretation of Stewart's theft, and perhaps overreaches:
Cultural eventfulness of the sort represented by Stewart's hit, which was literally "put on the floor" (read: underfoot) by a generation of dancers, offers a transformative under-standing of Womack that re-energizes Paolo Legno's Menardian reiteration of Edward Said's famous observation: "The best way to consider originality is to look not for first instances of a phenomenon, but rather to see duplication, parallelism, symmetry, parody, repetition, echoes of it. The writer thinks less of writing originally, and more of rewriting."
The writer isn't the only one. The post-modernist feminist philosopher Millie Jackson combined the two songs into one medley on the 1979 live album "Live and Uncensored." If I didn't have a bad cold, I'd post it. Maybe later.


posted by Ben