Are You A Beyoncé Or A Taylor Swift? An Original Or A Copycat?
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… Then God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind… [and]...Let us make man in our own image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1:1-26).
What is originality? Dictionary.com defines it as something arising or proceeding independently of anything else. We see this to be true about God and his creations, for both proceeded independently of anything else. But can we say this about the creations of mankind, who is the first copy of God’s likeness?
If authenticity and originality are crucial to the success and longevity of any creative, wouldn’t you want to know?- Are you original or are you actually a copycat?
To help you answer this, we need to ask the following questions: Is anything we create really original? What constitutes something as an original versus a mere copy? Who claims ownership over originality? What draws the line between being inspired and stealing? And did Beyoncé invent the marching band or did Taylor Swift?
The last question is of grave importance, as we will be exploring #mayochella (lmao, Twitter is savage!) as an example to help us understand the concepts of originality.
“We copy to build a foundation of knowledge and understanding.”
Is anything we create really original?
Nope! As filmmaker Kirby Ferguson would say, Everything Is A Remix. A seed does not just jump into becoming a tree. Its development process is complex and layered. What we call “original thought” works the same way. It requires building upon ideas and influences, whether those ideas/influences come from nature or from other people. How we first learn is by copying- how to walk, how to speak, how to write, etc. We copy to build a foundation of knowledge and understanding. If we hold this to be true, then Beyoncé did not invent marching bands. However, she will be remembered as one who did. Here’s why:
What constitutes something as an original versus a mere copy?
What we praise as originality is actually a well-crafted assimilation of all the experiences and the different influences we’ve had. The particular arrangement and execution of these pre-existing ideas/influences are what make it, not original per se, but unique. A mere copy does not consider re-interpretation in order to differentiate an idea. For example, check out Led Zeppelin's history of copying.
I mean sheesh! These guys copied the titles, the openings, the endings, the styles, and the melodies of every song! But this isn’t anything new. Many artists have done something similar to this. However, what separates an original from a mere copy is the extent to which it has been modified from its original form.
This is what differentiates Beyoncé’s Coachella performance from Taylor Swift’s Billboard performance and crowns Beyoncé as the “originator” and Taylor as the copycat. Taylor used the timing (right after Beyoncé’s Netflix special release) in addition to imitating major aspects of Beyoncé’s performance (even down to announcing the release of a new live audio album!) in order to gain an advantage. Copycats are perfect examples of “work smarter not harder.” To be mentioned on the same level as Beyoncé is monumental and profitable. Even if Taylor’s performance was terrible (and quite frankly rushed), riding on Beyoncé’s traffic allowed viewers to see her new work as well. Like a second mover, she took advantage of not having to do the amount of work that Beyoncé’s team did and reaped the same benefits.
I mean, c’ mon, even Taylor’s opening pose didn’t feel like hers. It looked quite unnatural. Hence why Twitter reached the same conclusion that Essence’s The Overexplainer reached, “I mean Beyoncé didn’t create marching bands, but Beyoncé created marching bands.”
Who then can claim ownership over originality?
Especially if we agree that what is created is a combination of multiple ideas from multiple sources. The answer is whoever executes the best combinations first.
Thomas Edison was not the first to think up the light bulb but he did it best by making the first commercially viable one. The Star and the Alto from Xerox came before Apple’s Macintosh, but Apple did it best by making it a home appliance.
We, the receivers, then crown the most successful creators as the originators of that thought. I mean really, who even remembers Xerox? And to be honest, I can’t even remember another marching band performance after seeing Beyoncé’s.
What draws the line then between being inspired from an idea versus stealing an idea?
