Thursday, 7 February 2013

Beautiful Liar...?

Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Queen Bey, but I'm also cynical about the celebrity culture which demands that singers must also be writers, producers, dress designers, perfumiers etc etc. Elvis Presley just got up and sang, after all...

So, the truth is out: Beyoncé's spectacular performance at the President's inauguration was a big ol' mime. It's not really a big deal – even Aretha Franklin said (between giggles) that "for most singers that is just not good singing weather". (It's just a tiny bit awkward that fellow performer Kelly Clarkson did a stellar live job, then.)

A visibly rattled Beyoncé was called upon to explain herself at a press conference and did so with aplomb, first singing the song again (just to prove that she could) and then defending her reasons for faking; she's a perfectionist, she didn't have enough time to rehearse with the orchestra, and after all, it was about the President. Ain't no room for errors!

We know Beyoncé is no auto-tuned amateur – the video below proves that not only is she stunning to look at without the help of airbrushing, she also has an incredible voice (and range) without the aid of backing tracks. But what grates more than the lipsyncing is the disingenuous way she did it. Jezebel led the accolades for the highlight of her performance: "She tears out her earpiece mid-song and proceeds perfectly like it's no big thing. What a pro." This dramatic move is what made the performance a "lie" – Bey was essentially implying that her pitching skills are at almost superhuman levels when she "proved" that she didn't need to hear herself in order to hit every note perfectly.


Mrs Carter has been the subject of controversy more than once; from the beginning of her career, there have been (unfounded) rumours that she’s really much older than she appears. (Probably because nobody believed that any 16-year-old could be that preternaturally talented and self-assured.) More recently, there have been clamours that her "songwriting" consists of changing a word or two of existing songs before claiming a writing credit. And of course, she was never really pregnant.

Our fame-obsessed society seems to be cynical and utterly credulous in equal parts; we'll believe any crazy story if it fits in with our "celebrities live in a different reality" mindset. For instance, I understand why Beyoncé might be under suspicion for not carrying her own child. A self-confessed workaholic might resent taking the requisite time out when there's an option to hire a surrogate or preferably, a magical test tube in which to manufacture the perfect child. It just seems like the sort of thing we expect from Hollywood types.

Despite the rumours, THAT clip shows a dress which clearly folds into pleats as she bends. Plus, if someone with Beyoncé's riches and PR team wanted to fake a pregnancy, you can guarantee they'd have a better method than strapping a folding polystyrene pillow onto her front. (To me, this is a more convincing point than the conclusion she had "a mother's joy you just can't fake.")

Yep. Pretty sure they could do better than this if they were really trying.
Queen Bey isn't the only singer to casually mention “When I wrote this song....” when actually the song has several writers credited. It's just that she seems to get into lawsuits more often than anyone else. As well as a legal wrangle for breaching a contract regarding Des'ree's original song Kissing You, Beyoncé upset Ne-Yo when she introduced Irreplacable with the words "I wrote this for my girls". He explained "I wrote all the lyrics. Beyoncé helped me with the melodies and the harmonies and the vocal arrangement and that makes it a co-write."

In a Marie Claire interview, she was asked if the lyrics "I can have another you in a minute. Matter fact, he’ll be here in a minute", referred to Jay-Z.  She replied  'I’m sure people think I wrote it about (Jay-Z) or something, but… the obvious person is not the person at all." Which cleverly made it sound as if she did write it, without actually saying anything which would make her sue-able. Back in her Destiny's Child days, the group settled out of court when Rickey Allen alleged that they'd ripped off his song Cater 2 U.

Beyoncé's debut solo single Crazy in Love was allegedly written in 2 hours by producer Rich Harrison, who had suggested using the now-famous horns sample from The Chi-Lites Are You My Woman (Tell Me So). In fact, Beyoncé's solo album is full of tracks based on old-skool tunes or samples, with echoes of Shuggie Otis and Donna Summer apparent in Be With You and Naughty Girl, respectively. (Don't even mention the latter to Sean Paul. He's still hurt he didn't get asked to perform with her for MTV.) 

But sampling is the cornerstone of today's top hits. (It's kind of like adapting a book into a movie; you already have a good idea of what the audience reaction will be.) Pitbull's new single Feel This Moment only has A-ha's Take On Me sample and the voice of Christina Aguilera to make it worth listening to. (Why does he even bother showing up?)

 One of these people doesn't need to be here.

The rueful song-writing joke "change a word, get a third" was never more true than when John McLaughlin let Bey use his song Smack Into You. She changed it to Smash Into You and, er, that's it. It's claimed she "re-worked" the song, but the difference is minimal; if you play these videos in synchrony from the first line, they duet rather prettily for most of the track. 

There has long been an internet rumour that during a TRL appearance, Beyoncé claimed that she had written Emotions – perhaps in the belief that the young audience wouldn't be familiar with the Bee Gee’s greatest hits. No video footage is available and it sounds too ridiculous to be true, but I wouldn't be completely gobsmacked if it had happened. Beyoncé seems to be confused by the difference between "wrote" and "arranged"– so if she was the one who pointed at Michelle and Kelly and said "OK, you sing this line, and I'll sing that one," it's not inconceivable that she might decide she had "written" the track. 

Her writing credit on Listen from the Dreamgirls soundtrack was ignored by the Academy when the song was nominated for an Oscar. They say the "new rules" mean that there could only be three nominees per song – with those who made the smallest contribution getting bumped first. 

