Sam Smith backed down.
The current Rolling Stone coverboy agreed that his testosterone-free #2 hit “Stay with Me” sounded enough like Tom Petty’s #12 charting “I Won’t Back Down” to give the frontman of the Heartbreakers and collaborator Jeff Lynne songwriting credit. Smith’s camp claims his youth and ignorance of a song born three years before him make the similarities purely coincidental.
The age, rather than the singer’s, seems a more plausible excuse. We live in retread times.
Remakes, sequels, and films based on old comic books, fairy tales, and toys comprised fourteen of the fifteen top box-office draws for 2014. Hollywood sells brands, not entertainment.
The outlier, American Sniper, demonstrates the jonesing for anything remotely different. And the fact that films grossed less last year than they did five years before should shake Tinseltown into the epiphany that the formula for success for an individual movie drives down the entire industry. But it won’t.
Journalism, perhaps as a survival mechanism, relies increasingly on second-hand aggregation instead of original reporting. The media feeding-frenzy never appears as frenzied as when hundreds of “reporters” eat away at the same story with no new information. Last week, Sports Illustrated laid off its entire staff of photographers. The magazine that gave us Walter Iooss Jr.’s catch of Dwight Clark’s “Catch,” Neil Leifer’s iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing over a face-up Sonny Liston, and countless visions of bikinied beauties now will take such images exclusively from others. Stringers and wire services make SI more efficient. But better?
Just like in 1975, television viewers can tune in to The Odd Couple, Doctor Who, and Hawaii Five-O. Couch potatoes can choose from Dating Naked, Naked and Afraid, Buying Naked, and Naked Vegas but not, at least not yet, from Naked Moonshiners, Naked Mountain Men, and Naked Hoarders. And what’s the hold up on the CSI: Albuquerque premiere?
Sam Smith should have pleaded not guilty by reason of 2015. “Everyone’s doing it” seems as much a defense in Smith’s case as a broader rallying cry for the copycat age.
If Sam Smith’s fans say that the complainer advertises the smallness of his soul through his last name, Tom Petty’s fans might respond that Smith would have been better off lifting Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” or Tina Turner’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” certainly not a song called “I Won’t Back Down.”
Tom Petty graciously calls the similarities a “musical accident.” One senses that Smith and his songwriters accidentally left Full Moon Fever on repeat in the process of creating his hit. Who knows? Paul McCartney believed “Yesterday” another’s song when he awoke with the tune in his head. And the most impressive creations create further creations. Buddy Holly’s best songs came not in the 1950s but when McCartney and his three friends channeled The Texan’s spirit a few years later.
When it comes to sonic expropriations, listeners can surely say, “I’ve heard that one before.” I pick up Sammy Hagar’s “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy” when I listen to Death Cab for Cutie’s “Unobstructed Views,” Soul Brother Six’s “Some Kind of Wonderful” when The Faces’ “Three Button Hand Me Down” comes on my headphones, and The Cure’s “In Between Days” when I play Wilco’s “Pot Kettle Black.” Influence? Homage? Ripoff? My limitations as mere listener and not musician naturally limit the wisdom of any verdict here. And the fact that other listeners hear not what I hear surely leaves attribution open to interpretation.
Some songs grow out of other songs. Other songs are other songs. Your stereo does a better job than my pen discerning which is which.
We suffer from a surfeit of formulas and a dearth of originality. The power of hindsighted moneymen in the creative industries surely pushes the lively arts into a more sclerotic place. Too many wish to fit in; not enough seek to stand out.
The void, thankfully, invites filling from some enterprising, or hopefully imaginative, artist. Then, alas, the human Xerox machines arrive. The process, with any luck, starts again. People who love music, movies, and much else in pop culture have been waiting for that process to start again for a long time, made longer by hearing, watching, and reading the same thing again, and again, and again.
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