Did Adele Plagiarize Tom Waits?

click to enlarge Artwork for Adele's third album, 25, to be released on November 20. - Sony Music Entertainment
Sony Music Entertainment
Artwork for Adele's third album, 25, to be released on November 20.

Just as Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams came under fire for "stealing" from Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," for their 2013, kitschy-corn chart-topper "Blurred Lines," and Sam Smith is now paying a portion of the millions that he, and more specifically Capitol Records, have raked in to Tom Petty for using the same chord progression as "I Won't Back Down," British, neo-sorta-soul songstress Adele, who is not Amy Winehouse, is being accused of plagiarizing "Martha" off of Tom Waits' debut 1973 record Closing Time for her new single "Hello." 

For the moment we will consider this accusation and then move on to the others. 

First, the two sound nothing alike. This is paramount for the simple reason that the cornerstone of past claims of theft in songwriting has always been that they "sound" too much like another song. Recall, John Fogerty was famously sued by his previous record label, Fantasy, who owned the rights to "Run Through the Jungle," when he released "The Old Man Down the Road," on Warner Brothers, and to be fair, these sound incredibly similar. Fogerty won the case.

The issue with the Adele/Waits controversy, is that folks are now claiming that she is pirating ideas and content for music. In this case, a phone call with an ex to catch up, wax nostalgic and tease out what sent the couple into a tailspin. This is a slippery slope. If we are going to accuse artists of aping ideas for songs we're fucked. 

Heavy-hitters such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin have also come under fire for their "borrowing" of songs from the catalogs of American blues players, citing that they were working in the same tradition of said blues and folk performers: the oral and musical history is passed down from one player to the next. Just as Willie Dixon, the genius bass player, composer and lyricist for Chess Records, who was responsible for the majority of the catalogs of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and subsequently the Stones, Zeppelin and Dylan was borrowing from Robert Johnson, Son house, Charley Patton, etc.

This history has long been recorded and discussed by those that give a shit, i.e. folk academics, musicologists and nerdy historians (I count myself among their ilk). This is what the layperson doesn't understand when leveling accusations against Fogerty, Adele, Thicke, Zeppelin, Smith, the Stones and Dylan, to name a few. Everyone is stealing, you goof!! 

Dylan has gone on record stating that he wanted to use the chord progression from Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" in something new, it just so happens that his biggest hit "Like A Rolling Stone" was that tune, specifically the chorus. So does Dylan owe Valens millions? To get specific, the chord progression that Valens and Dylan both used is called a I-IV-V (or "1-4-5" chord progression, meaning they use the chord that the tune is in, say a C chord, then the chord that the fourth note of the scale is built on, F (IV) in the key of C, then G (V), comprende? This is also almost every Hank Williams song and almost every single Ramones song.

In Western popular music, excluding jazz, we're stuck with using about 3-4 chords per song and building melodies on the notes in those chords, leaving only so many options, which is why there has been an onslaught of YouTube videos that highlight the usage of the same chords in, like, every pop song. They have become a musical genre and online anomaly in themselves.

The issue at hand is MONEY!!! If we're all borrowing, stealing, piggy-backing, but some are making millions off of it, where do we go? When a poor, rural blues artist is stealing it is in the folk tradition, when an established, multi-millionaire (usually white), steals, it's plagiarism. I have no problem with drawing that line, but doesn't art suffer?

So where does it end? If you don't know your history and your roots, then you are destined to make accusations like the ones hurled at the UK chanteuse. Bottom line, learn your musical history, know that Mozart is using the same harmonic anatomy and structure as Bach or Tom Petty or Bob Dylan or Adele or Ritchie Valens or Muddy Waters or Katy Perry, otherwise, you just sound like an ass, and I have to come to the defense of the worst thieves in the musical canon, the most recent ones.

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