Jonathan Lethem’s article, “The Ecstasy of Influence”, discusses the value of drawing influence from the ideas of others. He notes songs, books, television programs, and movies that were all created on the basis of another piece that had come before it while debating whether or not these works are plagiarized and whether the effects of such are really all that negative.
In school, we have the proper forms of citations shoved down our throats for every research paper so that we can be sure not to accidentally steal from someone else’s work. While of course quoting directly someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is wrong, what’s the issue with using someone else’s ideas to expand upon your own and get your own point across? That’s the point that Lethem is trying to make. Drawing upon other’s ideas is somewhat necessary to create one’s own art and altered quotes or lines from songs or poems can even enhance the piece that one is creating.
I thought his bringing up companies that distribute culture capital and their lack of criticism for what could be considered plagiarism as opposed to the criticism that artists receive for “plagiarism” used to expand on the idea of others was a very interesting point. His discussion of the VCR and record companies reminded me of Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift only sells her music through apple and physical CD’s. She doesn’t have any music on Spotify and it’s also very hard to find her songs posted on YouTube (except for her official Vevo channel, which plays advertisements that she makes a specific amount of funds off of as opposed to an account not affiliated with Taylor Swift posting a lyric video to one of her songs). Many consider her a sell out because of this or feel that this is a pretentious move on her part. She only does it for the money. However, maybe she is just combatting the “plagiarism” that these companies and accounts are imposing on her while benefitting from her work. On the other hand, it is causing her to lose a specific part of a prospective fan base that she would probably make money off of in a different way (concert tickets, merchandise, etc.) In some ways, plagiarism could be mutually beneficial.
A less direct form of plagiarism that I was reminded of, one much more
similar to the types which Lethem discussed earlier in the article, is the Neil Young song that has a line very similar t
o that of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. “Hey
Hey, My My (Into the Black)” is a popular Neil Young song containing the line “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, which is the last line from Kurt Cobain’s published suicide note. The people who consider interpretations like West Side Story’s obvious influence drawn from Romeo and Juliet would probably consider this line plagiarism as well. As I stated before, plagiarism can sometimes be mutually beneficial. Young is paying an homage to Kurt Cobain. He is keeping his legacy alive and paying tribute to him.
As Lethem suggests, forms of plagiarism that are interpreted to make way for more inspirational and culturally significant pieces might not be all that negative of a thing. It contributes to culture and society in ways that sometimes wouldn’t have happened if the artist hadn’t been able to plagiarize the original piece in the first place.