This blog was inspired by the latest controversy surrounding that dastardly devil-may-care trouble-magnet IU.
I’m sure getting some blog value out of IU lately. If I ever meet her I’ll have to offer to go down on her. I owe her that much. I won’t even ask for a handjob in return (although I admit I’m also considering where that hand has been).
So, the latest allegation concerning the “Nation’s Little Troublemaker” is that IU’s “The Red Shoes” rips off part of Nekta’s “Here’s Us”. Here’s the video that’s circulating:
When I saw this video I thought “I wonder if netizens will just brush this off, or wade into this issue with absolutely no knowledge and make themselves look utterly stupid and uneducated”. Then ten seconds later I thought to myself “what am I thinking – it’s Korean netizens we’re talking about here, OF COURSE they will just wade in and look stupid!”. Sure enough, they’ve all got an opinion, and as usual, it’s the most cynical and least informed opinion that they could possibly have. My favourite comment:
I love this comment because this is a straight-up admission that netizens really are heavily stroking themselves off over some witch-trials bullshit, and that popular opinion actually matters more to them than facts and truth, which is everything that’s wrong with netizen culture the world over. No, you fucking douchebag – plagiarism, just like murder, theft and arson actually has to be proven in a court of law. Also, kill yourself, but make sure you buy a machine gun and lots of bullets so you can take the 1257 people who upvoted you along for the ride before you turn the gun on yourself.
Of course LOEN released an official statement about it:
A portion of the melody for ‘Here’s Us’ and the melody of the second measure [B part] in ‘The Red Shoes’ sound similar but the chord progression of the two songs are totally different.”
“‘The Red Shoes’ uses a B-flat minor scale chord progression with a B-flat minor-bm7-cm7-cm6-f7sus4-f7 but ‘Here’s Us’ uses a dominant scale chord progression of B-flat major. Also, the chorus and first measure [A part], the song’s latter-half bridge part, as well as the overall melody, composition, and instrumental arrangement reveal it to be a totally different song.”
…but gosh netizens were having none of that:
Now, since I generate most of my music-related income these days by being a music teacher, and seeing as how a lack of education about music terminology seems to be the underlying issue preventing any sensible dialogue, I feel like it’s time for me to step in and bring some sanity and knowledge into this debate.
Firstly, it’s interesting that this topic comes up NOW. Nobody raked IU over the coals back in 2012 when she released “Sea Of Moonlight” with Fiestar, a song that blatantly rips off (and in my opinion vastly improves on) Swedish pop group A-Ha’s 1980’s hit “Take On Me”:
Oh but netizens turned a blind eye to that, because they loved her back then because she still had the “Nation’s Little Sister” image and hadn’t
rimmed Eunhyuk’s asshole accidentally uploaded a picture of her and some guy on Twitter yet, so everything she did was golden. Now things are different – IU has emerged as a threat to the crushes of stupid fangirls, so they will reach for whatever is convenient to take that oppar-stealer down a peg, no matter how factually incorrect.
Now here’s where this blog is going to get a little bit technical.
LOEN’s statement about the chord structure of the two songs, while technically correct, is actually a little bit cheeky. Chord progressions can’t be copyrighted, so they can’t be plagiarised by definition. There’s a reason for this – most songs use the same chords all the time. There’s thousands of possibilities of chords, but there’s really only a few combinations that people actually like to hear, so they tend to get recycled all the time. Watch comedy troupe Axis Of Awesome demonstrate this perfectly with the common pop music progression I-V-vi-IV:
Let’s not get on our high horse about how unsurprised we are that pop music is super-generic though, because this isn’t just common to pop music. Blues music recycles the same chords so damn often that they even have a special term for it – the “12-bar blues“. which any blues or rock guitarist should be familiar with and which refers to a progression of I-IV-I-V-IV-I. The majority of blues songs use this progression (or a very slight variation) exclusively. Jazz music favours slightly more complex chord structures but is equally guilty of recycling the same chord progressions all the time. Classical music isn’t exempt either – the same types of progressions are stunningly common and music of the classical period follows some fairly strict pseudo-mathematical rules.
