What Is It That Makes Ripoffs of Good Artists so Bad?

Recently, I had the honor of listening to the worst album I have ever heard. It is called digital druglord, and it is by an artist called blackbear. According to his Wikipedia page––which reads suspiciously like it was written by his publicist and/or him personally––blackbear used to make rock music that nobody cared about, but then he randomly cowrote Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” with Mike Posner, and as an award for having failed upward in the music industry he now gets to make electronic quasi-R&B about all of the drugs he is on, both by himself and with Mike Posner. His only three influences appear to be early Weeknd, mid-period Weeknd, and the most recent work from The Weeknd. If a piece of art can be called “great” for making a person feel feelings they’d previously thought impossible to feel, then blackbear’s digital druglord is great, but only because I never thought it was possible for me to feel like punching a total stranger (specifically, blackbear himself) in the face.

I don’t mean to harp on blackbear––I’m sure he’s a perfectly pleasant person to be around, and if I met him I would completely understand it if he wanted to punch me in the face for saying mean things about his music. But he and his album are symptomatic of a greater trend in music, in which artists draw aesthetic influence from good artists, try to sound like them, and end up creating something that sucks really, really hard.

To get a bit further into this, The Weeknd is not great because he has hazy, druggy production and “dark” lyrics, although those are all stylistic choices that make his music work as well as it does. But as a project, The Weeknd is successful because Abel Tesfaye has voracious musical tastes that he integrates with an inherent mastery of R&B and pop as artforms, and while he coats everything he touches with a sexy-sleazy sheen, that choice belies his eye for detail and serious songwriting chops. The dude can write a song about rummaging around a dirty loft for a half-empty coke baggie that’s just as structurally sound as anything that ever came out of Tin Pan Alley (let’s call the school of “alternative R&B” he influenced “Glass Table Boulevard”). Tesfaye’s delivery, too, helps his music transcend its own ridiculousness, injecting a sense of drama into the proceedings that you’d be able to intuit even if every Weeknd song had been written in Simlish. If there’s a lesson to be learned by his music, it’s that eclecticism is good, and that you can write a song about anything as long as you do it with flair and skill. But far too often, artists just hear The Weeknd and think, “Hey! I, too, could write an R&B song about being strung out on drugs and put some cool effects on it!” and end up falling flat on their faces.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to The Weeknd and his unfortunate progeny. Drake got famous for telling his own story in an authentic if corny way, yet he convinced a generation of rappers that lyrics about emotional manipulation were a handy stand-in for actual feelings. Nirvana were punks who made misanthropic pop-rock and hated the music industry, yet their sound paved the way for a wave of truly terrible radio-rock bands like Nickelback and Creed. Lil B’s music can be read as a wide-eyed and truly weird commentary on the logorrheic quality of online culture; rather than conducting their own experiments with using the internet to be more open, too many of the artists he inspired just recorded a bunch of bad Based Freestyles.

At times, showing overt influence can be beneficial for an artist. Music critics like it when they can say a band sounds like another band, because writing a review becomes way easier when you’re just connecting the dots of musical history that are sitting there waiting to be connected. But far too often, both musicians and critics can fall into the trap of confusing good taste with depth, which can lead to people getting really excited about a thing that won’t age well because it’s ultimately vapid.

And sure, there’s nothing wrong with drawing such aesthetic influence from someone––I, for one, wish more rappers would try to sound like Z-Ro, and will never be mad at a band for ripping off Modern Life Is War––but if an artist’s frames of reference never go beyond surface-level touchstones it’s hard to imagine them achieving any sort of innovation or depth. Working within your influences at its best involves delving into your particular aesthetic and cultural milieu to create something that remains true to your deeper sense of self.

It’s easy to borrow sounds and techniques until the cows come home, but simply synthesizing your influences into something vaguely familiar to listeners in hopes of building a fanbase––or catching some sort of algorithmic wave and tricking Spotify into playing their song immediately after another, more famous artist––doesn’t really work unless you’re putting something of yourself into your work as well. Not only does it alienate art from the artist who made it, but it devalues the idea of music as a form of artistic expression. A song made by someone who just wants to sound like A$AP Rocky or whoever might as well be making a lamp––both are nothing more than products meant to create a mood or augment the environment around them.

It’s not impossible to forge a sustainable career by hopping on one style after another, but those who become successful often combine the work of artists who inspire them with elements of their own personality to make it uniquely their own––Lil Peep, for example, combines drill and mall-punk in a way that comes off as an extension of his personality. But Lil Peep also understands his influences, and is able to navigate them to create something that furthers the musical conversation. If someone’s trying to rip off Lil Peep, then suddenly they’re copying a guy who’s copying other music, and unless they’re somehow using mall-trap as a way to tell their story or comment on the world around them, they’re probably reaching something of an artistic dead end. After all, when it comes to music, technique is just window dressing for the ineffable.

Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.

Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn’t, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.

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