Borrowing In Music, Part 1
Every serious guitarist should go through a phase of listening to and learning from one of the all-time greats: Joe Satriani. A virtuoso by all accounts of the word, his chord voicings and melodic choices are one of a kind. That is, until chart topping acts like Coldplay and Nicki Minaj borrow his ideas for their songs.
There is an age-old debate going as far back as the Baroque era as to whether or not borrowing other musicians’ music for your own songs is permissible. To me, it is a matter of degree—and giving credit where credit is due. But that’s just me. Since the advent of sampling in modern music, borrowing has become a standard practice, especially in hip-hop. More broadly, musicians across all genres draw upon many different influences for their own creativity. In this way, one could argue that no music is purely original, but rather a unique blend of what someone has grown up listening to and playing. With this in mind, we can first take a look at how Satriani’s song “Always With Me, Always With You” influenced the Nicki Minaj hit single “Right Thru Me,” and in a subsequent post how having skills as a producer and arranger (on top of being skilled on an instrument) is becoming more and more valuable to young musicians today.
Joe Satriani’s “Always With Me, Always With You” represents a typical late 1980s rock ballad. Well, typical because it’s a slow ballad not unlike Guns N Roses’ “November Rain”—but far from typical musically. Satriani plays with major and minor keys, and displays a level of virtuosity many would argue is unparalleled. Before reading on, check the song’s music video, paying special attention to the first minute or so where he plays the main melody (or head, for you jazz aficionados):
Now, have a listen to Nicki Minaj’s “Right Thru Me” (a word of warning: the lyrics are somewhat explicit—we’re paying attention to the music, not the lyrics here folks)
The main musical ideas are identical. The chord progression and melody are exactly the same in both songs (relatively speaking, as they are in different keys). Furthermore, the chord progression, which Satriani picks note by note in “Always With Me, Always With You,” is played the exact same way in Minaj’s hit single, except a synthesizer is used instead of an electric guitar. Listen to the beginning of both songs, and the similarities can be easily recognized.
You may be thinking, “isn’t that a kind of musical plagiarism? How does she get away with this?” As it turns out, this isn’t the first time Satriani’s music has been made wildly successful by other artists. Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” is a direct copy of another Satriani tune, “If I Could Fly.”
Now you might be feeling sorry for Satriani. While he is a well-known and accomplished guitarist, none of his songs have enjoyed the mainstream popularity of “Right Thru Me” and “Viva La Vida.” Other artists took his music and made lots of money doing it. However, this borrowing has created at least two positive side effects for Joe Satch, illuminating a side of popular music today that perhaps we must simply accept.
First, Satriani likely received a hefty sum of cash from Coldplay in a settlement from a lawsuit that was eventually dismissed over the controversy. Perhaps Coldplay got away with stealing in this case; their Grammy was not revoked and they never had to formally admit to any wrongdoing. But, they had to pay for it.
The second side effect is that Satriani has only become more popular after these superstars borrowed his music. People are talking about Satriani more today than he possibly could have expected, especially considering “Always With Me, Always With You” was released over 20 years ago.
It is no secret that Nicki Minaj and Coldplay “stole” Satriani’s music—but then, it was never meant to be a secret. These pop artists heard music they liked and thought they could use it to further their own careers, so they did.
So we now return to the previously mentioned debate: is borrowing like this always a bad thing, is it a matter of degree, or is it perfectly fine in all cases? Perhaps instead of defending one or more of these possibilities, we should accept that it happens and use it to our advantage. This will be discussed in part 2 of this post, so stay tuned!