False Imagination, Madonna's "Express Yourself," and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"

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You might have heard of false memory-- it's when a suggestion by an interviewer or therapist is mistaken for an actual memory. Elizabeth Loftus, one of my heroes, pioneered research in false memory and found that many well-meaning therapists were accidentally planting memories of child abuse in their patients.

Less well known is false imagination, or "cryptomnesia." This is when you mistake a memory for something you've imagined. My man Joe Kraemer is scores films (he did the awesome and influential score for The Way of the Gun--  you can purchase the soundtrack on iTunes.) He told me that a danger was when he would have a melody in mind, and he would wonder if he'd invented it or accidentally remembered something he'd heard. That's cryptomnesia.

You can even have cryptomnesia with yourself, in a kind of inadvertent self-plagairism. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken created the song "Part of Your World" for The Little Mermaid before realizing that it was a rip-off of their earlier song "Somewhere That's Green" from their own Little Shop of Horrors. Having a sense of humor about it, they started calling the Mermaid song "Somewhere That's Dry."

It's relevant to a recent controversy in the music world. Lady Gaga recently came out with a single called "Born This Way." You can watch it here:

It's been accused of being a rip-off of Madonna's "Express Yourself." This video is worth watching-- it's one of my favorite videos of all time. It's directed by David Fincher of Fight Club, The Social Network, and Three Kings fame. All great movies.

The songs are indeed similar, as you can hear in this great mashup (it's audio only):

Did Gaga rip off Madonna? Maybe, but even if she did it might not have been deliberate. It might have been cryptomnesia.

There are only so many notes, so many chords. So-called rip-offs in music happen all the time.  The Ghostbusters theme was accused of ripping off Huey Lewis and the News's "I Want a New Drug" which was accused of ripping off M's "Popmuzik." They all have very similar basslines. It's inevitable that people will independently come up with the same things once in a while.

Indeed, "Express Yourself" itself was accused or ripping off The Staple Singers's "Respect Yourself."

Coincidence, intellectual theft, or cryptomnesia?

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Joe Kraemer said…
One point of clarification - in the case of "I Want A New Drug" and "Ghostbusters", the film producers had actually used the former song in the temporary tracks for the film and approached Huey Lewis and The News about either using the song or having the band create a similar song for the film. When they declined either option, Ray Parker, Jr. was brought on board and was shown the temporary version and asked to create something like it. This is a common practice in the film world, where directors and producers fall in love with music they cannot get the rights to use.

Was George Harrison guilty of "cryptomnesia" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord"?
Daniel said…
I think most people who thought about it for 2 seconds wouldn't believethat Lady Gaga was deliberately copying one of the most popular songs of all time (unlike the Ray Parker story) A more legitimate criticism, though, might be that her pool of inspiration is shallow - without many more influences than Madonna, her songs come out sounding exactly like them. But this is only if you have originality as a value for pop music - and maybe Lady Gaga rejects that, and that bothers some people.

In general I think originality debates for art are a dead end. Although that Kid Rock song that is basically nothing but the catchy hook of werewolves of london and of sweet home alabama bothers me.
Joe Kraemer said…
Similiarly to the point made about Kid Rock, I think a movie like "Almost Famous" or "Reality Bites", where big emotional moments hang on using a famous rock song ("Tiny Dancer", "All I Need Is You") is kind of taking the easy way out as a film maker (even when Scorcese does it)

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