Lorde vs Lana
People who live in glass houses really shouldn’t get changed with the lights on. Doubly so, one should have thought, if they happen to be among the most famous female performers in the entertainment world.
A few years ago, the talented Kiwi performer Ella Yelich-O’Connor, otherwise known as Lorde, caused a bit of a stir after saying she had been listening to the music of the sultry-voiced Elizabeth Grant, otherwise known as Lana Del Rey, ‘and the whole time I was just thinking it’s so unhealthy for young girls to be listening to’.
If only she had heeded her own words. The twenty-five-year-old hitmaker who sings about the acne and ecstasy of youth has now been rumbled for having listened to the music of the Lana Del Rey not so much wisely as too well.
Lorde may not approve of Del Rey’s baroque take on female sexuality, but on the evidence of at least one cut on her latest album, Solar Power, she rather fancies her melodies.
The new record’s standout cut, ‘Stoned at the Nail Salon’, appears to be, shall we say, heavily perfumed with the musical traces of a couple of songs from the other artist’s cinematic recent album, Chemtrails over the Country Club, which came out a few months ahead of the New Zealander’s current offering.
According to the Sun and other media in the UK, Lorde’s people have since suggested the New Yorker take a share of the royalties from the eerily similar track. In a deft touch, possibly with the earlier barb in mind, Del Rey’s side provisionally turned down the kind offer, and are instead insisting on some kind of a public grovel in order to meet an ‘amicable resolution’ and thus avoid a legal case. They may get their wish, too; the evidence seems to be that most musical artists would much prefer to settle these matters out of court.
For the rock scribes and pharisees, there really hasn’t been a juicier music story in New Zealand since… well, since the last Lorde news story four years ago. That was when she announced she would be doing a show in Tel Aviv, only to hastily un-announce the show a few days later after the pitchfork mob went bonkers and had it out with her on social media.
The latest tempest in a D Cup is more interesting than the Israeli imbroglio, because it has local journalists getting their heads around the subject of famous musicians lifting musical lines or ideas. This is something of a new thing in a country that hardly ever produces anyone famous, much less somebody on shouting terms with Lana Del Rey.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the hand-wringing in the current tempest has felt a little overdone or at any rate missing the rock and roll point. This is pop, for heaven’s sake, not academic scholarship, and in that context there’s not a lot to say against either party.
Even if Lana Del Rey is only half as snazzy as she thinks she is, that makes her awfully good indeed, and not just because she may be the first pop star to look like Nancy Sinatra but sometimes sound like Lee Hazelwood. You hear her sing a line about ‘heaven is a place on earth’, and you think, gosh, how trite. But then you go back to it and listen to it again, soaking up all the worry and trouble in her canyon-deep voice, along with the crack musicians she gathers around her in the studio, and you’re hooked straight in.
Lorde is the niftier lyricist of the pair, and her packaging tends to be sharp. Impishly cool music videos are another of her trademarks. A clip of her earliest hit, ‘Tennis Court’, had you thinking she would probably be the world’s toughest young woman to go up against in any official staring competition.
But the idea that either of these artists, or any artists at all in the public domain, cuts her work entirely from new cloth is a bit of a stretch. If popular music is about anything, it’s the constant repackaging of existing material, recognising the provenance of those who came before, repeating and recycling it time and again, riding it like a horse until it dies.
‘Plagiarism,’ Nick Cave noted a while back, ‘is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary — even admirable — tendency, and that is to steal.’
Just ask Led Zeppelin. The group has been in court nearly as often as they put out albums, and long after they disbanded were still fighting cases, the most recent of which was only finally settled last October in the US Supreme Court. Same with the Rolling Stones and their love affair with the music of BB King, which is possibly what Keith Richards had in mind when he said there was only one original song in rock and roll, and that was the one written by Adam and Eve.
‘What do they say? “A good artist borrows, a great artist steals” – or something like that,’ Paul McCartney once told Guitar Player. ‘That makes the Beatles great artists, because we stole a lot of stuff.’
Actually, Mr McCartney, the original quote is ‘Talent borrows; genius steals’, and it’s a line from the great Morrisey. Although Morrisey in turn lifted it from T.S. Eliot’s 1920 book The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, which in turn may be siphoned from the work of Oscar Wilde (nobody seems quite sure of the source here) or else something Picasso once said. And all of them pinched it from an article by W.H. Davenport Adams that first appeared in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1892.
What each of these artists managed to do, though, was to use a line in a way that the previous one did not achieve or imagine, which is why it is stolen, rather than merely borrowed, because only the genius thief can make art their own.
Or so Lorde really ought to be telling Lana. If the rest of us are lucky enough, maybe they’ll even settle their latest squabble and cut a record together. Now that would be worth keeping the lights in the glasshouse on for.
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