Pop's New Old Sound: Retro Without Rules : The Record From Sam Smith to Meghan Trainor, to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, many of the biggest hits on today's charts pilfer from the past, but not all borrowing works the same way.

Pop's New Old Sound: Retro Without Rules

Pop's New Old Sound: Retro Without Rules

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Bruno Mars (left) and Mark Ronson, whose song, "Uptown Funk!," has been the No. 1 song in the country for four weeks in a row. Vevo/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Vevo/Courtesy of the artist

Bruno Mars (left) and Mark Ronson, whose song, "Uptown Funk!," has been the No. 1 song in the country for four weeks in a row.

Vevo/Courtesy of the artist

Recycled sounds have always been a fundamental part of pop music, but sometimes a borrowed beat or melody is shockingly indisputable. This week we got an especially clear example when the blue-eyed soul singer Sam Smith agreed to give classic rockers Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne a 12.5 percent writing credit on his Grammy-nominated song "Stay With Me," because its chorus sounds so similar to Petty's 1989 hit "Won't Back Down."

Still, there are many ways to borrow from the past without tithing to it; recent hits range from Daft Punk's disco revival, "Get Lucky," to Ariana Grande's convincing Mariah Carey imitation to Taylor Swift's retro-from-the-title-on-down album, 1989.

Is a shift taking place? NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers spoke with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne about the new wave of backward-looking hits. "The throbbing beat of electronic music that's dominated for the past couple of years seems to be giving way. We have all these artists mining the past in many different ways, without any sense of context, it seems sometimes, or rules," Ann says. "It's tempting to just grab whatever's right in front of you."

To see the many ways the sounds of the past are infiltrating the hits of today, you only have to call the roll of musicians at the top of the latest pop charts.

Meghan Trainor


"Oftentimes in the past, musicians have painstakingly recreated sounds from other eras, but now people just seem to be playing around in the great playground of pop music," Ann Powers says. Trainor's album, Title, debuted at No. 1 last week, while two songs from the album ("Lips Are Movin" and the former No. 1, "All About That Bass") were among the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100. "She borrows from girl groups and showtunes," Ann says, "but then she raps like she's from the '90s or something."

Fall Out Boy


Always given to making reference-heavy rock, Fall Out Boy's seventh album (its second following a five-year hiatus) debuts at the top of Billboard's album chart this week. American Beauty/American Psycho "is a rock album, but it's just as much about sampling, pulling things out from old hits," Ann says. One song on the album appropriates the theme from The Munsters; another samples "Tom's Diner," the hit by Suzanne Vega.

Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars


Many musicians treat the past like a playground, but Mark Ronson, a successful DJ and producer (he produced much of Amy Winehouse's 2006 album Back To Black) who teamed with Bruno Mars for "Uptown Funk!," the biggest song in the country for the last four weeks, also knows how to play by the rules. "On one level this song borrows directly from The Time and Prince, and even further back from funk bands of the '70s like the Average White Band," Ann says. "But Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have this way of mixing and matching. They put their own very contemporary stamp on ["Uptown Funk!"] through the production and the performance."