Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Here Are a Bunch of Pairs of Pop Songs That Are Essentially the Same

A few days ago, I posted this online:
"I am listening to a self-curated playlist of pairs of songs that are essentially the same. If this interests anyone I can put it on Spotify."
Turns out a number of people were interested, so I've done you one better: a Spotify playlist and a whole post of commentary and notes.

Katy Perry, one of the most prolific offenders
Take a look, and a listen, and feel free to share what you think about any or all pairings. Can you think of more? I'm sure there's more than one post in this topic.

"Party in the U.S.A." - Miley Cyrus (The Time of Our Lives, 2009)

"Hurricane" - Bridgit Mendler (Hello My Name Is..., 2012)

Offenders: Emanuel "Eman" Kiriakou, Andrew "Goldstein" Goldstein

One reason I liked the singles by Disney alum Bridgit Mendler (Good Luck Charlie) off her debut album Hello My Name Is... was that they had all the sheen and polish of A-list pop singles without having A-list producers. If second single "Hurricane" had been produced by, say, Dr. Luke et al, the sonic and structural kinship with Miley Cyrus' first big pop hit (also produced by Dr. Luke) might be a bit more bothersome. But the resemblance between Mendler's affable sophomore single and Cyrus' joyous, Jessie J-penned top ten smash is loose enough and innocent enough that it's just harmless fun to hum one when listening to the other.

"Diamonds" - Rihanna (Unapologetic, 2012)

"Aviation High" - Semi Precious Weapons (Aviation EP, 2013)

Offender: Tricky Stewart

 I suppose it's better when a new, unknown artist copies a superstar than the other way around; despite the standards to which I hold most established or major label acts, I give a lot of leeway to the unsigned and unknown musicians out there facing a deck stacked ludicrously against them. Semi Precious Weapons (who opened for Ke$ha on her latest solo tour) almost gets a pass for their knockoff of a Sia-penned Rihanna hit I never liked until this got me listening again, especially since "Aviation High" is really quite good. But the single was produced by A-lister Tricky Stewart, who I feel can't really claim total innocence, being the co-writer of "Umbrella" and all. ("Aviation High" even rhymes with "diamonds in the sky." And both have to do with elevation. I mean come on.)

"We Can't Stop" - Miley Cyrus (Bangerz, 2013)

"Our Time" - Lily Allen (Sheezus, 2014)

Offenders: Lily Allen, Greg Kurstin

Lily Allen's post-babies comeback album, Sheezus, is one of those vexing problem children of pop music often called a "hot mess." Its highs are thrilling enough to make you endure the equally dramatic lows, and the emotional whiplash makes you uncomfortably defensive and keeps you coming back. Fortunately, the low of "Our Time" makes far less impact than, say, the music video for your triumphantly feminist lead single being accidentally racist, but then again, at least "Hard Out Here" was a creative choice that backfired. "Our Time," on the other hand, is not what we've come to expect from a writer as talented as Allen: it's a cynical, inept, transparent,and, worst of all, lazy attempted knockoff of Miley Cyrus' influential "We Can't Stop." It even has some pitch-shifted blabbering in the intro - I mean, really. We know you can write good songs, Lily Allen, and we know you can produce them well, Greg Kurstin. What the fuck is this shit.

"Give Your Heart a Break" - Demi Lovato (Unbroken, 2011)

"Team" - Lorde (Pure Heroine, 2013)

Offenders: Lorde, Joel Little

Lorde fan that I am, I've never been especially fond of "Team," even while recognizing its necessary selection as the followup single to "Royals." What makes "Team" a good sophomore single after a breakout hit that was an exception rather than a rule is its familiar pop song structure (like "Royals") traditional chord progression, and fullness of sound depth in the production, particularly on the chorus (unlike "Royals"). In other words, for someone won over by the many ways "Royals" broke the mold, after the seductively beguiling 30-second intro, "Team" is a royal letdown. But for the stratified tastes of mainstream radio and the people whose pop music tastes it controls, "Team" is A-OK. The fact that you can sing Demi Lovato's 2011 single "Give Your Heart a Break" alongside said chorus is probably, in this case, a good thing.

