Composers always channel passages and motifs from other pieces, blurring the lines between originality and plagiarism. On Tuesday, March 10, a jury ruled that Robin Thicke’s 2013 smash-hit song, Blurred Lines, written mainly by Pharrell Williams, isn’t so blurred after all but an outright plagiarism of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give it Up.
As children, we hear words, phrases, expressions, idioms, and other linguistic elements. This, then, is what informs the language we use when we are older. We echo the vocabulary that surrounded us and upon which we were weaned.
Music is a language as well and how we use it is no different.
As composers, the music that we were exposed to throughout our lives is our vocabulary. Naturally, there will be similarities between our original works and those that inspired us.
Indeed, as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) observed:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
But if there is nothing new, then how can we expect writers to develop truly original material? Can Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke be faulted for ostensibly plagiarizing a song by Marvin Gaye when nothing is truly original?
And what of the parody? The king of them all, a man who built his career on this particular art form, has to be the genius “Weird Al” Yankovic. Last year, in fact, he released a brilliant parody of Blurred Lines called Word Crimes. I love it. If you haven’t seen it before, watch it now! You won’t regret it.
In the Jewish world today, the parody has to be the most popular form of music on the internet. The most popular Jewish songs on YouTube are interpretations, whether serious or light-hearted, of secular pop songs. People absolutely love these parodies. I get emails with links to these songs left and right. Facebook posts are peppered with these links throughout the year.
Do you remember The Maccabeats’ first hit, Candlelight, a Hanukkah parody of Taio Cruz’s song Dynamite? Everybody went nuts over that one. The Maccabeats have over 10 million hits on YouTube for that song!
More recently, they had another huge success with All About That Neis, another Hanukkah spoof, this time of Meghan Trainor’s hit All About That Bass.
I, myself, came up with a parody a few years back. I turned Falco’s 1980s hit Rock Me Amadeus into a Hanukkah song entitled Rock Me Maccabeus.
My talented colleague, Michael Smolash at Temple Israel in Detroit, can be seen in a very popular Purim parody of Maroon 5’s Move Like Jagger. This one’s called Move Like Graggers.
Listen Up! A Cappella delivers a really good performance of Adon Olam set to Pharrell Williams’ Happy.
There’s a lovely rendition of John Legend’s All of Me set to Lecha Dodi out there by someone dubbed Muzika.
These are fun. Some of these are beautiful. Many are very clever. I actually enjoy many of these parodies. I really do. But I have to be honest: I’m getting tired of the parody form. I’m also disappointed in how successful they are.
There are no blurred lines with these parodies, mine included. These are works by others that members of the Jewish community have adapted. And that is, on a certain level, fine. What is troubling to me is the degree to which these parodies are admired in our community.
No New Carlebach or Zim
When you, the public, applaud the parody to the extent you do, then you are telling me, in my capacity as a composer, that originality is of little value to you. You would rather hear a song you already know with new, “Jewish”, words. You would rather hear something that is not simply derivative but something that already exists – repackaged.
Now here’s the risk, here’s what worries me: because of this demand, there may never be another Shlomo Carlebach, Sol Zim, Meir Finkelstein, or Israel Goldfarb. If you don’t know some of these names, trust me, you know their music. Their melodies resonate through synagogues or temples throughout the world.
Originality is not sought after or applauded. It is, in effect, discouraged. As a songwriter for the synagogue and community, I write in order to reach and communicate with you and to make you connect to Judaism. But when you make the parody video viral, you tell me that you would far prefer to hear a repackaged song by John Legend, Pharrell Williams, Adam Levine, or whomever than to hear something that is entirely new. You are shaping a community that is looking for the next funny, clever, or moving parody and you are discouraging me – and others like me – from producing original melodies.
As a result, our culture will suffer. Original songs are less likely to be listened to and less likely, then, to be written.
While there is indeed a tradition of contrafaction, of taking existing melodies and adapting them to different texts, original compositions are what should be most admired. The Psalms adore originality. If you want to express something of great value, the Psalms seem to be telling us, then make it new; say something new.
Originality in Tanakh
Kohelet understands that nothing exists in a vacuum. We draw from the past. We draw from our language. However, he himself points out one difference between originality and plagiarism. He says:
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance of later things
yet to happen among those who come after.
Time. Intention. Memory. Although Kohelet believes that ultimately nothing is truly original, he believes that it is because we forget the past. It is accidental that we are unoriginal. It is due to an inattention to the past. So in the case of plagiarism, that is clearly theft. Kohelet assumes an attempt at originality.
Consider the Psalms, the songs of worship that were sung by the Levitical choir in the great Temple in Jerusalem. Look at all these references to singing a new song:
Sing to Him a new song…
O sing to the Lord a new song…
O sing to the Lord a new song…
I will sing a new song to You, O God…
Sing to the Lord a new song…
New melodies are what the Tanakh praises. New melodies are the most cherished in the eyes of our sacred texts.
Room for Both
Yes, There is room for both. I know that I will continue to listen to parodies and I know that I will continue to make parodies as well. But I want originality to be held in far higher regard.
Throughout Jewish history, we have taken melodies from our surrounding cultures. That will continue. But if we only praise and applaud the parodies and virtually ignore the original tunes, we are making a strong statement against originality.
The lines between originality and plagiarism are blurring. I fear that these blurred lines may disappear altogether and what will be left will be a culture that has lost the ability to discern true originality from imitation. It may be true that there is nothing new under the sun but it is also true that we, the composers, should always be seeking to write a new song and that we, the audience, should always be seeking to sing a new song.