My songs are considered my ‘intellectual property.’ I get a kick out of this term--it conjures up a picture of me with a “No Trespassing” sign tied around my head. Steal one of my ideas, and I’m within my rights to tell you to git offa what’s mine lest I grab my pitchfork and call the sheriff.
Most songwriters are hyper-aware of the possibility that their ‘brand new’ song lyric or melody may be someone else's property, a pilfered idea that was consciously or subconsciously taken from another musician. We’ve been scared into originality by the famous George Harrison v. The Chiffons case, the one that George lost for apparently lifting the melody from “He’s So Fine” and using it for “My Sweet Lord.” Three common notes, and pow: George is a thief.
George didn’t steal the idea on purpose. It’s hard not to be subliminally inspired by the art that’s already been made and moves us to create. That said, we can’t steal. Steal at school, suspended. Steal at work, fired--and sometimes jailed. Steal and don’t get caught, well…religious folk would still call it a sin. Needless to say, society says no to stealing. (Actually who are we kidding: even in the animal kingdom filching is a bad thing--I once saw a buck go all antlers on another buck for appropriating his doe, and it wasn’t pretty).
So anyway, last night I sat down to songwrite. And I came up with the greatest chorus hook ever...until I realized it was a John Hartford line. Damn.
What’s to be done when we want to create, but nothing new is coming? Worse, when what’s coming isn’t even yours! Just power through until something—anything—gets made? Call it ‘writer’s block’ and try again later?
Today I realized that I’ve been so scared of plundering ideas from somebody else that I’ve forgotten all about the possibility of stealing what’s already mine.
I decided to find an old idea that I once loved, unapologetically rip away the old context, and bring it to life in a new way. I looked at a bunch of old notebooks from a decade ago. My younger self may have been more naïve and emotional, but good ideas stand the test of time, and a couple of those lines light the same fire in me today as they did before. So I pillaged and looted and stole off into the darkness like a bandit, and I love the song that came from it.
You know that thing you wrote years ago that you never did anything with or that you didn’t really share? There is probably a line in there somewhere that was genius at the time, and is still genius now. Go bring that idea back to life. Plagiarize til the cows come home. Just because you already wrote it once doesn’t mean it’s locked in time, never to be used again. Revisit it, and nab it. It’s already your property...trespass away. -Em