I feel badly for Olivia Rodrigo. Here she is with Sour, one of the most incredibly successful albums of 2021 in a period when albums aren’t supposed to be such a big deal.
by Marshall Bowden
It’s created the kind of fervor that was previously only seen upon the release of a new Taylor Swift album, or the latest Marvel film, or a new Harry Potter book. In short, it’s a cultural moment that found millions of people converging around this single album, something that happens less and less frequently, yet I find her trending on Twitter because of a story about how she has given away millions of dollars in royalties by handing out co-composer credits on several songs to Taylor Swift, Hayley Williams of the group Paramore, and their songwriting teams.
This appears to have happened because of commentary zinging around social media about the similarities between certain Rodrigo songs and songs by Swift and Hayley. It was noted that Olivia’s song 4U” was very similar to Paramore’s “Misery Business,” a single the band released in 2007. That notion was supported by a viral mashup of the two songs on YouTube, although it seems like the idea behind a mashup is to mix songs with similar characteristics or that create a dialogue with each other as seamlessly as possible. They aren’t court-level documentation of a deliberate similarity between songs.
It’s so much more about a feeling and the way the nuances of the delivery can remind the listener of another song. The two songs share a similarity, but not to the point that one was plagiarized from the other. Recent reports have indicated that Rodrigo’s team was in contact with representatives for Paramore prior to the release of ‘Good 4U’, which indicates that 1) Rodrigo and her co-writer, producer Dan Nigro had some feeling for the proximity of the two songs, and 2) Rodrigo wasn’t trying to pull a fast one over on anyone, which jibes with her overall aesthetic, which is to readily acknowledge her influences. She was gracious about Courtney Love’s bitching regarding the Sour Prom video’s artwork, which frankly came nowhere near copying Hole’s Live Through This album.
Rodrigo has also added songwriting credits to her songs “Deja Vu” to include Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff, and Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and “1 Step forward, 3 Steps back” to include Swift and Antonoff. On the latter track, Rodrigo uses a piano melody taken from Swift’s song “New Year’s Day.” The former utilizes elements of Swift’s song “Cruel Summer.” Rodrigo uses the term ‘interpolation’ in describing these uses of other people’s material, meaning that the elements were adapted and played by actual musicians on sessions for Rodrigo’s album rather than sampled from the work of other artists, but mostly it’s just a surface resemblance.
I ask myself–why would Olivia Rodrigo fork over what looks to be millions of dollars (an estimated 1.2 to 2 million for the Paramore song alone) if her use of elements and riffs inspired by other artists is limited to interpolations or even less? I mean, the simplest thing to do would be to wait for someone to file an actual lawsuit and then have lawyers deal with it. It seems possible that Rodrigo would have to pay the other artists something, but probably not as much as they’ll make as passive co-writers.
Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams and former guitarist Josh Farro certainly stand to gain, and that makes some sense. While the group has maintained a solid fan base, they never really hit the way many industry observers guessed they might. They’re a solid band with a number of good albums under their collective belts, and if this brings them some additional attention as well as money, well that’s all to the good, I suppose.
But Taylor Swift hardly needs the money, and neither do Antonoff or Clark, really. And the elements borrowed here are minimal. But we live in a litigous society, and so it may have been a calculation by Olivia Rodrigo and her teams (legal, PR, record label, etc.) that handing out co-writer status would stave off costly and publicity-negative lawsuits. Maybe Rodrigo is just a nice, non-confrontational person, and maybe she’s just really eager to see her influences receive their proper credit.
Rodrigo’s song “Brutal,” the leadoff track from Sour, appropriates the signature guitar riff from Elvis Costello’s song “Pump It Up.” It’s not subtle–the riff is right there, recognizable as can be. But Costello was unperturbed by the usage, tweeting “It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did. #subterreaneanhomesickblues #toomuchmonkeybusiness” Costello’s hashtags indicate that “Pump It Up” derived inspiration from Dylan’s famous song and from Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” Costello’s inspiration seems to come mostly from the wordplay and phrasing on the two songs rather than a musical riff, but what he says couldn’t be more true.
Rock and roll is self-referential, meaning that artists often refer to previous songs of their own and others in their compositions. I mean, consider David Bowie’s interpolation of “I read the news today, oh, boy” on “Young Americans.” Speaking of The Beatles, what about “Back in the USSR,” which, musically could have come from any early Beach Boys album and even aped the California group’s trademark vocal harmonies? Should Brian Wilson have a co-writer credit? How many songs and riffs did Frank Zappa’s doo-wop tribute Ruben and the Jets borrow?
