Exploring the Boundaries Between Plagiarism and Desire

By Jean Cambareri

“It feels…reductive,” Madonna snarkily comments in an ABC News interview when asked about what she thinks of Lady Gaga’s hit single “Born This Way” sounding similar to her 1988 track “Express Yourself.”

When the interviewer questions, “Is that good?” Madonna simply picks up her glass of water, responds, “Look it up,” and smirks while bringing the glass to her lips.
Upon further research, reductive, which in essence means “simplified” or “crude,” doesn’t necessarily paint a positive picture of Gaga’s work, and it is clear that Madonna’s word choice here aims to diminish Gaga to a simplified version of herself.

Gaga, however, responded to the comparison by saying, “If you put the songs next to each other, side by side, the only similarities are the chord progression. It’s the same one that’s been in disco music for the last 50 years. Just because I’m the first fucking artist in 25 years to think of putting it on Top 40 radio, it doesn’t mean I’m a plagiarist, it means that I’m fucking smart.”

So is it understandable, or even commendable, that Gaga drew inspiration from Madonna, just as Madonna drew inspiration from Marilyn Monroe and so on, or is it simply reductive?

Stephanie Tom for Madonna v Gaga (v1).JPG
Art by Stephanie Tom

The original Madonna interview is over seven years old now, but the question is bigger than Madonna and her snarky comments, or Lady Gaga and her defensive fans. What defines the line between inspiration and plagiarism?

Truly, it is impossible to say that all creative work isn’t somehow influenced by artists that came before. Borrowing from the greats is not a new idea; it is certainly not something that Lady Gaga came up with, and it will undoubtedly occur for centuries to come.

However, a problem for many arises when an artist “borrows” from an entire culture that doesn’t belong to them, and then uses someone else’s work to propagate their own success.

Take rock and roll for instance; essentially, the genre is “rhythm and blues,” a style of music created by African Americans for African Americans, that was then appropriated by white musicians for white audiences.

From the Beatles’ catchy number one hits to Elvis’ “King of Rock & Roll” days, all the way up to Bruno Mars’ soulful radio ballads, musical artists have been accused of cultural appropriation due to obvious African American influence in their music. The appropriation isn’t limited to African American musical culture either; white artists have repurposed and boiled down many minority cultures, spinning them into international hits in the process (think Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” and Shakira’s “Waka Waka”).
Distinguishing between appropriation, inspiration, and downright plagiarism when listening to music is obviously an extremely complex process. The lines continue to get more and more blurred every day as artists continue to draw from each other and repurpose ideas despite their race.

Karolina Piorko for Madonna Lady Gaga
Art by Karolina Piorko

Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” is inspired by Elton John’s classic “Bennie and the Jets.” Ariana Grande’s song “7 Rings” is heavily influenced by The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things,” and Jay-Z’s hit track “Forever Young” samples Alphaville’s original version of the song. Everywhere we look today, artists are drawing inspiration from others and using it to put out innovative new work. It seems that the industry is so entangled in its own influence that calling any piece “reductive,” unless it is absolutely plagiaristic or completely rips off an oppressed culture, is simply unfounded.
Although it is true that inspiration and influence continue to get more complicated as the music industry progresses, it is still profoundly important to be able to recognize what differentiates appropriation from the rest.

K. Tempest Bradford, an NPR journalist, helps to distinguish between exchange of influence and cultural appropriation by turning to the writing of Maisha K. Johnson. Bradford writes, ‘That’s why appropriation and exchange are two different things, Johnson says—there’s no power imbalance involved in an exchange. And when artists appropriate, they can profit from what they take, while the oppressed group gets nothing.”

Even when keeping this distinction in mind, the boundary between copying and repurposing remains extremely hazy, and it only seems to be getting harder to pinpoint with each passing year.

Have we have reached the point of no return regarding influence in the music industry and beyond? Maybe the melting pot of genres and artists and inspirations that we seem to be continuing to stir is actually a good thing—a healthy part of creating inventive, original work.

This problem arises when white artists begin appropriating minority cultures without crediting them or allowing them to benefit from the exchange in any way.
Even so, the boundary between inspiration and plagiarism in the music industry is difficult to navigate as it is subjective and dependent on perspective. To some, Bruno Mars simply loves soul music, and is attempting to emulate his favorite artists in his songs; to others, he is ripping off a culture that he doesn’t belong to. To Madonna fans, Lady Gaga is reductive; but to Lady Gaga fans she is a musical genius, able to pull from many different inspirations, including Madonna herself.

In essence, it is nearly impossible to objectively determine whether a piece of music, or any art for that matter, is reductive or if it is simply inspired. When looking at the music industry today, it is difficult to pick out any song that is completely original and that has not drawn influence from somewhere else. But hey, what do I know? Maybe they’re all just copycats!

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