I was watching the news yesterday and saw that Bruno Mars was accused of stealing “Uptown Funk“. At first this sparked my interest. But the song that followed the accusation, sounded little like “Uptown Funk” at all. There was a somewhat similar beat, and it did have the words “funk you up”, but by no means was “Uptown Funk” an outright copy of this song. The news anchor followed up by saying that the group who wrote “Funk You Up” claims their song is where Bruno Mars got their inspiration for Uptown Funk. Okay stop there. Inspiration? There is a HUGE difference between stealing and inspiration. Every artist gets inspiration from somewhere, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to make art. Art is a representation of an artist’s perception of some aspect of their world. This can include the way they perceive the work of other artists, or the greatest artwork of all: nature. Nothing comes from, well, nothing. It is impossible.
One of the fundamental laws of physics is that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Art is in many ways an extension of this law. It is the transformation of one thing, one idea or perception of a concrete object, into another medium. Even the materials themselves transform: paint in bottles becomes a painting, a singer’s voice becomes a song. The best art is merely a certain person’s expression of their world, and their world is a compilation of all of history that has led up to this present moment. Yet somehow people have this idea that the best art is something that is truly original. Maybe this could be considered the greatest controversy of art, because nothing is truly original.
One of the greatest early modern poets , T.S. Eliot, muses on this controversy in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921):
One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.
Could it be that what is so original about Bruno Mars’ song is that it echoes the past? In many ways “Uptown Funk” revives the disco era of the seventies with its funky beat, but if it were simply a revival of disco, it probably wouldn’t have topped charts in 2015. I mean we’ve sort of moved on from the 70’s haven’t we? Bruno Mars’ song was able to top charts because it took elements of 70’s music and infused them with elements of the present, elements that would not have been possible back in the 70’s because the didn’t exist yet. The rise right before the breakdown in “Uptown Funk” is something that is characteristic of today’s music.
So yes Mars’ Uptown Funk has similarities to older songs, but it also has elements of the present, elements that would not have been available in the past, elements that make it a distinct piece of artwork on its own. As Eliot says, “To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art.” If Bruno Mars song truly had been an exact copy of a song from the 70’s there is no way that it would have topped charts in today’s world.
I think it is a bit ridiculous that so many artists are claiming that this song is a rip-off. Isn’t what sets humanity apart from the animal world is our ability to build upon the work of our predecessors? If we were so afraid of “stealing” another’s work, none of the inventions we have would exist today. There would be no cell phones, we would still be using the model of the first telephone. We would still be driving cars that more resemble automatic carriages.
The best forms of art are those that take elements of the past, and infuse them with elements of the present. This simultaneously respects human tradition, and makes it new. All art comes from inspiration from somewhere, nothing is truly original in this sense. But it is the way in which we take something and make it our own that makes it unique.