Oh for fuck’s sake. Not again.
So. Before we get started, your ready reference of plagiarism-related trufax:
- Introduction to plagiarism
- Plagiarism explained a bit more because people kept fucking asking about it
- Plagiarism explained even more in a desperate last ditch attempt to shut people up (no such luck)
These links might be helpful if you’ve never read anything that I’ve written about plagiarism before or you’re struggling to understand any terminology. Once you’ve read the posts linked above, continue as we discuss
Before we get into the plagiarism, it’s probably important for you to get a picture of what I think of Mamamoo in general.
What do I think of their songs? Absolute fucking shit, each and every last one of them. Oh, except “Piano Man” which was actually cool, and “1cm (Taller Than You)” was kinda okay… well, not really, but at least it was funny… well, actually no not really, but… hey it didn’t suck quite as much as their usual garbage so that’s something I suppose.
What do I think of the members of Mamamoo? Actually they are all fairly attractive and I appreciate their media presence as well as their tireless championing of cultural diversity and inclusiveness. As regular nominees for the coveted “Kpopalypse Shubidubi Shalalala Uriduri Yayayaya Cross-cultural K-pop Sensitivity Award“, a more progressive forward-thinking bunch of girls you could not wish to meet. I hope they’re doing well and that they get someone employed to work with them who can actually write proper songs for them one day.
It’s cool that I just copy-paste this same introduction each time I have to do one of these boring posts. Anyway now that you have a full picture of exactly how much bias you can expect in this article, let’s move onto the plagiarism accusation.
Mamamoo plagiarism accusation: Mamamoo’s “Starry Night” plagiarises Lilly Wood & The Prick and Robin Schulz’ “Prayer In C”
So here’s Mamamoo’s “Starry Night”, which is actually a bit of a fucking messy shitpile of a song, much like just about everything Mamamoo have breathed upon since debut.
As bad as the song obviously is, it has one redeeming feature – that guitar riff. Whenever the girls shut the fuck up with their hideous R&B-tinged caterwauling the song actually gits gud for those little bursts of about 15 seconds each. But is the guitar riff actually plagiarised from here?
Well, the first thing to know is that “Prayer In C” we’re assessing is actually a remixed version. The original song is a lot slower, and without all the electronics and percussion.
However the riff is the same in both cases (only the speed is different), so this has no bearing on the plagiarism or lack thereof, other than to say that if there IS plagiarism, it’s plagiarism of Lilly Wood & The Prick, not plagiarism of Robin Schulz, who only “remixed” the original. So… is this plagiarised? To assess this, we need to take into account all aspects of the song in that section. It’s fairly obvious that every other section of the song except the riff is wildly different, so I’m not going to cover any of that. You have fucking ears, you can tell easily that Mamamoo’s unhinged warbling doesn’t resemble the singing in “Prayer In C” in any way whatsoever, so we’ll just drill down to the relevant part that does sound similar – the guitar riff. Given that the guitar riff is hardly an incidental detail but is fairly central to both songs, a similar-enough guitar riff could qualify as an infingement as it would arguably constitute a “reasonable portion” of the song, as could a sample, if the riff is sampled. So let’s take a look.
Firstly, the harmony:
Chords for “Starry Night” riff: Am C G Dm
Chords for “Prayer In C” riff: Am C G Dm
We have an exact match. Not only the same functional harmony (i-III-VII-iv) but also the same key of A minor. This alone isn’t enough to determine plagiarism, as many thousands of songs and even large chunks of entire genres have the same key plus chord progression, however it does mean that the two songs have a headstart in sounding similar.
