Lawrence Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

While Hollywood remains on strike to demand fair compensation for screenwriters, the music industry has alternatively embraced a new era. Copyright claims are cropping up everywhere. Songwriters are scrambling for royalties. And artistic originality? She can’t come to the phone right now — oh, ‘cause she’s dead. Welcome to the period of “pop plagiarism.”

Take Olivia Rodrigo as an example. On Sept. 8, the singer-songwriter released her sophomore album, “GUTS.” The record is riveting; Rodrigo leans into the rock genre and offers themes of apprehension, revenge and social anxiety. The songs are smash hits readily available for consumption by young women and self-proclaimed teenage girls in their twenties. While Rolling Stone labeled “GUTS” an “instant classic,” the album falls into the same trap as Rodrigo’s “SOUR,” making her the subject of criticism for sonic similarity to others.

It all started with a track on “SOUR” titled “deja vu,” a song name that seems ironic in hindsight. Listeners immediately drew comparisons between Rodrigo’s single and Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer.” This controversy forced Rodrigo to award Swift and her collaborators retroactive writing credits. Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” faced a similar predicament. Despite its success, fans characterized the tune as a rip-off of Paramore’s “Misery Business,” and the band’s lead vocalist Hayley Williams and former lead guitarist Joshua Farro eventually received a combined 50% royalty. While it’s unclear if Rodrigo was actually sued, countless fan-made mashups of the two hits popped up online, and it was later revealed that Rodrigo’s team had been in touch with both Williams and Farro. Most recently, the opening melody for “GUTS,” “all-american b****,” is going viral for its likeness to Miley Cyrus’ “Start All Over.”

Although Rodrigo laments that “everythin’ [she does] is tragic,” it’s difficult to imagine that she has intentionally replicated three widely-known songs. Instead, Rodrigo highlights the ever-growing constraints of creativity and the sketchy litigious side of the music industry. She’s not the villain — she’s the product of an environment where the simple act of inspiration is grounds for legally destroying an artist’s individuality. This curtails expression by preventing songwriters from taking musical risks and reimagining past influences into fresh, new soundtracks.

With just 12 notes in the Western alphabet, music is inherently limited. In fact, composers have been accused of copying fellow musicians since the late Baroque era. Pop, in particular, is formulaic, which is why it appeals to mass audiences. Almost every pop song relies on the same four chord progressions, so songs are bound to start sounding like one other. Today, these cases are highly publicized and becoming increasingly common: In Williams v. Gaye (2018), for example, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were sued for emulating Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Upon their loss, the court ordered Williams and Thicke to pay over $5 million to Gaye’s estate. And just earlier this year, Ed Sheeran, one of Spotify’s most-streamed artists, made several headlines for allegedly stealing Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Sheeran even vowed to quit music if found guilty of copyright infringement. While he won the lawsuit, both cases illustrate how arbitrary the lines of intellectual property are in pop and the intense pressure creatives face to be innovative without crossing them.

Beyond multi-millionaire singers being taken to court, pop plagiarism cases underscore how capitalism kills creativity. Obviously, music is a profit-driven business; however, simply honoring previous works does not constitute plagiarism and should not warrant legal action from avaricious plaintiffs hoping to cash in. Art should be liberating, not confining. Making music is an act of freedom, and individuals should be able to build on their inspirations and create new pieces without anticipating legal retaliation.

Rodrigo once unknowingly foretold her future, singing on “jealousy, jealousy” that “comparison is killin’ me slowly.” Moving forward, she should reassert her artistic decisions and defend the delineation between inspiration and infringement. While recognition should be given where it is explicitly due, discrediting a young talent with a predominantly-female fan base feels like misogyny, repackaged. Funnily enough, it’s oddly reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s decision in 2010 to author “Speak Now” completely on her own, a move made in response to skepticism from critics regarding how much of her music was actually self-written. Perhaps Rodrigo will again follow in Swift’s footsteps.

Ultimately, there will never be a completely original pop song. There shouldn’t have to be. The next time she’s caught in a plagiarism controversy — likely by listeners with little understanding of basic music theory — I’d like to see Olivia Rodrigo stand her ground. I think that takes real guts.


Safa Wahidi (23Ox) is from Sugar Hill, Georgia.

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Safa Wahidi (she/her) (23Ox) is from Sugar Hill, GA, majoring in English and political science. She is an active member of the Emory Muslim Student Association and serves as Co-President of the Young Democrats of Oxford College. Outside of the Wheel, Wahidi enjoys writing fiction, watching rom-coms and anticipating the next Taylor Swift album. You can find her wandering around the nearest Barnes & Noble, tea and Jane Austen novel in hand.