Commentary

Creativity in pop music? Dream on

August 16, 2007|By Ann Powers

Elton John's recent public outburst about the Internet's effect on pop -- he suggested that a five-year cyberspace shutdown might be the only way to renew the music's creativity -- was greeted with eye rolling and the general consensus that he should splurge on an iPod. But his consternation is understandable.

The music industry is in tatters; the noise that amateurs once kept to themselves emanates from every corner of cyberspace, and between the money-obsessed mainstream and the hype-addled underground, there's no agreement on what will endure. For a traditionalist like John, it's a scary time -- old standards are dying fast.

Consider one of the enduring myths of pop: that originality is paramount. This idea always has been pretty much a lie, given the history of music-making as a borrower's art.

Artists like to believe their self-expression is really theirs; perhaps even more important, the financial structure of the music industry, which rewards creativity when it's copyrighted, has upheld the idea that one person can "own" a song.

Avril Lavigne is the latest allegedly unwitting magpie to suffer under this system. She's been accused of a host of rip-offs, including the chorus of her hit "Girlfriend," which so closely resembles a 1979 song by the power-pop band the Rubinoos that it has spurred a lawsuit.

Lavigne's former collaborator, Chantal Kreviazuk, subsequently accused her of pilfering ideas (Kreviazuk recanted her accusation after Lavigne threatened to sue her). And then it surfaced that another new Lavigne song might not be so fresh: The beats and vocal cadence of "I Don't Have to Try" mirror those that her fellow Canadian Peaches employed in 2003's "I'm the Kinda."

One would think a striver such as Lavigne would crumble under this scrutiny, but the very fans who have been eagerly tracing her transgressions are beginning to make a case for forgiving her. On YouTube, some videos make the argument that Lavigne is just part of a chain: A new single from High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens sounds uncannily like an older Lavigne hit, Mexican pop star Belinda is copping her style and -- hey, you! -- the Rubinoos borrowed their barking chorus from the Rolling Stones in the first place.

The written word is never as convincing as hearing the musical connections themselves, and the huge archive of recording available online allows for instant comparison. Where once an old blues tune that Bob Dylan borrowed from would be known by only the obsessive few, now anyone can argue about it in voluminous posts on the Expecting Rain message board.

Hip-hop already had made the patchwork nature of pop obvious years before through the collage technique of sampling. Cyberspace has made everyone a participant in the DJ culture of "digging in the crates." Artists still might want to make music no one has heard before, but they're forced to admit that even their most creative moments are just part of a long chain.

With the very idea of originality in flux, another trait defines today's most interesting stars. Distinctiveness is what matters -- the ability not to separate from the crowd but to stand out within it. The occasional lawsuit aside, pop stars are now much more willing to wear their influences proudly and make clear how they're building their own music from them.

Pop that aims for distinctiveness acknowledges its influences, tries to do them one better and, at its best, works real transformation. The White Stripes are distinctive because they're high-concept, putting the blues through an art-school wringer and coming up with a sound that's so far from "authentic" it finds a different road into truth.

Beyonce is distinctive because her rhythm-conscious vocal style updates the approach of the soul divas she emulates.

Some artists seem more beholden to their sources than others; this is where self-awareness comes in.

Imitation becomes creative only when it's acknowledged and truly examined. Amy Winehouse, the young English singer whose work with producer Mark Ronson painstakingly re-creates the feel of 1960s girl-group soul, offers the most obvious example of how bold imitation can become personal expression.

Winehouse's personality has proven strong enough to make her costume dramas come across as method acting.

Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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