Secondly, let’s consider texture:
The remixed version of “Prayer In C” has a reasonably similar beat and ambience in general to “Starry Night”. The main differences that stuck out to me is that Mamamoo are using acoustic guitar whereas Lilly & The Prick are playing (clean) electric guitar, proving easily that Mamamoo’s songwriters did NOT sample the original, contrary to a weirdly-held popular belief. Mamamoo also have a slightly busier bassline and additional percussion whereas Robin Schulz keeps his added backings a little bit simpler and sparser. However these differences, while present, are subtle – the songs do sound similar, and that’s because they mostly are, during that segment. This isn’t infringement as textural chocies aren’t copyrightable, but it certainly does add a lot to the “feeling of similarity”. It’s fairly obvious when listening to both songs that Mamamoo’s songwriter did use the “Prayer In C” remix as a template for their own composition, because the similarities are far too close to be coincidental.
While it’s true that you can’t copyright a backing riff, if the riff’s primary function is that of a melodic line, it’s much more likely to be a target of a copyright claim, as such a melodic line would show up on a “lead sheet” which is used to determine such a claim. It’s certainly the case in both of the songs under question that the riff plays a specific melodic role – essentially, the riff is the chorus hook. As such, if the riffs are identical, then it could indeed be considered plagiarism, especially when helped by the two points discussed above.
Here’s a helpful video I found that compares the two melodic lines in the guitar riff section:
The pianist starts with Mamamoo’s “Starry Night”, and at 0:12 changes to “Prayer In C”. Mamamoo’s riff is quite straightforward, it hits a note of the chord in a syncopated pattern, then used either B to C or vice versa as passing notes before repeating the same thing with the next chord:
Over Am it’s A A A… B C (A is the root note)
Over C it’s E E E… C B (E is the 3rd of C)
Over G it’s D D D… B C (D is the 5th of G)
Over Dm it’s F F F… C B (F is the 3rd of Dm)
It could be argued that this isn’t in fact a melodic line at all, but just root notes plus passing tones between chords. While arguably this observation has some merit, the riff is still the closest thing that Mamamoo’s song has to a worthwhile coherent catchy melody, given that the rest of the song sounds like such a wet fart, so it’s reasonable to still consider this section the “chorus melody”.
Lilly & The Prick’s riff is a little less regimented:
Over Am it’s A – – A B C – –
Over C it’s E – – E F – E –
Over G it’s D – – D E F D –
Over Dm it’s F – – F G – F –
The two riffs are not wildly different, but they are different enough to not be the same, and that’s what’s important. For plagiarism to stick, they actually do have to be the same. So it’s not really plagiarism in the legal sense, no – but it’s clearly a case of the songwriters using the original song as a template and then changing it up on purpose. Mamamoo’s songwriters have been careful to make it just different enough to get over the line – lazy-ass borderline rip-off songwriting, arguably yes, but not really plagiarism. I’d say it’s similar to Sunmi’s case that I visited in Episode 5 of this series, and definitely far more similar than Momoland’s case that I covered in Episode 6 (that really wasn’t very similar at all).
A few people asked me how to play this song, so I thought I’d tab out on guitar both Mamamoo’s song and the original, so you can see the differences side by side, and also so this post actually has a function and isn’t so boring. The first two lines are just the four bars of the melody of each song on its own, and the bottom two lines are the melodies integrated with chords.
One of the dead giveaways that the Mamamoo song is essentially a butchered version of the Lilly Wood & The Prick song, is that “Prayer In C” falls quite neatly under the fingers when playing with melody and chords together, whereas “Starry Night” definitely does not sit quite as well – a sign that a made-for-guitar part has been adjusted by someone else who might not have guitar as their first instrument. There’s ways to change the fingerings up to make it work of course, but honestly it’s only a fucking shit Mamamoo song and I wasn’t about to put that level of effort in. It was bad enough having to play this at all. For the record (because I know people will ask) I think “Prayer In C” is a far better song, and “Starry Night” is one of the rare cases where k-pop copies something from the west and actually fails to meet the same standard. I also prefer the original of “Prayer In C” to the remix, even though I do prefer the speed of the remix. For the best of both worlds, try listening to the original song with YouTube playback set at 1.25 speed.
That’s all for this post, Kpopalypse will return!