Hear and Now

by Matt Garczynski | 11/28/11 11:00pm

As my high school's resident music snob, I remember quite a few instances in which I tried to explain how Wyclef Jean got his chorus for "Sweetest Girl (Dolla Bill)."

"Cash rules everything around me" and "dolla' dolla' bill, y'all," I would explain, are lines from the Wu-Tang Clan's track titled "C.R.E.A.M." Furthermore, the line "I'ma tell you like Wu told me" is almost directly lifted from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Notorious B.I.G.'s "Notorious Thugs."

My classmates seemed less than willing to lend an ear to my enlightening words and told me to get a life and/or girlfriend. Instead, I got a regular music column in my college newspaper. Huzzah!

I was recently reminded of artists' tendency to borrow lines when I listened to the song "A More Perfect Union" by Titus Andronicus for the first time. The track made it clear to me that, far from an artistic crime, lifting lyrics from other musicians is simply an honest recognition of an artist's influences that offers opportunities for interesting reinterpretations of classic songs, bridging genres and generations of music.

Perhaps the song's most effective lyric is "'Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to die." It works not only because it is delivered in a loud punk-style shriek, but also because of its obvious borrowing of Springsteen's lyrics to "Born to Run": "'Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run."

It is certainly not effective for its originality, but the lyric's unoriginality is not a hindrance in this case. Rather, the changing of a single word and transposition onto a totally different style of delivery from the original takes the lyric into entirely new territory. Titus Andronicus imbues the line with new significance, reigniting the 36-year-old lyric's potential to instill excitement.
And like Wyclef's "Sweetest Girl," "A More Perfect Union" features multiple lyrical lifts. The latter half of the song features many lines from Civil War anthems such as "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and "John Brown's Body." The line "I never wanted to change the world, but I'm looking for a new New Jersey," directly preceding the Springsteen reference, is a more obscure nod to English songwriter Billy Bragg's "A New England": "I don't want to change the world/I'm not looking for a new England."

Even the song "A New England" itself borrowed a lyric. The opening line "I was 21 years when I wrote this song/ I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long" is a direct lift from Simon & Garfunkel's "Leaves That Are Green."
Upon pointing this out in person to Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles after the band's recent Friday Night Rock performance, he reminded me that even the opening lyric to "A More Perfect Union" was inspired by lyrics from a Simon & Garfunkel tune ("America").

In a similar vein, Sufjan Stevens' song "All Delighted People" features multiple lines lifted directly from the influential folk duo. As Vampire Weekend (a band often accused by critics of copying Paul Simon stylistically) sings in "Diplomat's Son," these different artists simply know how to "take it from Simon." This proud and unabashed declaration is a blunt and humorous "eff you" to those who believe that the practice of keeping one's influences obvious is a mark of unoriginality. Simon & Garfunkel, it is worth noting, were some of the first musicians to employ the technique of sampling.

Some legends that influence many artists today also employed lyrical lifting from time to time. Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)" has the famous line, "It's better to burn out than to fade away," which was lifted by Def Leppard in the song "Rock of Ages" and more famously by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note. What most people do not know is that the line directly preceding this famous one "Rock n' roll is here to stay" is lifted from 1950s song "Rock n' Roll Is Here To Stay" by Danny & the Juniors. Yet in delivering the doo-wop song's line in his signature high-pitched drawl, Young made the line his own.

This practice of shameless borrowing of lyrical content should not be considered an artistic cop-out. Rather, artists demonstrate the idea that uniqueness is a construction. There is no such thing as being a truly original artist, but one's work is simply a product of diverse influences. And as Stickles himself put it during our post-FNR chat, recycling a lyric "does not make it any less real" than it was in its original context.