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…music: If I Stole Your Line, Would You Hold it Against Me?

April 26, 2011

A few months ago, in a blog incarnation far, far away, I penned one half of a point/counterpoint piece about whether contemporary popular art (as in film, TV, and music) is truly off-the-charts derivative nowadays.  I came down firmly on the side of no.  You’re welcome, Britney.

I realize this is old news now, but here I am rampaging into the ring to kick the dead horse.  It would appear that Britney Spears’ song “Hold It Against Me” bears a certain resemblance to a Bellamy Brothers record from 1979.

But here’s the punchline–the eye-rolling play on words was an actual punchline, courtesy of none other than Groucho Marx, the zany vaudevillian and later film star and  game show MC who was so left-field that he makes Will Ferrell seem like Johnny Carson.

The self-contained joke, which the Bellamys rather awkwardly turned into the entire title of their song, was “If I Said You Have a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold it Against Me.”  So now they have been pursuing legal action, with group member and songwriter David Bellamy taking aim at the songwriters of this generation.  Apparently they’re not original enough to lift a joke word-for-word from a game show host and make it the title of a song.  David admits that’s where their song originated.

All of this brouhaha coheres nicely with my position that the only thing that makes everything seem so derivative nowadays is perspective.  Every work of art has inspiration.  Every once in a while, there’s a song or a book or a film which seems to arrive out of nowhere, but even then, there’s usually a precedent.  In this case, I find it somewhat shocking that Mr. Bellamy can admit lifting a lyric in one breath and then condemn someone else for lifting it again.

I confess ignorance as to how culturally pervasive the joke was prior to 1979, but You Bet Your Life was an insanely popular TV show, so it’s hardly an obscure reference.  Since the Bellamys had their hit, the line has become the king of all loser come-ons and a part of the popular lexicon.

Ergo, as ill-informed a decision as I believe it to be for Britney’s folks to allow her to sing such a cliche-infested hook, I hardly think it was less original than when it was first plucked for musical consumption 32 years ago.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the best part of the good old days is that they’re old.  Since they’re old, they’re ripe.  Ripe for picking exactly which favorable pieces one would prefer to remember and leaving the others to rot in obscurity.

So with apologies to Groucho (and whomever he got the line from): if I told you your generation wasn’t all the great things you claim it is, would you hold it against me?

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