"A World Alone" - Lorde (Pure Heroine, 2013)

"Here For You" - Gorgon City feat. Laura Welsh (Here For You, 2014)

Offender: Gorgon City

See, I want to think that "Here For You," the UK hit single by up-and-coming production duo Gorgon City (whose single "Real" made Vertigo Shtick's Top Ten Singles of 2013), sounds just like the closing track on Lorde's Pure Heroine utterly by coincidence. But they're in the same key. And the same tempo. On the whole it doesn't rank among the most egregious of crimes, since "A World Alone" is a deep cut (although how deep can any Lorde cut be when not even two dozen of them yet exist?), but some acknowledgement would be nice.

"Express Yourself" - Madonna (Like A Prayer, 1989)

"Born This Way" - Lady Gaga (Born This Way, 2011)

Offenders: Lady Gaga, Fernando Garibay, Jeppe Laursen, DJ White Shadow

I only put this on here because it cause such a big to-do back in 2011 and I wanted to show how comparatively benign the similarity actually is. Gaga could very well not have realized that the chorus to her very important (in her head) single "Born This Way" followed the same harmonic pathway as Madonnas' 1989 single "Express Yourself" until an angry critical public pointed it out (I didn't). Because Gaga's artistic ouevre as a whole, then significantly less defined than it is today, was drawing much comparison to Madonna's at the time, folks were especially alert to any definitive reference on Gaga's end - probably more so than the artist herself. That the issue caused such drama had more to do with the younger artist's stubbornly hubristic mishandling of the situation. If "Born This Way" came out today, now that the Madonna stuff has all but dissipated, I doubt anyone would make much of a commotion. (More on "Born This Way" as a postmodern pop touchstone.)

"TiK ToK" - Ke$ha (Animal, 2010)

"California Gurls" - Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg (Teenage Dream, 2010)

Offenders: Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco, Max Martin

I actually find this one more fascinating than upsetting. The great "TiK ToK"/"California Gurls" tag team of 2010 hearkened back to the days of early Britney Spears, when pop craftsmen worked more dextrously and creatively, using formulas to create songs that still had their own unique melodic ideas, like the blues, or the English carol. In this case, each chorus has three lines based around a repeated F note followed by an "oh"-based fourth (Ke$ha's goes up, Katy's down). The lyrical meter is largely the same as well (long, long, long, short-short-short-short-short-short-short-short-short). It is possible to sing one song entirely along to the other, with some concentration (another fun parlor trick), but they are clearly distinct songs at the end of the day. A DJ named Chris Lohr created the preeminent mashup that has disappeared and reappeared numerous times over the years and is essential listening for any pop fan.

"Poker Face" - Lady Gaga (The Fame, 2008)

"Bad Romance" - Lady Gaga (The Fame Monster, 2009)

"Judas" - Lady Gaga (Born This Way, 2011)

"Scheiße"- Lady Gaga (Born This Way, 2011)

Lady Gaga has been open with anyone sagacious enough to ask about her experimentation with formula pop on her first three albums, and because she was so committed to maximizing the originality of each variation, it was fun to see what she came up with within the same formulaic confines. It helped that it was a uniquely Gaga formula, with quirks that developed as Gaga grew weirder, from the "muh-muh-muh-maw"s of "Poker Face" to the "rah-rah Gaga-ooh-la-la"s of "Bad Romance" to the faux-pidgin German of "Scheiße," and of course the spoken interlude section that brought us "bluffin' with my muffin," "I'm a free bitch, baby," and the infamous "ear condom." Sadly, she seems to have retired the formula after Born This Way, as she intimated she would; no variation appears on ARTPOP.

"Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" - Katy Perry (Teenage Dream, 2010)

"Domino" - Jessie J. (Domino, 2011)

Offenders: Dr. Luke, Cirkut

"The “Domino” – “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” similarities are so blatant that if you took the former down a half-step, started both tracks at the same time and found a friend to sing one while you sang the other, you’d make a jumbled but complementary music: instant mash-up. The verses would be in the same spots, as would the pre-choruses, the chorus, the middle eight, the finale…even the melodies would start to sound harmonious. The lyrics on “Domino” are nothing more than a series of cut-and-paste similes lifted from a Songwriting 101 textbook interspersed with non-sequitors and clichés that would make Diane Warren click her tongue. Not that lyrics matter all that much in pop music, but when you’re trying to sell the country on your voice it helps if you’re singing something worth listening to." (From "Reductive: How Dr. Luke & RedOne Gave Katy Perry, Jessie J, Flo Rida & Nicki Minaj the Same Old Song")

"Brave" - Sara Bareilles (The Blessed Unrest, 2013)

"Roar" - Katy Perry (Prism, 2013)

Offenders: Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cirkut

Boy, have I gone up and down on this one. I'd heard about the controversy before investigating on my own, and perhaps because of the "Born This Way"/"Express Yourself" hullabaloo I tend to be more skeptical of the public's copycatting claims than those I notice on my own. In this case, I was really taken aback by how blatant the appropriation was, especially in the opening; when I'd play the songs back to back it would hit me especially hard. I morphed into a "Katy copied Sara!" evangelist, and an argument on the subject with a friendly co-worker almost escalated into a real fight. Eventually, I think I was browbeaten into appreciation of "Roar" by peers and fellow critics, and the two singles shared the #24 spot on this blog's Top 40 Pop Singles of 2013 list ("Both share the same plunking keyboards, harsh syncopated drum loop, and soaring-chorus empowerment-anthem template, not to mention seriously Disney Channel lyricism - low-calorie pop, for sure, but at least it won't rot your teeth....Each has its flaws... but in the end it's hard to fight all that positivity." But frankly, I still find it pretty infuriating.

"Drive By" - Train (California 37, 2012)

"50 Ways to Say Goodbye" - Train (California 37, 2012)

Offenders: Pat Monahan, Espionage (Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklund)

This was an honest, and amusing, discovery on my part, as you can see in this Twitter exchange.

"Mr. Saxobeat" - Alexandra Stan (Saxobeats, 2011)

"Get Back (ASAP)" - Alexandra Stan (Saxobeats, 2011)

Offenders: Andrei Nemirschi, Marcel Prodan

Ah, 2010 to 2011...the golden age of the EDM era, that blissful period when stylistic identity had been hammered out and the sound perfected, before it began to get diluted with bargain-bin knockoffs and general overuse (i.e. post-"Hold It Against Me", pre-"We Found Love"). In this time of joy and happiness, a handful of exotic singles by absolute unknowns managed to sneak their way onto the US charts and the notoriously insular radio airwaves, including Edward Maya & Vika Jigulina's "Stereo Love," Yolanda Be Cool and D Cup's "We No Speak Americano," and Duck Sauce's "Barbra Streisand." One of the most successful of these interlopers was the hypnotic if banal "Mr. Saxobeat," by the unknown Romanian singer Alexandra Stan. It figures that an artist would try to capitalize on such rare US success with some kind of album release, even if there's not time to actually put together anything terribly decent. For Stan's debut it would make sense to have more material similar to "Mr. Saxobeat" - but follow up single "Get Back (ASAP)" is literally "Mr. Saxobeat" upside-down. No, really, you think I'm exaggerating? Listen and try not to snort into your lemonade.