Hip hip producer Soundz told That Grape Juice that selling a song to Beyoncé is akin to entering a payola scheme. "She promotes the record to the highest level. She’s the best in the game at promoting a record and when she does one of your records you’ll get a single, radio, commercials and movies. There are so many different types of money that comes with Beyonce when you do a record for her so it’s kind of like the price of admission – the price to get all the other aspects is that you have to pay a little bit. She’ll want a little publishing and that’s guaranteed; she’s going to ask for it and you’re going to give it to her; no ifs, ands or buts. She’s going to make that record the biggest hit in the world so give her that publishing. She’ll take about 20%." 

So that's "Lose 20% of potential millions when a megastar sings your song" versus  "Make 100% of the nothing you earn playing it yourself in dive bars." It's a no-brainer. 

It's not just song-writing which has earned the superstar her "Stealoncé" moniker; clear parallels have also been made between her videos and previous work. As we know, all music videos copy each other
and Bey has obviously taken to heart the maxim "good artists borrow, great artists steal."

Copying Audrey NEVER counts as plagiarism, otherwise the 
entire fashion industry would be in big trouble.

Her Countdown video appears to have been choreographed directly from the work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who was not amused; "I didn't know anything about this. I'm not mad, but this is plagiarism." She softened the blow by saying "Beyonce is not the worst copycat, she sings and dances very well, and she has a good taste!" but that "there are protocols and consequences to such actions, and I can't imagine she and her team are not aware of it." 

Beyoncé did respond, pointing out that she had taken inspiration from many sources for the video. (MTV even made a comprehensive list.) While she has laughingly admitted to "stealing" from shows, she's obviously aware of the old saying "If you steal from one (author) it's plagiarism; if you steal from many it's research." (But Bey honey, you need to mix it up more! Nobody will notice you've copied moves if you don't put them together in exactly the same sequence...)

There is nothing new under the sun, and dance moves are often borrowed from old movies – for instance, Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal video was an obvious homage to Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953) and he continued to find inspiration in Fred's work, as this video shows:

But Fred and Michael were kindred spirits – both dedicated professionals with respect for each others' work. Fred's sometime choreographer Hermes Pan revealed that Fred was so impressed by Michael's 1983 Motown performance of Billy Jean that he called him up to congratulate him. 

Beyoncé famously borrowed some Bob Fosse choreography for the Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) video (she also weirdly implied that the video is actually one continuous take, which is clearly not the case). While she cheerfully acknowledged the origins of that routine, she tends to pick slightly more obscure artists for her everyday "tributes". 

Her 2011 Billboard Award performance of Run the World (Girls) borrowed heavily from a video from Italian singer Lorella Cuccani. Which in turn was strongly reminiscent of a performance of Black Sun from Japanese artist / dancer duo Kagemu. (Is it me, or are choreographers getting kind of lazy in the age of Youtube?) The video for Get me Bodied is strikingly similar to a scene from Fosse's Sweet Charity.  

Although "Stealoncé" gets the ridicule for copycat dance sequences, we must remember that she has professional choreographers, directors and producers whose job it is to come up with the ideas (not that they're remembered when her vids win awards, but still....)
KC would rather publicly fall out with her record company than 
appear to plagiarise anyone else's work.
Inauguration pals Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé were inadvertently involved in a plagiarism dispute back in 2009, when Ryan Tedder wrote Halo for Beyoncé and then used the same backing track on a song he wrote with Kelly, Already Gone. When Kelly heard Halo, she was furious: "No one's gonna be sittin' at home, thinkin' 'Man, Ryan Tedder gave Beyoncé and Kelly the same track to write to....' they're just gonna be sayin' I ripped someone off." Amusingly, Ryan claimed  "I would never try to dupe an artist such as Kelly Clarkson or Beyoncé into recording over the same musical track, the idea is both hurtful and absurd." Plenty of Youtube mash-up artists disagree, Tedder!
So is working with Beyoncé akin to signing a deal with the devil? Or is she an easy target for people who want to get their names in the paper? There is a certain petulance to the people who have been "ripped off" by Beyoncé...

For instance, wannabe recording artist BC Jean wrote If I Were a Boy and later made a big noisy fuss about not knowing that Bey was planning to release it as a single and not being happy about the situation.  I'm no expert on how these things work, but I'm pretty sure this couldn't happen unless she'd signed something which allowed it to happen. Lesson learned: If you don't want someone else to release your song, don't sell them the rights.....?!

Bootylicious producer Rob Fusari was upset that *his* idea to use a Stevie Nicks guitar riff on the track was later claimed by Beyoncé on a Barbara Walters interview. However, he does comes across as a whiny little git, complaining that Beyonce's manager father Matthew Knowles wouldn't let him re-record the riff in order to get the royalties for himself rather than, er, the original musician.  

However, his moaning does bring up an interesting point. Apparently Mr Knowles told him "People don't want to hear about Rob Fusari, producer from Livingston, N.J. No offence, but that's not what sells records. What sells records is people believing that the artist is everything."

Is this why Bey is so determined to be known as a songwriter? Is being totally gorgeous, a gifted vocalist, a talented actress and all-round Queen of the world not enough for her? Or is is just the lure of all that lovely shiny money? 

One thing's for sure for songwriters and choreographers: If you liked it then you should have put a © on it....

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