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Talent Borrows, Genius Steals- 5 songs that changed everything (In my opinion)

By Justin Gray (Songwriter/Producer/Founder MDIIO)

Thank you Oscar Wilde.

In songwriting sessions it’s commonplace for songwriters to refer to other songs in order to divine magic. Identifying touchpoints from the past often inspires the present.

What’s incredible to think about, is that spanning all the way back to the first time that a caveman hit a rock against a rock like a drum, and somehow and drawing a line from that point to today, music is an evolving and derivative art form. It’s pretty hard to think about any art form for that matter that is really, truly, and honestly unique.

Andy Warhol created art from manipulating well-known images like the Campbell’s soup can and Marilyn Monroe.

Filmmakers are inspired by other filmmakers, just like songwriters are inspired by artists and songs.

That’s probably why copyright lawyers have jobs. Get close to the line but don’t cross it.

Before we face a ton of backlash for my choice of five songs, just know that this is completely subjective, and only my personal opinion. We would actually love to hear your thoughts on what your five most transformational, and influential songs might be.

Here are five songs that masterfully manipulated, perfectly pivoted and reset the way we write, listen and appreciate music.

Rock Around The Clock byBill Haley and the Comets - Some consider this song ground zero for rock ‘n roll. It was fast, it was aggressive, and it was dangerous.Compared to artists of the day like Perry Como, and Mel Tormé, Bill Haley and the Comets were the voice of a new generation. It spoke to the youth in a way that they had not been spoken to before. It woke up generations of rebels and rule breakers in a way that nothing before had ever done. Quickly to follow were artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and a myriad of other equally influential soon to be icons.

I Want To Hold Your Hand by The Beatles - We’ve been discussing the Beatles quite a bit lately. I Want To Hold Your Hand was the first single smash hit by a band that would go on to influence generations of songwriters and artists alike. I can think of a list of five artists that don’t exist without the Beatles influence. Jokingly in the film “Yesterday,” when the main character Googled “Who is Oasis,” it returned no results. Because in the film, the Beatles never existed. But in reality, Oasis, Coldplay, U2, Muse don’t exist in a world where “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is never born.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice/God Only Knows by Beach Boys - The Beach Boys? Really? Yes! Having literally just talked about the Beatles one paragraph earlier, it’s a relatively well-known fact that if not for the album “Pet Sounds“ by the Beach Boys, Sgt Peppers never gets made. The story goes that when McCartney and Lennon heard Brian Wilson’s melodies and sonic choices on Pet Sounds, they realized that they needed to mature musically. Wouldn’t It Be Nice/God only knows are a master class of melody and production. Not to mention established Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys as multifaceted musical icons.

Rappers Delight by Sugarhill Gang - Despite the popular belief that “Rappers Delight“ is known as the first rap song, what really makes it especially interesting, is that it was the first commercially successful song to interpolate a previously existing piece of music. In this case. It was the song “Good Times “by Chic. Produced by Nile Rogers, who would go on to become groundbreaking in his own right as a producer for countless other massively successful acts like David Bowie, Duran Duran and Daft Punk. And that’s just the D’s. “Rappers Delight” established the era of music sampling, hip-hop, and a crossover commercial appeal to white audiences that had really only previously existed with Motown. What some said “wouldn’t last” is the most streamed music in modern times…over 40+ years later.

Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana - Literally overnight, Nirvana‘s breakthrough loser anthem recalibrated radio and music. Teen Spirit single-handedly reformed the way people listened to rock ‘n’ roll music. Musically speaking, you instantly realized that the tried and true formulas and rules that as a listener we’d grown too accustomed to, no longer existed. Lyrically it was completely opposite to anything we’ve ever heard. Melodically and vocally the angular and awkward chord changes were a complete counterpoint to the perfect and slick production of the times. Recently anointed hairbands a la Cinderella, Whitesnake and Warrant were DOA thanks to Cobain and co. Nirvana and this song in particular, launched the grunge movement putting Seattle on the map as a hotbed for new music. The list of Nirvana disciples is long and extensive. Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, all found acceptance with an audience too often overlooked by mainstream music.

The coda: The question is, how do you glean from the masters and apply it to your own writing? How do you get into their heads by listening to what they’ve written, and apply the way they think to the way that you think. I don’t mean take the chord changes or their melodies or their lyrics. It means how do you literally transport yourself into their mindset to try and understand how they made the choices that they did. In order to be a master, first you must be a student. Every day I wake up eager to learn something new. I hope you do too!

See you next week, and keep writing those hits.


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