The Fans

Haven't I Heard This Song Before?

The hook in Vanilla Ice's song "Ice Ice Baby" was based on a passage from "Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen, but the rapper denied the similarity at first. i i

hide captionThe hook in Vanilla Ice's song "Ice Ice Baby" was based on a passage from "Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen, but the rapper denied the similarity at first.

Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
The hook in Vanilla Ice's song "Ice Ice Baby" was based on a passage from "Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen, but the rapper denied the similarity at first.

The hook in Vanilla Ice's song "Ice Ice Baby" was based on a passage from "Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen, but the rapper denied the similarity at first.

Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Over the last couple of weeks, the sounds of pop's biggest hits have been distractingly familiar. Almost as soon as it hit the Internet, "Roar," the brand new smash by Katy Perry, was accused of sounding an awful lot like the recent song "Brave," by Sara Bareilles. A legal dispute now surrounds the No. 1 song in the country, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," over its similarity to "Got to Give It Up," the 1977 hit by Marvin Gaye.

Today on All Things Considered, NPR's Neda Ulaby talks with NPR Music pop critic Ann Powers about the history of pop sound-alikes. "Songwriters have borrowed from each other, played off each other. People have claimed the right to songs in the public domain," Ann says. "This is part of the art of pop."

But not all borrowing is equal. This got us thinking about the different ways musicians act as mimics.

Sometimes intellectual property laws are involved. If a musician takes a song she loves and incorporates all or part of the actual recording into a new song, that's sampling. Releasing the new song requires the permission of whoever owns the original recording and, often, a financial agreement. (You can trace our current understanding of the copyright laws around sampling to a 1991 suit by Gilbert O'Sullivan against Biz Markie for the use of O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" in Biz's song "Alone Again.")

If a deal can't be reached, or the sound of the original recording isn't quite right, the musician can re-record an element of the song she loves, say a little snippet of melody or a particular drum pattern. This is called interpolation. The re-created element can be a nearly exact replica or just vaguely similar. Sometimes, an interpolation can be so close that it's hard to tell if it's any different at all — think of Vanilla Ice's famous denial that "Ice Ice Baby" was sampled directly from Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure." If it's really a new performance, permission is not needed, but the writer of the original song gets credit and, if there are royalties, a share of the money. (Think of cover songs as extended interpolations.)

Then there's the shady, mysterious land that occupies the area between what we'll call "inspiration" and "coincidence." Here's where things get contentious. Pop music history is full of tributes, riffs and echoes that make us turn to the radio and go: "Haven't I heard this song before?" Sometimes, it turns out, we have.

Pop Songs That Sound Like Other Pop Songs

  • "Simple Gifts" (Shaker Hymn)

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    As written in 1848 by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett Jr., "Simple Gifts" has just a single verse, but its unassuming melody has made it endlessly adaptable.

  • "Appalachian Spring"

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    In his "Appalachian Spring" suite, which premiered as an accompaniment for a ballet choreographed by Martha Graham in 1944, Aaron Copeland uses the melody from "Simple Gifts" as an extended theme with multiple variations. This is a classic interpolation. It's also not the last time the melody from "Simple Gifts" was used. English songwriter Sydney Carter based his song "Lord of the Dance" on it, as did Weezer's Rivers Cuomo when he wrote "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived."

  • "You Can't Hurry God (He's Right On Time)"

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    Written by gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates, who influenced a number of soul and R&B singers of the 1960s. "You Can't Hurry God" begins with the line, "You can't hurry God / Oh, you've just got to wait / You've got to trust him and give him time / no matter how long it takes." A classic of the "holiness is a mystery, patience is a virtue" school.

  • "You Can't Hurry Love"

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    The 1966 hit by The Supremes, written by the Motown team of Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland, doesn't sound much like Coates' song. In fact, though the influence of the opening lines of "You Can't Hurry God" are clear, there's little else about the Supremes version (or Phil Collins' 1983 cover) that lines up. Is it interpolation or just inspiration? Either way, the gospel singer didn't receive an official credit.

  • "Got To Give It Up"

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    An unambiguous Motown original, the shuffling, falsetto-laden groove of "Got to Give It Up" was written by Marvin Gaye and Art Stewart. It was a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit for Gaye in June of 1977.

  • "Blurred Lines"

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    Robin Thicke told GQ earlier this year that "Got to Give It Up" was a direct inspiration for his chart-dominating song, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 almost exactly 36 years after Gaye's hit. Where does inspiration end and interpolation begin? This song is becoming a test case: Gaye's estate accused Thicke and his co-writer, Pharrell Williams, of stealing. It's been reported that Thicke offered a six-figure sum to pre-empt a copyright suit. When that was rejected, he asked a Los Angeles court to rule that the shuffling groove in "Blurred Lines" is distinct from "Got to Give It Up."

    See also: Earlier this summer, Canadian R&B act The Weeknd released a song called "Belong to The World." The drums in "Belong" bore such a striking resemblance to the earlier song "Machine Gun" by Portishead that nearly everyone who wrote about it, including Portishead's Geoff Barrow, assumed they were a sample. Not so, said The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye. Just inspiration.

  • "Brave"

    YouTube

    Which song does this 2013 hit rip off? Wait, no ... "Brave," Sara Bareilles' self-empowerment anthem, built on a bed of compressed drums and eighth notes pounded out on a piano, is the latest victim of an indistinct musical crime that exists somewhere in the region of the pop landscape that can be triangulated between outright theft, utter coincidence and what we might call "the rules of the game."

  • "Roar"

    YouTube

    Katy Perry's own empowerment anthem has a similar eighth note piano pattern and came out just four months after Bareilles' "Brave," but does she owe the other singer anything? Probably not. Pop songs often sound alike, says Ann Powers, because audiences want "familiarity with just a touch of novelty." And even though Perry is likely to have the bigger hit, the attention has lifted sales of Bareilles' song through the roof.

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