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Dear Olivia Rodrigo: Ignore the internet. ‘Originality’ is overrated.
July 01, 2021 -  23 

How do you do, fellow kids? It’s me, your friend Emily VanDerWerff, here to rap at ya about the concept of “originality” in art and why it’s overrated.

Why now? Well, the teens of the internet have discovered that Olivia Rodrigo, the 18-year-old pop sensation of the summer, whose “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U” have both been massive hits, is a big ol’ copycat.

At least that’s the allegation suggested by a viral video outlining all of the ways that Rodrigo’s songs on her debut album Sour sound like songs from other artists, notably Taylor Swift (whom Rodrigo has cited frequently as a key inspiration), Rogue Traders, Billie Eilish, and Paramore.

Let’s check the receipts! (Said the decidedly non-teenager adult woman writing this article.)

“NO ORIGINALITY, ALL SHE DOES IS COPY!” concludes the video, and after watching it, you could well be tempted to reach the same conclusion yourself.

I think that conclusion is worth being skeptical of. At least one piece of “evidence” in the video is just a sample — the piano backing track from Swift’s 2017 song “New Year’s Day” pops up in Rodrigo’s 2021 song “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” and both Swift and her co-writer Jack Antonoff are consequently credited as co-songwriters on the Rodrigo track. Swift has even kinda sorta adopted Rodrigo as one of her artistic children, which is sweet.

But the other examples in the video are probably close enough to raise eyebrows, at least a little bit. So consider my own eyebrows partially raised on most counts. (Though not all! Despite the protestations of several of my colleagues, I continue to not hear how “Good 4 U” and Paramore’s “Misery Business” are all that similar.)

Other viral social media posts have accused Rodrigo of ripping off key elements of her aesthetic, particularly in the “Good 4 U” music video, from the indie band Pom Pom Squad. I’m not sure “dressing as a cheerleader” rises to the level of copycatting, but the addition of long latex gloves … maybe?

Courtney Love has also bristled at the similarities of a recent Rodrigo promo image to the cover of Live Through This, the landmark 1994 album by Love’s band Hole. At least in this case, Love has occasionally seemed like she might be having fun with the whole thing and isn’t too upset about it. But you never know!

My skepticism about all of this doesn’t stem from a desire to defend Rodrigo. I am not an Olivia Rodrigo superfan. Though her singles are great, I think her album swings too wildly and too often between “pop-punk rave-up” and “plaintive ballad.” Still, she’s clearly an incredibly talented young songwriter who will have every opportunity to forge a long, fruitful career full of catchy songs whose hooks are hard to deny.

Plus, any blame for at least some of the “rip-offs” featured in the video should be distributed equally among Rodrigo’s collaborators, like co-writer Daniel Nigro or “Good 4 U” video director Petra Collins. If we accept the premise of the argument — Olivia Rodrigo is a big ol’ copycat — then shouldn’t at least some of the responsibility lie with the other people working with her who have surely heard of Taylor Swift and/or Billie Eilish?

The main reason I’m so skeptical of the “copycat” argument, however, is that even if Rodrigo has made her influences very clear, there’s not really anything wrong with that. All art is built out of other art, and what makes it original is the way an artist remixes and recombines the things that have inspired them. That’s all Olivia Rodrigo is up to, and while she’s being criticized because she’s a hot star of the moment, it’s a criticism that shouldn’t really hold water, no matter which artist is being accused. There’s a fine line between “plagiarism” and “paying homage,” but most good artists (including Rodrigo) know exactly how to stay on the right side of it.

Here is where Olivia Rodrigo succeeds wildly. She might still be growing into her songwriting abilities, and she might lean too heavily on her influences from time to time, but her combination of those influences and her taunting, wounded lyrics indicate that, yeah, she has stuff to say, even when that stuff is, “Don’t you hate it when your boyfriend breaks up with you?” (I do, Olivia.) That voice is what her fans — and many music critics — have responded to.

Art is perhaps the most powerful tool imaginable to let us gaze directly into somebody else’s brain and find the places where we’re the same and the places where we’re really different. It’s a conversation, carried out asymmetrically, where somebody says, “I feel this way. Do you, too?”

In the best cases, you really, really do.

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