Same old song: an exploration of originality in popular music history
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Originality is an important social and cultural value. In pop music its influence is comprehensive: it shapes the economics of an industry through copyright law, and the temperament of musical culture through its place as keystone of the prevailing Romantic tradition. The concept extends beyond issues of artistic and technical innovation: a point of origin is fundamental to the stories we tell about pop. What these stories tell us about ourselves and the way we use music, though, may be more complex than the orthodoxy allows; while the moderns from Eliot and Frye through Barthes and Foucault have sliced and diced originality in text, its interrogation in popular music is overdue. This study seeks to address the social and cultural context, the implications for individual identity and the issues of creative intention, status, popularity and profitability that come into play at those moments when the cultural honours of “originality” are conferred. Working from archival and textual resources, the research explores the entry of “black music” into pop culture with the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, who can be seen both as the source of several cultural streams which remain influential in popular music, and as the source of a popular mythology which has become detached from historical fact. It then proceeds to three case studies. The problem of what it means to start something new is developed in the story of Elvis Presley and the foundation myth of rock & roll. The professional use of originality is interrogated in the work of the Beatles, a foursome with a strong claim to be the greatest plagiarists, if not the greatest originators in pop. And the artistic idea of originality and its contingencies are addressed through the case of Lou Reed and the changing status of his album Metal Machine Music. A final chapter assesses the conclusions which can be made from these explorations, and the implications for future research.