Another thing that can’t be copyrighted is rhythms. Just like chords, there are only a few rhythm combinations that sound good to the western ear and that people actually like to hear. Even in very rhythm-centric music styles like heavy metal, where you might expect a lot of variety, the same rhythm forms are actually recycled all the time with only minor variations:
What however CAN be copyrighted is melodies. If hypothetically Nekta were going to sue IU, for the charge to stick, the style of the song is irrelevant. So they’re both “swing” songs, well, so fucking what, there’s plenty of swing songs. The chords used doesn’t matter either, the drumbeat, the type of backings… none of that matters. What needs to be proven is that the same melody is used for a “reasonable portion” of the song – a reasonable portion is not a timeframe legally set in stone but we’re talking a fair bit of time here, more than just a few seconds. So, are they the same?
No they’re fucking not.
Since I know nobody will believe me unless I go into some form of detail, I took the liberty of transcribing the melody as both singers sing it, so you can see the differences visually. Here’s seven bars of both songs.
IU’s singing part is on lines 1 and 3. Nekta’s part is on lines 2 and 4. Since I’m not going to assume that any of you can read music, I’m going to break down all the differences:
1. Nekta adds a lead-in note before the start of the bar (also known as an anacrusis) in the first and third vocal phrase. IU adds one only on the second vocal phrase.
2. IU raises the pitch of the third vocal phrase up by one semitone, to F#, whereas Nekta stays on F.
3. IU oscillates between E and F in the first two phrases with very accurate pitching (possibly Autotune-assisted but we don’t know this for sure), while Nekta has more of a talking kind of delivery and just stays on F with a bit of natural pitch bend.
4. IU moves a high Bb into the beginning of the second phrase, Nekta does this at the start of the third phrase instead.
5. The melody in the fourth phrases is different, Nekta hits four distinct notes whereas IU hits three. Nekta also starts on the low Bb before climbing up and then down, whereas IU starts on the highest note of the phrase, the F, and plateaus there for longer before moving to the other notes.
Then you’ve got to add the effect of the backings. Even though chords in themselves can’t be copyrighted, the effect of chords and basslines underneath a melody does change the way you hear a melody, and the chords and bass in the two songs are substantially different. Think of a plane flying in a straight line at 1000ft. Now, if the ground under the plane rises 500ft because there is a hill or something, is the plane still cruising at 1000ft above ground even though it’s still going straight? No. Even though the plane (melody) hasn’t changed what it’s doing, it is perceived as relatively “lower” because the ground (bass and chords) underneath it has risen. IU’s harmony has a rising structure, Nekta’s is more flat.
That’s why netizens are wrong and why IU’s songwriters will not have any legal problems with this. It’s also why they were able to get away with “Sea Of Moonlight” being similar to “Take On Me” – the melodies are substantially different. Is it similar to the other song? Yes, of course – but it doesn’t matter. You can use the same textures, rhythms and concepts all you want – if the melody is different, it’s a different song, and that’s all there is to it. Otherwise Black Sabbath could sue pretty much every single heavy metal band that ever existed between 1970 and 1984, and John Lee Hooker could have sued about three generations worth of blues guitarists.
If you didn’t understand all that technical shit, remember this: for a song to be considered as plagiarised, it doesn’t have to sound the same, it has to actually be the same, to a very substantial extent. These are two fairly different things, especially when accounting for all the different ways that different people hear music. Someone vocally trained would have easily noticed the differences between the two vocal lines without me having to break it down, but to a layperson it might just indeed sound exactly the same. Just like two different chocolates might taste the same to someone who has never tasted chocolate before but might actually be pretty fuckin’ different.
I hope this wasn’t too boring for you. But it probably was. Oh and if you want to know more about plagiarism, this post has a sequel here.