"Supersonic" - J.J. Fad (Supersonic the Album, 2005) / "Give It All You Got" - Afro Rican (Give It All You Got (Doggy Style), 1987)

"Fergalicious" - Fergie feat. (The Dutchess, 2006)

"Lollipop (Param Pam Pam)" - Alexandra Stan (Saxobeats, 2011)

Offenders:, Marcel Prodan

There's another amazing bit of aggressive postmodernism on Saxobeats that I enjoy far more than "Get Back (ASAP)" because it takes such an exuberant leap over the edge of sanity and propriety it's impossible to take it seriously. "Lollipop (Param Pam Pam)" is pretty much exactly what you'd imagine it to be, only more so. "Lollipop" isn't just a bald ripoff of "Fergalicious," it's a ripoff of the music video for "Fergalicious" too: it essentially xeroxes the hook and the chorus, then instead of verses about Fergie (we've got SOME standards, guys!) it seems some brilliant writer looked at Fergie writhing around in a sea of candy, saw her holding up a lollipop for a couple seconds, and went with it. Somewhere, Jeff Koons is smiling.

But best of all, "Fergalicious" is itself a Frankenstein's monster of used material from the late 80s, most prominently the 1987 Miami hip hop trailblazer "Give It All You Got (Doggy Style)" and the Grammy-nominated 1988 single "Supersonic" by pioneering hip hop girl group J.J. Fad.

"Levels" - Avicii (Levels, 2011)

"Good Feeling" - Flo Rida (Wild Ones, 2012)

Offenders: Dr. Luke, Cirkut

Sometimes I wonder if Dr. Luke does any work at all. I remember hearing "Good Feeling" a lot on television during the London Olympics and wondering how Avicii felt about it, seeing as the portion they played didn't include Flo Rida's yammering, meaning it was basically just the Avicii sample (which, of course, samples a bit of Etta James, who conveniently died just before she could collect on the royalties). But more on "Good Feeling" a bit later.

"Jenny From the Block" - Jennifer Lopez (This Is Me...Then, 2002)

"Becky From the Block" - Becky G. (Becky From the Block, 2013)

Offender: Dr. Luke

I wrote this on the Popologist Panel: "So, is Dr. Luke not even trying anymore? I almost admire his balls - in a better world this would all turn out to be some Warhol-esque act of satire of the postmodern pop/hip hop penchant for pastiche and plagiarism, but I doubt it. Dr. Luke is less an artistic philosopher than lazy/arrogant shlock peddler, and I fear he may actually destroy pop music one day if he keeps up his present course down the road to cynical commercial pop purgatory. What he sees in this girl he's devoting all his Ke$ha time to is beyond me. All I get from this introductory single is that Becky G. knows Los Angeles landmarks, she's studied Latina stereotypes, and she is not Ke$ha nor anything I have any interest in hearing more from. "Jenny From the Block" was both embarrassing and sublime; "Becky From the Block" is an embarrassment to pop music and the so-called genius behind it who once again has found a level lower than rock bottom."

"Halo" - Beyoncé (I Am...Sasha Fierce, 2008)

"Already Gone" - Kelly Clarkson (All I Ever Wanted, 2009)

Offender: Ryan Tedder

This one has always pissed me off more than anything. It's not just that Ryan Tedder clearly pawned the same backing track to two major stars at about the same time, but that he so vehemently and indignantly denied it when the proof was right there for anyone to hear! And then for "Halo" (which ranks up there with "Grenade" among my most despised pop singles of all time) to get all that Grammy love... let's just not go there. At least Kelly Clarkson spoke out against Tedder and her label; it's a bummer that bullshit-free artists like her are the exception and not the rule.

"Karma Bitch" - Anjulie (Unreleased, 2013)

"Donatella" - Lady Gaga (ARTPOP, 2013)

Offender: Zedd

I know I'm in the minority, but I love "Donatella," the critical punching bag from ARTPOP. I'm sad to learn that the Zedd production track had originally been sold to Anjulie (one of my favorite singers, as we know), and that the problems she had with her former label kept "Karma Bitch," not to mention the rest of her fascinating and promising "EDM storytelling" project, from seeing the light of day. At the end of the day, it means I get two tracks I love for the price of one, but I don't like having my pop music come with a side of guilt!!!

