Music, Life and Nonsense: The difference between stealing, musical influence

In this Aug. 22, 2015, file photo, Taylor Swift performs during the "1989" world tour at Staples Center in Los Angeles. (AP)

Recently what’s been making headlines in the music world is the new $42 million lawsuit against Taylor Swift.

The lawsuit reportedly brought on by American R&B singer Jesse Graham claims that Swift took the lyrics from his 2013 song “Haters Gone Hate,” according to Billboard. Along with the money, he wants for his name to be credited as a writer on her song.

According to Billboard, legal papers have indicated he’s claiming copyright infringement based on the phrases “haters gone hate” and “playas gone play.” Both lines are indeed sung on Swift’s hit song.

In an interview with the New York Daily News, Graham said, "Her hook is the same hook as mine. If I didn't write the song 'Haters Gone Hate,' there wouldn't be a song called 'Shake It Off.’”

The other aspects of the two songs, besides these lyrical similarities, have no other obvious commonalities.

This whole story raises the interesting idea of what constitutes stealing. Especially now more than ever, with technology allowing anyone to put anything they want online for an audience, more songwriters and creatives exist in the public eye. But music from the beginning has been a craft of taking influences to ultimately make something one’s own – in other words, a minor form of stealing.

If one were to take a closer look at one of the most popular bands of all time, The Beatles, it’s clear that they took certain ideas from their musical heroes and thousands, if not millions, of artists today are either directly or indirectly influenced by what The Beatles created.

Some people – like Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like an Artist” – claim that most of music, if not all of music, is taking those that influence you and emulating what they did. Jim Jarmusch, director, is another person who subscribes to this way of thinking saying, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” They’re not advocating for laziness or unoriginality, but they are saying that everything is influenced by something else and that should be embraced.

Art and music especially, even in its purest sense, is never without its own influences. Whether it is lyrics, melodies or chord progressions – it’s a tough case to make these days that when something sounds a little similar to something else, it is blatant creative theft.

There are so many people out there today putting out their own content, that a couple generic lyrical phrases – which have also been slang within pop culture for some time, such as “playas gone play” – are tough to claim as solely your own. For example, in 2000, the group 3LW came out with a song entitled “Playas Gon’ Play,” which could be said influenced Graham’s song.      

Originality still exists and thrives and in today’s oversaturated music market, and striving to be as unique as possible is imperative for artists. But similarities within certain songs are still inevitable.

Taylor Swift’s song “Shake It Off” has without a doubt taken inspiration from different pop culture references, musicians, genres, sounds, etc., but that’s completely normal and sometimes the best way to create art that is culturally relevant.

Art is inspired by other art. The hope is that the true artists put their own originality into the content they create, even though it ultimately is a mosaic of their past influences.


Brett Steinberg is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at brett.steinberg@uconn.edu. He tweets @OfficialBrett.