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There Will Be No Backing Down Tonight

Jan 28 | Posted by: Rebecca Loebe |

Did you think about the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” the first time you heard Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”? I did. I was at a bar. I had never heard of Sam Smith, but the dude onstage was singing what I later learned to be a cover of “Stay With Me.” While he was singing it, I thought about how similar it was to the Petty tune and debated whether I should warn this guy that I barely knew that his new song was maybe a little too similar to the classic rock anthem. When he finished the song he credited it to Smith and I shrugged it off. Months later I heard the recorded version and immediately thought of Tom Petty again.

My sister just forwarded me an interesting Slate article about the settlement in the plagiarism suit that was worked out by the two men over the weekend. The article basically says that Petty’s songs are so simple that he shouldn’t be pissed when other people use the uncomplicated melodies that he happened to popularize first. As a writer, I often find myself wondering whether a melody is “too similar” to something else. Of course I want to keep my writing fresh and original but, at the end of the day, there are only 12 notes (in our western scale, anyhow), something my sister said she had in mind as she was reading the article.

In this scenario, I don’t really blame either of them. Sam Smith was born in 1992, three years after “I Won’t Back Down” was a giant hit. I find it very plausible that, a couple decades later, he stumbled onto that same melody, essentially re-discovering it on his own. There are only 12 notes after all. On the other hand, I don’t really blame Tom Petty for pursuing legal action; it is his right and possibly his job to defend his intellectual property. Although Petty is doing quite well for himself, in general it’s difficult to earn money as a content creator. It gets even harder as one ages and can’t create/perform as much as they used to. Like it or not, we live in a copyright-driven society (which reminds me: I recently learned that there was a man who achieved human flight within DAYS of of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in North Carolina, but he got basically no credit for it since he didn’t get there first. Crazy, huh?)

So I get it. I get it that Sam Smith re-invented the melody by accident, but I also get it that Tom Petty feels the need to defend his original hit song. What I don’t get is why none of Sam Smith’s friends, producers, band members, studio musicians, record label reps or co-writers thought to mention the similarity between the two songs (which must be the case, since he seemed to be hearing about it for the first time when the lawsuit came up). I mean, he has to know someone who was alive in 1989, right? Did they not hear it? Or did they think it wasn’t worth mentioning? Were they afraid that bringing it up would trigger some sort of hulk-like rage incident? (In which case I definitely mis-read Sam Smith out the outset).  I totally understand how it happened initially, but I am a little confused about how it got this far.

Side note: I would be happy to volunteer to be Sam Smith’s straight talking new bestie. I love eating sushi, pretending I’m going on a run but actually walking most of the time and window shopping. I’m also pretty comfortable telling friends unpleasant truths but then helping to find solutions. 

At any rate, I’m glad that both songs exist. “I Won’t Back Down” is still a relevant windows-down summertime jam that I have heard double nicely as hype music between speakers at a protest rally. “Stay With Me” is a gut wrenching ballad sung by one of the most perfect voices currently open for business. I’m glad that they reached an agreement quickly and easily but it makes me wonder: since they both have obviously similar sensibilities why not co-write again sometime, only this time on purpose?

Just a thought.



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