Monday, April 13, 2009

The Spiritual Copy Cat


Confession is good for the soul. Really, it is. So, I have decided to confess a musical sin: I used to love Huey Lewis & the News. Not a sin, you say? Well...I still think they're pretty good. How 'bout now? I've stayed in my Huey Lewis sin for almost 20 years. I'm sorry, but "Sports" was a great album, "Fore" was a good one, and they recorded "The Power of Love" for the film "Back to the Future", which received multiple rentals from my house back when mall hair was not retro white trash. It was neo (or nouveau) white trash back then.

I don't have any Huey on my mp3 player (really, I don't), but reading a blog post that charted the labrynthian line-up changes of the Doobie Brothers inspired me: they had a guy in their band who used to play in Huey's pre-News band. And Huey and the Doobies (specifically Michael McDonald) have something else in common: they were both copied.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but maybe not if you don't get paid for it. Huey did. Michael didn't. It has to do with the kind of copying that's being done, and here are the stories of both artists.

HUEY: He was approached by the producers of "Ghostbusters" to write and record the theme song. They wanted something in the vein of Huey's hit, "I Want a New Drug". He declined. So, they hired Ray Parker, Jr., a decent R&B singer with little pop chart exposure to write and record a song very close to "Drug". Now, understand that commercial jingle writers and movie soundtrack writers do this kind of thing all the time: they mimic a song by shuffling a few lines of melody and apeing its style. They change it just enough that they can't get sued. But, the "Drug"/"Ghostbusters" situation is one where Huey won a lawsuit of copyright infringment, mostly based on the exact style and close melody of the two songs, even though the melodies are different enough.

See also The Rutles, wherein Neil Innes had to give credit (and publishing) to ex-Beatles, even though only one of this Beatles parody songs were close in melody. The style he copied so convincingly can't be owned by anyone, and yet the Beatles won. There's a great scene in "Jailhouse Rock" where a record exec copies Elvis' style on a record for one of his artists after Elvis plays him a demo he made. The copied-style record is released, Elvis storms into this guy's office, and the guy says, "you can't copyright a style, son." Well, maybe, but if your Huey Lewis or the Beatles...

MICHAEL: So, Michael McDonald becomes the defacto leader of the Doobie Brothers due to illness and a need for songs. Michael records this decent album with them called "Minute by Minute", it's a hit, and soon people like Robbie Dupree are copying the style and the voice. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why "Steal Away" wasn't on any Doobie/McDonald compilations. The reason why is that it's not Michael McDonald.

See also Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, although I love STP. I was pretty sure "Plush" was Eddie Vedder singing with a side band. The video didn't help, either. It's style hid what Scott Weiland looked like very well.

Churches copy stuff, too. Some ministers read books about how churches grow, and they do the same stuff, even though usually the author warns about not copying what they did, that what they did won't work everywhere, and so forth. Likewise, when we see good ideas at churches we visit, we want to do them. Time and experience has taught me (and any good minister worth anything) that if you steal ideas, you need to tailor them to your church. Or just not do them at all because they won't work. Wisdom rules the day here, and that's how you decide what to do. I suppose there's nothing wrong with copying, even in music, if you add something original to it.

The Apostle Paul encouraged the church at Philippi to do some God-honoring copying:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:8-9)

What's so great about this is that it's easy. While we don't follow certain people, we follow Christ, and we can learn from those around us who follow Him as well. Maybe "mimic" isn't the word to use, but certainly doing what other Christians do who are growing makes sense. There is this cultural shift that's taken place that, while at one time you might have been encouraged to copy the success of others, we now are so individualized that we look at copying success as weakness. We're so egotistical as a culture that we must, as a hippie would say, "do our own thing." Maybe we don't need to always do our own thing.

Some of the best musical performances I've heard are covers, recordings of songs written and recorded by other artists. A revisit or a rework that retains the heart of the original can be tremendous in that we learn from the different approach. Copying isn't bad, but we must copy well.

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