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Inspiration or theft? The rise of interpolation in the music industry

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A week ago, a federal jury had to decide an unusual question - whether this song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINKING OUT LOUD")

ED SHEERAN: (Singing) Darling, I will be loving you till we're 70.

KELLY: ...By Ed Sheeran sounds too much like this song by Marvin Gaye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I've been really trying, baby.

KELLY: Well, the jury decided Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" did not violate the copyright of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Anxious eyes in the music industry were watching the case closely, especially since so much pop music these days draws openly from other pop music. We asked NPR music critic Ann Powers to help us understand. Hey there, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start by characterizing the reaction from folks in the music industry to this verdict in the Ed Sheeran case.

POWERS: I would say the overwhelming response was one of relief and support for Ed Sheeran. Certainly, historically, these kinds of cases have caused a lot of conversation with people supporting the original artists as much as those who've interpolated their work. But right now there's a lot of anxiety about what it means to be a songwriter, and new techniques and, you know, dominant paradigms point toward this kind of borrowing - not that Ed Sheeran did borrow. But honestly, this is a moment where everything seems to be combining (laughter).

KELLY: Yeah, well, and, like, everything - I'm thinking...

POWERS: Yes.

KELLY: I mean, I feel like you turn on the radio these days, and everything feels like it is a sample or at least inspired heavily by something else. Here's another example - the big country music hit last year by Cole Swindell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE HAD ME AT HEADS CAROLINA")

COLE SWINDELL: (Singing) Next thing I knew, man, she was up on stage, singing "Heads Carolina, Tails California."

KELLY: ...Which borrows from a song by Jo Dee Messina...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADS CAROLINA, TAILS CALIFORNIA")

JO DEE MESSINA: (Singing) Heads Carolina, tails California.

KELLY: And he even reached out to her to join a remix. So is this more widespread than it used to be, Ann?

POWERS: Well, one way to think about it, Mary Louise, would be to say music has always been an art of borrowing. It's all about melodies and rhythms being passed down through time, sometimes credited, sometimes uncredited. But another way to look at it is to say we are living in hip-hop's century. Technology and kind of the customs of the day really center interpolation, sampling, pastiche in the songwriting process. I mean, look. We're talking about country music right now, right? I mean, country is a genre in which the songwriter has always mattered as much as the artist and in which songwriters want many artists to cover their songs. Here, the original artist says, hey; this is revitalizing my career. It's sort of both a brand-new day and the same old thing at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADS CAROLINA, TAILS CALIFORNIA")

MESSINA: (Singing) Heads Carolina, tails California.

KELLY: One change that does feel worth marking is artists preemptively giving other artists songwriting credits even if they didn't outright lift any sample, any passage. I'm thinking of Beyonce and the album "Renaissance" that came out last year. How did she navigate this?

POWERS: Beyonce leads us in all things.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG, "BREAK MY SOUL")

POWERS: What she did with "Renaissance," I think, is she has marketed the album as a tribute to Black and brown queer dance music innovators. She's named them throughout. When she has sampled them, you know, she gives them all credit. For example, "Break My Soul," the first single off the record, interpolated the house music diva Robin S.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY SOUL")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Oh, baby, baby, you won't break my soul - na, na (ph). You won't break my soul - no, no, na, na. You won't break my soul.

POWERS: Immediately after the song came out, Robin S. was giving interviews saying, I thank you, Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME LOVE")

ROBIN S: (Singing) You've got to show me love.

POWERS: It's not just about money. It's not just about credit, although it is always about those things. I think it's also always about respect. You see; artists now realize that their music being interpolated into another song is beneficial for a lot of reasons. It can, you know, revive a career. It can give a leg up to an unknown artist. But if they are not credited, if they are not respected, it's meaningless. So we need a new ethics of this.

KELLY: You know, if I were to put on my grumpy skeptic cap, never far from my head...

POWERS: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...I might push you and say, is another way to view this, you know, everything is recycled? There are no new ideas. Artists are just being lazy. What do you think as a music critic, Ann?

POWERS: I think the best way to think about this is to think about the great group De La Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "EYE KNOW")

POWERS: We love them because of their fascinating use of samples. And only this year where they able to clear those samples and their music was able to be streamed on streaming services.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE KNOW")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) But because...

STEELY DAN: (Singing) I know I love you better.

POWERS: No one would say De La Soul is not original. It's just a different definition of original. So hey; let's go there. Let's believe in the originality of dialogue and community.

KELLY: Always happy to go there with the great De La Soul and the great Ann Powers of NPR music. Thanks Ann.

POWERS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE KNOW")

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Let me lay my hand across yours and aim a kiss upon your cheek. The name's Plug Two, and from the soul I bring you the daisy of your choice. May it be filled with the pleasure principle in circumference to my voice. About those other Jennys I reckoned with, lost them all like a homework excuse. This time the magic number is two ‘cause it takes two, not three, to seduce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.