Not too long ago Beyoncé was accused by the African community of stealing an album cover concept from a 1973 Senegalese film movie poster called Touki Bouki. This was not the first time Beyoncé and her team had been accused of doing this. However, what separates a Beyoncé from a Taylor Swift is that Beyoncé gives credit where credit is due. She brings on her team many of the artists that she is inspired by. For example, flying out Tofo Tofo, a Mozambican dance crew, to teach her their dance moves for her song “ Who Run The World.” Beyoncé even included them in her behind the scenes film and showcased their work (they are even Wikipedia official now!). For her 2011 Billboard Awards, she hired (yes hired, not stole) Kenzo Digital for the background of her performance. For her 2018 “Homecoming” performance at Coachella, she hired a variety of artists she was inspired by and a full HBCU band to perform with her.
Whether in the form of a written check or public shout outs, giving credit to those who either participated or played a role in the total project is what separates being inspired by an idea and stealing an idea.
Don’t be a Gucci, who shamelessly copied the designs of Dapper Dan until the internet dragged them. You think they would have given Dapper Dan credit (or said anything for that matter) if the community didn’t stand up for him?! Shoo, they know better now! Hopefully Taylor Swift knows better too!
Did Beyoncé invent the marching band or did Taylor Swift?
It is true that learning requires some degree of imitation, but that should be the pupae stage. After learning the basics, learn to put your own groove on things. While Beyoncé did not literally invent marching bands, she will go down in our books crowned as if she did.
So how can you get your crown as the innovator, the originator, the creator you truly are? Here are some tips you can use to avoid the copycat route.
1. STOP BEING LAZY.
Do you know how far Beyoncé’s team has to dive into research for her projects?! Or how long it takes them to discover the resources they use?! Or even how many sources they use?! Don’t be the type who simply scrolls down on a good Instagram pic and just copies that. Don’t be lazy. Bury your head in books, articles, films, podcasts, music- whatever your choice, and don’t come back up for air until you’ve found that je ne sais quoi.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters...” Colossians 3:23
“Do not neglect the gift you have...Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” 1 Timothy 4:14-15
Having someone there to question and analyze your ideas pushes your thought process further.
Two heads are better than one isn’t just something wise and witty to say. It is the truth! You never know what could emerge from bouncing ideas back and forth with another person. It’s definitely way better than talking to your ceiling about it. Having someone there to question and analyze your ideas pushes your thought process further.
Proverbs 27:17 "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend."
Ecclesiastes 4:9 "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor."
3. SHARE THE WEALTH
“Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value.” Proverbs 10: 2. Don’t go stealing ideas. Don’t be stingy either. Share the wealth! Give credit to those who inspire you and be open to sharing your ideas too. If people do you wrong, hey that’s their wahala (problem). But as for you and your spirit, this kingdom principle comes back to you in ways that will be a blessing to you in the present and in the future.
Luke 6:38 “Give and it will be given to you...For the standard of measurement you use [when doing good to others], it will be measured to you in return.”
4. BE AWARE OF YOUR BIAS.
“When we copy we justify it. When they copy, we vilify it.”- Kirk Ferguson.
Now I am not saying that you should allow copycats to walk all over you but be aware of how you react because the truth is that we all do the same thing to a certain extent. So don’t waste your energy trying to come for their neck all the time! In the end the battle is not yours, it is the Lord’s. Your job is to forgive, keep grindin’, keep rockin’ it, and let God handle anyone who stands in your way.
James 4:11-12 “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
Proverbs 26: 12 “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
5. BE AUTHENTIC
Remember that what makes an idea even close to "original" is your particular arrangement, interpretation, and execution of what pre-existed. God did not orchestrate your own experiences for you to go and tell the experiences of someone else!
God did not orchestrate your own experiences for you to go and tell the experiences of someone else!
Don’t be the rapper that knows absolutely nothing about gang bangin’ but says he/she does just because it sells. Please do not be fooled. The authenticity of your work will get you further. Yes, it takes longer, but it will get you further. Beyoncé’s Coachella performance will be remembered for years and years to come while Taylor Swift’s performance, though it made some money, will be forgotten soon enough.
1 Kings 3:12 “Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.”
Have any other tips you would like to add? Share your expertise below!