Soon after becoming the pop sensation of the summer following the release of her debut album Sour, Olivia Rodrigo’s was accused of plagiarism by Courtney Love who took to social media to bristle at the similarities between her album cover to Live Through This, and the promo image for Sour Prom, Olivia Rodrigo’s June concert film. As mocking images of both the artists dressed side by side as prom queens in tiaras, holding flowers and wearing smeared mascara with the tag-line “spot the difference” flooded the internet, Rodrigo became subject to immense scrutiny with haters picking apart her album to find more traces of plagiarised material in her songs, music videos and artwork. Since the allegations by Love, almost all of Rodrigo’s songs have been accused of being imitations of popular classics from other artists, notably Taylor Swift, Rogue Traders, Elvis Costello, Billie Eilish, and Paramore. While the teenage superstar is not facing any legal grief, societal pressure pushed Rodrigo to share a cut of the royalties that her track earns with artists like Swift, Antonoff and Paramore, who have now been added as co-writers in her album.
However, the Elvis Costello track that Rodrigo was accused of ripping off was itself heavily inspired by the rolling lyrical style of Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, which in turn owes a lot to Chuck Berry's “Too Much Monkey Business”. Additionally, the chord structure used by Paramore that has been mirrored in Rodrigo’s “Good 4 you” is a progression that has been used in hundreds of pop songs across several decades. Listen to early Taylor Swift and you’ll hear a whole lot of influence from ’90s country. After all, pop music is all about reinvention and many popular artists have walked the fine line between “plagiarism” and “paying homage” before Rodrigo did. Therefore, if all art is built out of other art, is originality even achievable? And if not, why is society so obsessed with it?
In a world that is constantly evolving, artists tend to mark their success with the ability to leave a legacy. Hence, there is a constant need to be unique and special that leads to an overemphasis on originality. This association between originality and creativity has led to the belief that art is valuable only if it is somehow “never been seen before”. However, as pessimistic as this sounds- no art is ever original. Certainly, there are rare original artists, like those who invent new genres or types of art. Even still, they are often deconstructing or merging art in ways that haven’t been thought of before — which means that they’re just recombining art in new ways, not completely inventing new forms. For example, Picasso’s invention of cubism introduced a new way of looking at the world, but it wouldn’t exist if he didn’t already know as much as he did about creating art in more traditional ways. Artists form continuities of vision across time and space, as they inspire each other and are inspired in return. Therefore, the originality that society is constantly yearning for, that is, the concept of producing art that has “never been seen before”, largely does not exist.
No human experience is completely original, and each of us shares, to some extent, the same basic human experiences and emotions. But the difference in our response, interpretation and memory of other people’s stories, words and experiences are what sets us apart from each other. What artists create is special not because of its relative originality, but instead, because it is their expression of the world and their experience of it through their eyes. Therefore, what artists should yearn for is not originality in content, but originality in voice.
So did Olivia grab a handful of stray note progressions while writing and end up composing music with seeming similarities to the work of other artists? Sure. But to attribute that to a deliberate desire to rip off those other artists misses the whole point of art. The young artist might still be growing into her songwriting abilities, and she might rely too heavily on her sources of lyrical and melodic inspiration, but the way she blends, recombines and sometimes borrows traditional techniques to tell a story that is her own is what makes her succeed as an artist.
In my opinion, the originality of content is overrated, and the originality of voice is underrated. Art, in its beauty, represents the voices of its creators and is meant to let us gaze directly into the artist’s world and find the places where we’re identical and the places where we’re diverse. At its best, art unites people in their humanity and experiences. So when another wounded teenager writes about love and heartbreak saying, “doesn't it suck when your boyfriend breaks up with you?”- just admit that it does.