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.
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Pop's New Old Sound: Retro Without Rules

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Pop's New Old Sound: Retro Without Rules

Pop's New Old Sound: Retro Without Rules

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And recycled sounds from brand-name musicians have always been a fundamental part of pop music. This week brought an especially clear example of that. The blue-eyed soul singer Sam Smith agreed to give classic rockers Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne writing credit and a percentage of the royalties for his hit song "Stay With Me" because its chorus sounds so much like Petty's 1989 hit "I Won't Back Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")

SAM SMITH: (Singing) Oh, won't you stay with me 'cause you're all I need?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

TOM PETTY: (Singing) No, I'll stand my ground - won't be turned around.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear right there why. NPR music critic Ann Powers joined us to talk more about how sounds from the past infiltrate the pop charts of today. Good morning.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Pretty good. I'm wondering if you were surprised when you heard that Sam Smith would pay Tom Petty?

POWERS: I wasn't surprised. Actually, back-room deals around song similarities happen a lot in pop. But, Renee, Sam Smith's sound in general is indicative of a bigger shift that's happening on the Top 40 right now. The throbbing beat of electronic dance music that's dominated for the past couple of years seems to be giving way. And we have all these artists mining the past in many different ways without any sense of context - sometimes, it seems - or rules.

MONTAGNE: And when it comes to mining or borrowing from the past, Anna, I gather you have a bunch of examples.

POWERS: I'm thinking about this as kind of a new take on retro. People just seem to be playing around in the great playground of pop music. Ariana Grande borrows from Mariah Carey. Taylor Swift names her album "1989." And then there's the brand-new album by the band Fall Out Boy. It's a rock album, but it's just as much about sampling, pulling things out from old hits. The Munsters theme is on one of the songs. And then there's this song "Centuries" that the huge hit that takes from Suzanne Vega, the folky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CENTURIES")

FALL OUT BOY: (Singing) We are the poisoned youth.

MONTAGNE: All right, so you're suggesting this is a sort of rule-breaking recycling. I'm wondering if there is any way for musicians to do this recycling in a respectful way?

POWERS: Look at Mark Ronson, who's had the number one single in the country with Bruno Mars on vocals for the past several weeks. It's called "Uptown Funk."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")

BRUNO MARS: (Singing) Don't believe me. Just watch. Don't believe me. Just watch.

POWERS: 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. But Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars also have this way of mixing and matching. You know, Ronson was a DJ for a long time. And I think they put their own very contemporary stamp on it through the production. I think musicians are treating the past like a playground right now. But when you're somebody like Mark Ronson, you're also playing by the rules in a way. And in the end, I think it's a really positive thing.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, mining the past in music - NPR music critic Ann Powers, thanks very much for joining us.

POWERS: Thanks so much for having me, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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