"Trash Me" - Jessie Malakouti (Trash Me, 2007)

"If U Seek Amy" - Britney Spears (Circus, 2008)

Offenders: Max Martin, Shellback, Savan Kotecha, Alexander Kronlund

This one has a story behind it, and it also makes for a good parlor trick, since it'll be news to almost anybody and it's also pretty grody. This is the only such black mark on Britney Spears' entire career library, and let's be honest, "If U Seek Amy" is also her worst career single, isn't it? Perhaps it's karma, then - at least Jessie Malakouti would say it were so. Apparently, Malakouti had worked on some music with a few certain Swedish gentlemen when she was signed to the UK label Xenomania in the mid-2000s, including the single "Trash Me," released in 2007. But the single, and the artist, never took off, and after Malakouti split with Xenomania these same Swedes went to work with one Britney Spears on her big comeback album, Circus, and quite blatantly repurposed significant elements of the (already published) single "Trash Me" for what would become Circus' third single, "If U Seek Amy" (only because the choice was made by fan vote). Malakouti was understandably perturbed, and said so in a blog post, which as is so often the way of things has long since been taken down (thankfully preserved in part here). In an utterly unrelated turn of events, Malakouti, in her next incarnation as Jessie and the Toy Boys, was selected as one of the opening acts on Spears' 2011 Femme Fatale Tour alongside NERVO and Nicki Minaj. (Malakouti is now performing as Eden XO; her debut single, "Too Cool to Dance," is out now and is light years better than "Trash Me.")

"All The Things She Said" - t.A.T.u. (200 KM/H In the Wrong Lane, 2002)

"E.T." - Katy Perry (Teenage Dream, 2010)

"Supernatural" - Ke$ha (Warrior, 2012)

Offenders: Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Ammo, Max Martin

This is a fun little resemblance I didn't notice myself but found on a blog that tracks things like this. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it a ripoff (and many if not most of the matchups on that site seem to me somewhat if not entirely overblown), you must admit that Katy Perry's "E.T." shares a good chunk of DNA with t.A.T.u.'s one wondrous hit, "All The Things She Said" (not to mention, bandmates Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova made waves by pretending to be lesbians, or at least playing up the possibility, in a much more committed rendition of "I Kissed A Girl"). Ke$ha's "Supernatural" doesn't so much sound like "E.T." as clearly attempt to recycle the formula: overwrought dense-electronic dance song around a creepy"otherworldly lover" metaphor with plenty of slightly icky entendres. It's one of the upsetting tracks on Warrior that betray Dr. Luke's meddling, a lack of faith in the singer's artistic instincts combined with an apparent disinclination to put much effort into creating quality chart-friendly pop. Worst of all is that Ke$ha was once the one who's knocked off, by the same or similar acts of whose second-hand influence Warrior often reeks.

"Dynamite" - Taio Cruz (Rokstarr, 2010)

"Die Young" - Ke$ha (Warrior, 2012)

"You'll Be Mine" - Havana Brown feat. R3hab (When The Lights Go Out EP, 2012)

"Va Va Voom" - Nicki Minaj (Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded - The Re-Up, 2012)

"Good Feeling" - Flo Rida (Wild Ones, 2012)

Offenders: Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Benny Blanco, Havana Brown, RedOne, R3hab, Kool Kojak

Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" has been recycled so many times I've all but lost track. In fact, one lazy day I sat down and used iTunes cropping tools like the caveman I am to cut together a rudimentary mashup of a number of these clones, and while the result is the technological equivalent of the cave paintings at Lascaux, it gets the point across (I'm pretty proud of it). Maybe someday I'll advance beyond neolithic audio editing abilities and I'll be able to finally make more pointed mixes of song pairings like those mentioned in this piece, but for now it'll have to do.

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