Consider one of the enduring myths of pop: that originality is paramount. This idea has always been pretty much a lie, given the history of music-making as a borrower’s art. In an essay on the merits of playing copycat published in the February Harper’s, Jonathan Lethem traced the origins of American pop to the “open source” culture of blues and jazz and noted that recording techniques, which allowed for literal duplication of sounds, have steadily enhanced the artful cribbing pop’s innovators employ.
“As examples accumulate,” Lethem writes, “it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.” (Lethem later reveals that he “stole, warped, and cobbled together” his entire essay, including this idea, which came from the book “Owning Culture” by Kembrew McLeod.)
Lethem’s point might seem obvious to any sample-chasing hip-hop fan or Dylanologist who’s traced the master’s loving thefts over the decades. Yet the idea that a song or a sound can be unique remains potent, especially for musicians themselves. Artists like to believe their self-expression is really theirs; perhaps even more importantly, 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.
[...] THIS is why the Internet is killing originality, as an idea, anyway: When every source is so easily available, no one can pretend they’re alone. Scholars such as McLeod and Joanna Demers (”Steal This Music”) have argued about the effects of copyright law on creativity, and last year Timothy English published “Sounds Like Teen Spirit,” a compendium of too-close-for-comfort songs (did you know Nirvana might have re-purposed that famous opening riff from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”?). But 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.
[...] 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. [...]