Solar Power: random thoughts on music, music criticism, and Intellectual Property
[ This post was first published as an article on LinkedIn ]
In my mini-review of Lorde’s song “Solar Power” for PopMatters, I mention that the song uses the same chord progression as George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90”, and a lyric from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” (I make some other comparisons with Fiona Apple and Tori Amos too).
In music criticism/analysis, pointing references or making comparisons like these is a way to place a song or album in the landscape of popular culture as a whole. Art pieces are always in conversation with other art pieces, after all. But these parallels also point to some interesting debates on Intellectual Property (IP).
Earlier this year, Pitchfork published an interesting article by Mosi Reeves on online fan discourse about samples and similarities between songs, and how they can expose artists to legal trouble. Well, shining a light on copyright infringement in something that is made for public consumption is hardly worse than the infringement itself (when there is any). But the writer has a point in how centering music debate on similarities and sampling, even if there’s no ill intent behind it, can contribute to a culture where the “original” creators abuse their rights to enforce IP Law.
In the first listen of Lorde’s “Solar Power”, some people speculated whether the song sampled George Michael, or if it just resembles it, or, worse, if it plagiarized “Freedom ‘90”.
To me, it’s clearly just a case of usage of the same chord progression (a very cool one, by the way). Nothing weird about it. I can’t say for sure if there is a country or legal system in which this could be framed as problematic, but I really hope not.
And I really hope that, in music writing and criticism, the biggest risk a writer should have in mind when comparing two songs would be for the comparison not to take away from what makes both artists unique.
Music Professor Ethan Hein, whose blog I always learn so much from, just published a very insightful article about the origins of the groove and chords George Michael and Lorde use in “Solar Power” and “Freedom ‘90”, so I’ll borrow some of his words:
The logic of intellectual property is an awkward fit for the reality of creating the grooves in pop songs. Those grooves come from the vernacular traditions of the African diaspora, which are based on signifying on tropes. The idea of a work of music as an autonomous entity coming from the mind of a single individual is specific to modern Western Europe. The Romantic idea of the lone genius governs our copyright regime, but it’s ideological, not an objective description of how music gets made.
(…) If you want to hear music that isn’t broadly similar to existing music, you have to go to the furthest fringes of experimental and avant-garde music, and that stuff is not popular by definition.
If we think that copyright law should actually cover instrumental backings and grooves, that’s a debate we could have, but as of now, it doesn’t. I do want less-privileged artists to have legal protections against more-privileged ones, but so far copyright law has been wildly ineffective for that purpose. In the meantime, it’s not like originality has ever been much of a virtue in mainstream pop music. Maybe we should just recognize that songs sound like other songs and relax about it.
Working in the intersection of music, writing, and Intellectual Property Law, I often find myself having these debates and thinking of them from different angles (not only to spot potential conflicts of interest but also to understand how these fields influence each other). My conclusion is almost always the same, and same as Hein’s too:
It makes me sad that people are getting sued over vague similarities in grooves, because there are just not that many different grooves or chord progressions that sound good, and all the good ones have been used over and over again. I want creators to be able to protect their livelihoods, but a hyper-litigious environment only benefits the people with the resources to hire lawyers.
My review of the track for PopMatters. June 11th, 2021.
Article by Mosi Reeves for Pitchfork. January 21th, 2021.
Blog post by Ethan Hein. June 11th, 2021.