Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Viva la Vida" -- Coldplay (Viva La Vida)

Were I a Coldplay fan, this song might make me a little worried. It's hyper-glossy and produced, the edges rounded off, and the lyrics verge on unpleasantly reminding me of Sting when he gets pathologically Sting-y (you know, when he starts singing about churches and his his soul and the epic sweep of something or other).

There are some things to like about it. First off, Chris Martin and his Chris Martin-y voice, which combines the high tenor wail that's been popular for the last ten years (was Jeff Buckley the first one on that field, or just the first person I noticed?) with a little bit of British thickness. The repeated, "that was when I ruled the world," in the lyrics is definitely catchy, and hyper-produced though it is, the bouncy orchestral motif definitely keeps everything moving.

That's not why I'm writing about this song, though. It's the fact that Joe Satriani is suing Coldplay, claiming they stole the melody from his song, If I Could Fly (let it get to about 0:50 and you'll hear the section in question). Musically there are a several things of note here. The two songs are in virtually the same tempo; while not in same key, the chord progressions are almost the same (both are four chord riffs, the first chords differ but essentially one is a jazz-substitution of the other); finally, and probably of most interest to Satriani, the melody that Chris Martin sings indeed sounds perilously similar to the main guitar solo that Satriani plays.

Fronesis, bringing this to my attention, put it this way
I don't make music, so it's hard for me to calculate odds of:

A. Intentional purposive stealing.
B. Accidental 'influence'.
C. Completely independent works that coincidentally sound the same.

I'll say straight off that musically speaking, there's pretty much no such thing as C. Nobody making music lives or composes in a vacuum, and if you're creating popular music, you're actively trying to emulate a particular sound--you're only going to be successful if you're creative within certain, limited, parameters. One of the things that became obvious to me very quickly was that the path to success in popular music is to sound exactly like everyone else who's already popular, except slightly different.

I'll also say that it's not that I think that A. never happens, I think it happens a lot. Whether or not it's okay depends probably on a lot of things. While in writing the line between quoting and plagarism is pretty bright and well-defined, the same isn't true for music. Musical quoting is more in the same family as putting an unattributed quote from Shakespeare in your novel: nobody accuses you of plagarising because it's so screamingly obvious that you did.

More importantly, though, in music everybody is stealing from everybody else all the time. Much of the time they're freely admitting it--musicians call it "having influences." As long as you don't run afoul of the law (which, as we've seen before, has rules about what belongs to you when you write a song that are both sweeping and narrow, specific and arbitrary, and...well, I just hope that I myself never have to navigate them), the rules seem to be simple: only steal from the famous, change it a little bit, and announce to everyone who will listen exactly from whom you're stealing.

As for this particular case, I think it's pretty well impossible to sum things up better than this guy has:

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