Did Lorde Rip Off George Michael?

Lorde and George Michael montage

Lorde and George Michael montage

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This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

Lorde has a new song out called “Solar Power.” If you are a George Michael fan, parts of it will sound very familiar!

The guitar part in the first verse is strongly reminiscent of the one in “Faith.”

But people seem to be mainly worked up about the similarities in the overall rhythmic groove and chord changes to the ones in “Freedom ’90.”

Let’s unpack!

First, let’s talk about “Faith.” The strumming pattern is an Afro-Cuban rhythm called son clave. George Michael was hardly the first person to use it. His song is an explicit homage to the many ’50s rock songs that used that groove. It’s been nicknamed the “Bo Diddley beat” — because Bo Diddley used it a lot — for example, in his song aptly titled “Bo Diddley.”

I first heard it in “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly.

The ’50s rock ‘n rollers didn’t invent this groove either. It’s ubiquitous across the African diaspora, and is incredibly ancient. I learned from Godfried Toussaint that son clave appears under the name “al-thaqil al-awwal” in the Kitāb al-Adwār, a 13th century music treatise by Safi al-Din al-Urmawi.

And by the way, George Michael wasn’t the only person to have a hit in the 1980s with an homage to the son clave grooves of the ’50s. U2 did exactly the same thing with “Desire.”

The similarities between Lorde’s song and “Freedom ’90” are more broad. They have a similar laid-back sixteenth note funk groove. George Michael didn’t invent this either, it’s a sample of “The Funky Drummer Parts One and Two” by James Brown.

Here’s a list of 1,700 other songs that sample it.

And what about that chord progression? In “Solar Power,” it’s B – A – E – B. In “Freedom ’90” it’s a half step higher, C – B♭ – F – C. Once again, this is not exactly an original idea on George Michael’s part. Other songs that use it, off the top of my head:

  • “Hey Jude” by the Beatles
  • “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N Roses
  • “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones
  • “Can’t Explain” by The Who

…There are dozens if not hundreds of others.

The logic of intellectual property is an awkward fit for the reality of creating the grooves in pop songs. Those grooves come from the vernacular traditions of the African diaspora, which are based on signifying on tropes. The idea of a work of music as an autonomous entity coming from the mind of a single individual is specific to modern Western Europe.

“I want creators to be able to protect their livelihoods, but a hyper-litigious environment only benefits the people with the resources to hire lawyers.”

The Romantic idea of the lone genius governs our copyright regime, but it’s ideological, not an objective description of how music gets made.

It makes me sad that people are getting sued over vague similarities in grooves, because there are just not that many different grooves or chord progressions that sound good, and all the good ones have been used over and over again. I want creators to be able to protect their livelihoods, but a hyper-litigious environment only benefits the people with the resources to hire lawyers. The law only protects everyone equally in the most abstract and idealistic sense.

If you actually want to sue someone, or defend yourself from a lawsuit, it is going to cost you (unless you can find a lawyer who will work on contingency, which… good luck.)

What would happen if George Michael’s estate were to successfully sue Lorde? Then should Buddy Holly’s and Bo Diddley’s estates sue George Michael’s estate? Should a bunch of Afro-Cuban drummers’ descendants sue Buddy Holly’s and Bo Diddley’s estates? Where does it end?

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Law and Order: 6 of the Most Famous Musical Court Cases and Who Won Them.”

It would be nice if we could just recognize “strumming son clave on a guitar” to be community property. Same goes for laid-back sixteenth-note funk and the I-♭VII-IV-I chord progression. I don’t believe that it’s even possible for a genuinely original piece of music to become popular. If you want to hear music that isn’t broadly similar to existing music, you have to go to the furthest fringes of experimental and avant-garde music, and that stuff is not popular by definition.

If we think that copyright law should actually cover instrumental backings and grooves, that’s a debate we could have, but as of now, it doesn’t. I do want less-privileged artists to have legal protections against more-privileged ones, but so far copyright law has been wildly ineffective for that purpose.

In the meantime, it’s not like originality has ever been much of a virtue in mainstream pop music. Maybe we should just recognize that songs sound like other songs and relax about it.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning about music theory, composition, arrangement, harmony and chord progressions with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft, and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony. Subscribe for unlimited access here.

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