Why You’re Hearing More Borrowed Lyrics and Melodies on Pop Radio
Anne-Marie’s “2002,” Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” and more – inside the new wave of pop interpolation
Anne-Marie’s “2002” is the biggest solo release of her career, a multi-week Top Five single in the U.K. built around a simple, effective gimmick: cribbing lyrics from songs that were hits between 1998 and 2003. “Oops, I got 99 problems singing bye, bye, bye,” Anne-Marie sings on the track, released in April. “Hold up, if you wanna go and take a ride with me/Better hit me, baby, one more time.” Anyone with memories of Top 40 radio from 15 years ago will recognize the references to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” ‘NSync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” and Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time.”
This sort of borrowing, in which an artist employs a snippet of an already-recorded song in the creation of something new, is known as an interpolation. (Think of how DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” swipes its melody from Santana’s “Maria Maria” or Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” riffs on Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.”) “Blatant lyrical or melodic callbacks appear to be in vogue at the moment for pop acts, and not just in unabashedly nostalgic songs like “2002.”
The Anne-Marie track was co-written by Ed Sheeran, who is a master of interpolation: He also lifted TLC’s “No Scrubs” on his own “Shape of You” and borrowed from Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” on “Strip That Down,” a hit he gave to Liam Payne. Other major recent examples of interpolation-based records that soared at pop radio include, but are not limited to, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” (source material: the Marvelettes), Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things” (Fastball), the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” (the Fray), Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” (Flo Rida) and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” (Right Said Fred).
Of course, this isn’t a new practice. Pop songwriter Jamie Hartman calls interpolations “old as the hills.” The border between interpolation and theft can be highly contested, with the latter sometimes becoming the former thanks only to a grudging, after-the-fact acknowledgment. The Beach Boys were forced to add Chuck Berry as a writer on “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Led Zeppelin are infamous for stealing and repurposing the work of others and only crediting them when faced with lawsuits. George Harrison lost a suit alleging that “My Sweet Lord” was based very closely on the Chiffons “He’s So Fine.”
The former Beatle would later state that, “99 percent of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other,” and recycling in this manner is partially inevitable. “You know the saying there’s nothing new under the sun,” Hartman says. “I think there are sometimes new things, but there’s only a certain amount of notes, a certain amount of chords.” And from a commercial perspective, “if it’s worked before, why wouldn’t it work again?”
Because interpolation is commonplace, pop’s appetite for it at any given moment is hard to quantify. “I hear a lot of interpolating on pop radio today,” says Joe Khajadourian from production duo the Futuristics, who have had major hits with three interpolation-based records (“Bad Things,” Natalia La Rose’s “Somebody” and Flo Rida’s “I Cry”). “But it’s always been there – I think sometimes it’s hidden, and sometimes it’s more in your face.”
Now appears to be one of those “in your face” moments. The crowd-sourced site WhoSampled likely contains the most comprehensive database of sample and interpolation information anywhere; curious listeners trying to determine what they think they heard – was that Nelly? – can search the site to find out for sure. In 2017, of the 50 most-visited entries on WhoSampled, five were pop or rock tracks based around prominent interpolations (six if you count J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” which was played heavily on pop radio), according to data provided by WhoSampled Head of Content Chris Read.
Five isn’t many compared to the 40-plus rap or R&B tracks that appear in the site’s top 50 annually. But in four of the last 10 years, only one pop or rock track appeared in WhoSampled’s year-end top 50, and in two of those years, there wasn’t a single pop or rock entry. In the past decade of the site’s data, only 2008 and 2014 come close to 2017 in terms of having major pop records based around interpolations – with three apiece songs in those years that were popular on WhoSampled.
One of the reasons that interpolations in pop may be appearing more often in WhoSampled’s data is just because they’re being credited more, not because they’re actually more common. “As they say, get a hit, get a writ – if you get something that really works, you get a lawsuit,” Hartman says. Following a 2015 court ruling, upheld in March after an appeal, that forced Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate millions for infringing on the copyright of Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” with their own hit “Blurred Lines,” there’s reason to believe that writers may be more nervous than before.
(The bitter irony: In a 1985 biography of Gaye, Divided Soul, author David Ritz wrote about Gaye facing a suit for allegedly stealing ideas from his own musicians. The singer’s retort: “He volunteered his chords. I didn’t steal them.” Ritz also had to sue Gaye’s estate to be credited as a writer on “Sexual Healing.”)
“For ‘Blurred Lines,’
[the writers] didn’t credit the inspiration, and thus we had a grey area and the lawsuit,” says Ezekiel Lewis, executive VP of A&R for Epic Records. “Maybe as a result of that being a big case, you’re seeing more of a trend of people giving credit to others.” Vaughn makes a similar point: “Post-‘Blurred Lines,’ people are being overly cautious about clearing samples and interpolations even down to drum sounds.”
Still, not all melodies are credited – Hartman points out that parts of Sheeran’s “Shape of You” suggest the Beatles; Lennon and McCartney are not credited on the track. In June, Sheeran was sued for $100 million by a group alleging that the singer-songwriter’s “Thinking Out Loud” relies on a chord progression that’s “functionally equivalent” to the one in Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
And though a hostile legal environment might lead to fewer high-profile interpolations, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. The examples of rap and R&B, now the most-consumed genres of music, may help explain why pop writers and producers are willing to ignore their possible legal jeopardy. “The fact that hip-hop and R&B records rely on sampling has influenced how Top 40 artists make their records,” says Lewis. Jeff Vaughn, VP of A&R at Artist Partners Group, agrees. “With hip-hop becoming the dominant musical form, pop music is reflecting that,” he says. It’s hard to imagine Swift using a blatant interpolation or teaming up with the rapper Future in 2010, when turbo-pop was commercially ascendant. She did both in 2017, now that rap rules consumption metrics.
Pop artists aren’t just trying to catch up to rap and R&B; they’re also looking for ways to stand out in an environment where listeners have more choice than ever before, even within genres. “With a very competitive market and incredible amounts of content, so many songs being released every week, the scramble for things like New Music Friday [Spotify’s biggest playlist] – to find a point of difference, people are relying on tried and trusted,” Hartman says.
When writers rely on component parts of an old hit, though, that doesn’t automatically create a new smash. “If it’s familiar, that’s nice, but there’s probably also a higher burn rate – if it’s too familiar, then people don’t want to listen to it as often or as long; there are less Easter eggs in the song to create high replay value,” Vaughn says. “Some interpolations are treated more like remixes – that was cool, but on to the next.”
And while the artist and the label stand to benefit from a hit record that rockets up the charts thanks to a savvy interpolation, the songwriters’ income suffers. “Labels get paid well for streams; artists get paid for streams; the writer doesn’t get shit,” Hartman says. Interpolating means that songwriters have to split an already-reduced pie into smaller pieces, because the creators of the original record also get a cut. As a result, he tries to avoid writing over sampled tracks.
But others are less cautious. “You should never be worried about [using an interpolation],” the Futuristics’ Alex Schwartz insists. “It’s better to have a little bit of a hit record then no record.” “If an interpolation is going to make the record special,” Khajadourian says, “it has to stay in.”
At the moment, more writers seem to share Khajadourian’s opinion than Hartman’s, so pop’s current interpolation fad will likely continue. “It’s just the changing nature of creativity – less people are playing instruments, they’re more accustomed to hearing sample flips,” Vaughn says. “It’s something we’ll be seeing more and more of,” Hartman concedes. “People are scouring for old melodies and ways of flipping them – ’cause it works.”