Artists enter into conversations with each other and with the culture via songs and answer songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Clothesline Saga,” thought to be a parody of Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” or by ‘quoting’ other songs much the way a jazz musician will quote a famous standard or a nursery rhyme during their solo. One example of this is Shirley Manson’s ad-lib of the chorus from the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town” on the Garbage song ‘Special.’ Manson called Hynde and was granted permission to keep the quote on the track without any compensation.
You can’t just copy a huge part of another person’s song, though, as Darius Rucker found out when he copied what amounted to a full verse from Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” on his song “I Only Wanna Be With You” (say, that title sounds a bit familiar as well). Dylan’s management successfully sued Rucker and made money off the recording. But did Dylan get a cowriting credit? No.
At times granting cowriting credits is an easy solution when an artist realizes he or she may have been unconsciously influenced by another song. The Rolling Stones made such a concession when it was pointed out that the similarity of the chorus of their song “Anybody Seen My Baby” and k.d.laing’s “Constant Craving “were similar. I’m sure Mick and Keith didn’t set out to steal from k.d., but when they listened to it they might have thought ‘maybe I heard that on the radio, or was listening to it on a plane…oh, what the hell, give her a songwriting credit.’ It’s a one-off and we all know the Stones can bleed money for years without the well running dry.
But overall, it amounts to this: giving songwriting or publishing credits to artists who may have merely influenced a certain record is a dangerous business, and I wish Olivia Rodrigo had resisted it, though to be fair it js a decision that her labels, Interscope and Geffen Records, likely pushed hard for. It’s a legal decision, not an artistic one, and it sets a bad precedent.
The legal system works slowly, but overall it works as far as copyright protections go. One reason for this is that there is little guidance for the way musical cultures and subcultures evolve, enabled by technology, in the legal system. When a case like that of, say, Hayley v Rodrigo enters the legal system, a lot of research will be done and presentations will be made of previous legal cases and their decisions will be brought to bear on the matter at hand, regardless of its similarity (or lack thereof) to the previous case.
As an example, mixtapes went along happily as a thriving shadow economy until the 2007 raid on the Atlanta studio of DJ Drama and Don Cannon that led to racketeering and bootlegging charges against the two. But DJ Drama is still making mixtapes, one of the most successful DJs to do so, and he’s never seen the inside of a courtroom.
All of these legal mechanisms and arguments strip the case of most of its cultural and emotional qualities so that it can be adjudicated as well as possible. Furthermore, the legal system offers the possibility of appeals, so that one decision may not necessarily be the final word. But songwriting co-credits are forever. They do not end, and they go forward even after the death of the artists named as cowriters.
It also fucks with historical accuracy and research. Suppose that the songwriting credits for “Back in the USSR” become Lennon-McCartney-Wilson. The credit implies a link between the bands and the artists involved that simply didn’t exist. More than anything, “Back in the USSR” is a pastiche, defined as ‘an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.’ If Lennon and McCartney had been pressured by Capitol and EMI to add Wilson as a cowriter to avoid legal ramifications (which, I want to be clear, DID NOT happen) what effect would that have had on pop/rock music, or any genre, going forward?
Olivia Rodrigo has been clear about the influence of previous artists, especially female artists, on her work, shouting out Stevie Nicks, Lorde, and especially Taylor Swift, who she clearly worships as a role model. In a story talking about her process for writing “Drivers License” she discusses the fact that she was out driving around the neighborhood listening to Swift’s “Cruel Summer” and she got home and decided to write a song about it (driving around listening to sad songs, that is).
She also tells us:
“I posted a cover of one of her (Taylor Swift’s) songs off of Lover, ‘Cruel Summer,’ like a weirdo, and I did it on Instagram Live and she found it and she posted it on her story and was like, ‘This is amazing. Thank you so much’.“
And that’s why I feel badly for Olivia Rodrigo. She’s a fan. She loves her music and she listens with big ears and she is influenced by a lot of great music. She wants to be one of the club, one of the big girls. And goddamnit, she has talent and she deserves her shot. Part of assuming that rock and roll mantle is about being the snotty, ballsy kid who rides into town and says ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be one of the greats’. Remember Mick Jagger? Bruce Springsteen? Chrissie Hynde? Elvis Costello himself? I still remember reading interviews where Bono told journalists without a hint of irony that U2 would unquestionably be as big as The Rolling Stones.
You take your shot. Hayley took her shot. Elvis took his shot. So did Chrissie and Avril and Taylor and Annie…so let Olivia Rodrigo take hers. Maybe we’ll still be talking about her body of work in twenty years, maybe not. But let her do her thing.