What Can We Steal From “Baby Got Back”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Baby Got Back,” pop song
Author: Music by Jonathan Coulton, Lyrics by Anthony Ray (better known a Sir Mix-a-Lot)
Date of Work: The original version of the song was released in 1992 and Coulton’s cover dates to 2005.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The original was originally released on Sir Mix-A-Lot’s hit album Mack Daddy.  Coulton’s reimagining of the song was originally released on his album Thing-a-Week One.  You can purchase the song from Amazon here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Appropriation

Discussion:
All creative people steal.  We just do.  The point is that we must steal in the proper way while respecting the rights of other artists.  I suppose the question that you must ask yourself when you’re stealing is the following:

AM I ACTUALLY BEING CREATIVE OR AM I JUST CUT-AND-PASTING?

Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the all-time great composers, wrote this “Minuet in G Major.”  Check out the melody:

“A Lover’s Concerto” was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell and was first recorded by The Toys in 1965.  Compare the melody of the Bach to that of “Concerto.”

They’re practically the same, aren’t they?  Why shouldn’t we be angry at Linzer and Randell?

  1. Bach had been dead for two hundred years when they stole his work.
  2. Public domain laws allow you to do whatever you like with old creative work because they are considered the property of the people, of American culture.
  3. Linzer and Randell completely transformed a simple (but beautiful) piano/harpsichord composition into a full-blown pop song.  They took the opening melody of the minuet and added lyrics and did a whole lot of creative work.

Okay, let’s look at another case of theft.

In 1992, Sir Mix-a-Lot got everyone bumping with his ode to behinds, “Baby Got Back.”  The song can be heard everywhere, from dance clubs to junior high school dances.  Go ahead.  Listen to the original and feel free to dance as though no one is watching.

Did Sir Mix-a-Lot know he would change the world with his song?  No.  Fourteen years later, independent musician Jonathan Coulton decided he wanted to do a cover of “Baby Got Back.”  He paid Sir Mix-a-Lot for a license to re-record his song.  Why?  Because Sir Mix-a-Lot worked really hard to write “Baby Got Back.”  Coulton didn’t want to claim someone else’s creative work as his own.   Further, Coulton credited Sir Mix-a-Lot for his lyrics each time the song has been released.

Here is Mr. Coulton’s “Baby Got Back,” released on a Creative Commons license.  (Well, I’m not a lawyer, but I believe it means that Mr. Coulton is not mad at you if you share the music with others as long as you don’t CHARGE THEM MONEY or FAIL TO CREDIT THE SONG TO HIM.)

What are the differences between Coulton’s “Baby Got Back” and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s?

  1. The choral opening: “L.A. face with the Oakland booty.”
  2. The banjo arpeggio under the verses.
  3. The entirely new melody for the lyrics
  4. An interpolation of a new lyric: “Johnny C’s in trouble.”
  5. The creation of an entirely new choral arrangement for the bridge
  6. The use of a duck quack to replace the word “fuck.”

Okay, now listen to the version of “Baby Got Back” that was released by Twentieth Century Fox as part of its television show Glee.  (A program dedicated to glorifying the beauty of creativity and to pointing out the great emotional cost of bullying.)

Yeah, so what did you hear?  It’s the same song, isn’t it?  In the weeks after the Glee version was released, Twentieth Century Fox didn’t credit or pay Coulton for his work.  Is this bad stealing?  I would say so.  Either they used his actual instrumental track or they recreated it PERFECTLY.  The only creative work that Glee did was cue up the karaoke version of Coulton’s song and have the kids sing (into Autotune).  Whether or not you like any version of the song, it’s clear that Sir Mix-a-Lot and Mr. Coulton both put a lot of creative energy into the music they created.  Sir Mix-a-Lot created the world’s most popular tribute to the female derriere and Mr. Coulton completely reimagined the song.  Glee opened up a mic, clicked “record” and collected tons of money.

In case you’re not convinced, here’s a comparison between the two.  The Coulton version comes out of one speaker and the Glee version comes out of the other.

What Should We Steal?

  • Give credit where credit is due.  We all steal, so we shouldn’t be embarrassed about acknowledging it.  If you steal a poem format from another writer (but you honestly wrote the poem), maybe you will precede your poem with “After Liz Lemon.”  (Or whatever the writer’s name is.)
  • Understand the fair use doctrine.  United States Copyright Law allows you to take different amounts of different works at different times.  I, for example, feel perfectly comfortable quoting a paragraph of a short story.  Why?  Because I’m “stealing” a very small piece of a work in the interest of scholarly criticism.  The law is on my side.  The law would NOT be on my side if I erased the first line of a friend’s poem and I made a new one and slapped my name atop the page.

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