Born This Way: It's the same old song... so what? - Features - Music - The Independent

Born This Way: It's the same old song... so what?

As Madonna's brother accuses Lady Gaga of stealing her latest hit, Fiona Sturges says pop plagiarism claims miss the point

A week ago an event occurred that changed the world as we knew it. It was met with almost universal jubilation and signalled a victory for oppressed people everywhere. I'm not talking about the toppling of the Egyptian president, though that comes a close second in terms of drama. I'm referring to the release of Lady Gaga's new single and ode to the disenfranchised, "Born This Way".

Few singles have been as hotly anticipated as this fist-pumping, disco-loving, self-proclaimed gay anthem, not least by Gaga herself who suddenly brought the release date forward, gasping on Twitter that she simply couldn't wait any longer. It is also the first from her forthcoming album, due for release in May, and is intended to give us a taster of delights yet to come. In this respect, "Born This Way" has done its job. It has won the approval of her millions of "little monsters", as her fans are called, shot to No 1 in the US Billboard chart, and heralded a suitably barmy Grammy performance, in which the singer seemed to hatch from a giant egg.

But "Born This Way" has also prompted a row that even this unapologetically demented, steak-wearing icon probably didn't anticipate, and that's whether she nicked it wholesale from Madonna's 1989 hit "Express Yourself". Leading the charge of accusers is Christopher Ciccone, Madonna's brother, with an expletive-ridden attack on the two songs' similarities. By Friday evening the internet was buzzing with comments simultaneously defending and blasting Gaga. Plagiarism clearly being in the ear of the beholder, by Monday the singer stood accused of stealing not just from Madonna but also from TLC, Alanis Morissette, David Guetta, Carl Bean and High School Musical as well.

So did Gaga deliberately filch her latest hit from Madonna? Given that this isn't exactly an under-the-radar release, it's pretty unlikely. Perhaps a more pressing question might be: does it matter either way?

Of course it doesn't. Sure, there are similarities between the two songs, most noticeably in the melody. But if you listen to it over and over you begin to hear – or imagine you're hearing – all manner of songs past and present. Why? Because mainstream pop music has broadly stuck to a formula in sound and structure that has been carried across the decades. If it didn't, it wouldn't be called "popular music".

When it comes to creating art in any form, sources of inspiration can be entirely unconscious. Add to this the fact that, in music, there are limited notes to choose from and a finite number of variations one can employ for a three-minute pop song, and the notion of what constitutes a copy, and what is mere coincidence, gets every more murky (Shostakovich is alleged to have underlined the point when he used the tune to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in his Prelude No 15 in D Flat Major).

Pop plagiarism has been a thorny issue ever since George Harrison lost a lawsuit in 1981 on the grounds of having used the melody of the Chiffons' song "He's So Fine" on his 1971 hit "My Sweet Lord". The judge conceded that this was a case of "subconscious plagiarism", though it still cost the ex-Beatle around £400,000.

Since then, barely a week has gone by without an obscure or long-forgotten musician complaining that someone has ripped off their cherished composition, in the hope of getting a writing credit and, where possible, a sizeable royalty cheque.

A year ago Eddy Grant, of "Electric Avenue" fame, requested credit for Gorillaz's "Stylo", from their album Plastic Beach, which he felt had overwhelming similarities to his instrumental B-side from 1982 "Time Warp". In 2008 Coldplay suffered a triple whammy when they were accused of plagiarism by Joe Satriani, Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) and an obscure outfit named Creaky Boards. Each claimed that the song "Viva La Vida" lifted substantial portions from their own compositions – "If I Could Fly", "Foreigner Suite" and "The Songs I Didn't Write", respectively. Creaky Boards retracted their allegations when it was proved that Chris Martin and Co had written their song long before they penned theirs. Satriani's case was settled out of court while Islam never pursued his.

Plagiarism can exist in many forms. It might refer to lyrical similarities, or echoes of the melody and structure of another song. It can also refer to unauthorised sampling, a can of worms that was opened after technology made it possible for artists to cut and paste other people's work. In the Eighties and early Nineties, many musicians were frequently caught out assuming that their samples were undetectable or too obscure. The KLF unlawfully used Abba samples in their 1987 album What The Fuck Is Going On? and ended up taking thousands of recalled copies to Sweden and burning them on a pyre.

But, while the use of samples is unambiguous, and now routinely credited, the broader appropriation of sounds and ideas is more difficult to prove. Of course, there is a fine line between inspiration and imitation. But at this stage in its evolution, is any pop music truly original? Elvis and the Rolling Stones used the sounds of black blues-players; Oasis borrowed liberally from the Beatles. For the past 20 years music has looked determinedly backwards, with the most popular bands of the present preferring to plunder the back catalogues of Eighties bands.

At the beginning of this week Madonna emailed Gaga to express her support for "Born This Way", leading Lady Gaga to remark on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: "If the queen says it shall be, then it shall be". It's possible that the Queen of Pop is simply delighted with the controversy, sitting back and totting up the royalties as pop lovers across the world, inspired by Gaga's single, revisit her greatest hits.

But whatever her reasons, if Madonna is happy with "Born This Way" then who are we to say its existence is wrong? I say leave Gaga alone and let her get on with the job of making largely derivative yet frequently inspired pop music. Let's face it, a world without her would be a very dull place indeed.

They're playing our tune: Four claims

Led Zeppelin Last year an American folk singer, James Holmes, who once opened a show for Jimmy Page's then-band The Yardbirds, attempted to sue Led Zeppelin for $1m in damages, citing plagiarism on the classic "Dazed and Confused". It's not clear why he took 40 years to make a formal complaint.



Nirvana In 1993 Killing Joke made a complaint against Nirvana, alleging that the Seattle band had stolen the riff of "Come As You Are" from their song "Eighties". This was dropped after the death of Nirvana's singer Kurt Cobain.



Elastica This all-girl four-piece released "Connection" in 1994, causing an instant commotion with its opening riff, which seemed to borrow from the art-punk band Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba". Wire were vocal in their disapproval, as were their fans, though they opted not to sue.

Grinderman In October Nick Cave and his Grinderman cohorts were challenged over "Palaces of Montezuma" by Scottish musician Frankie Duffy, who said it was based on his former band's 2005 song "Grey Man". "When the vocal hook comes in..." Duffy said, "it's exactly the same."

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week