Nobody likes a copycat. I’ll never forget the fit I threw in the first grade after I discovered that BeckyOborne had decorated the cover of her daily journal exactly like I had, with little foam flowers in the corners and everything. I felt violated, my creative genius stolen from me without any credit given. My mother gave me the old “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” lecture later that day, but I still felt wronged. For me, there was no greater crime than the act of copying.

I’ve calmed down a bit since those days, but my feelings toward copycats haven’t changed much over the years. Then, while trolling the internet one lazy night this past summer, I stumbled upon a video series entitled “Everything Is a Remix.” The idea was quite simple: It could be argued that everything is a remix — that every “new” idea is simply a recycled, rehashed or reappropriated version of an already existing one.

The first video begins with a look at music, starting with a brief overview of the use of bass beat sampling in hip hop songs — and then transports you back to the 1960s, when Led Zeppelin was, apparently, stealing lyrics and guitar riffs from other artists to create some of their most famous hits. Perhaps this is common knowledge to those who know the band better, but I was shocked. I thought this kind of thoughtless copycatting was reserved for the likes of Vanilla Ice.

The series continues this way, bringing up some of pop culture’s most beloved, iconic, important ideas and works of art — from Star Wars to the steam engine to “Stairway to Heaven” — and sucking all of the genius and originality out of them by showing you the older ideas they had ripped off. “Creativity isn’t magic,” the series’ creator says, matter-of-factly. “It happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials.” Otherwise known as copying. And so everyone you ever thought of as “creative” turns out to be no more than a clever copycat, i.e. Becky Oborne.

If it’s not already clear, this concept bummed me out a bit. Ever the idealist, I’d much prefer to think of the Jimmy Pages and George Lucases of the world as artists rather than thieves. But I’ll admit that the videos, as infuriating as they were to watch, did get me thinking about creative ownership, about the fine line between inspiration and imitation, the original and the remix.

I remember when I finally caved and joined Facebook as a junior in high school, and one of the first groups I was invited to join was tastefully called “F*@K ANDY WARHOL.” There were a lot of angry kids in my high school class, and those who didn’t form screamo bands or graffiti gangs chose to express that anger by dissing dead dudes on the internet. The group had no other purpose than to hate on Warhol, saying that he was not an artist and that everything he had done, his so-called “art,” had just been copied. I joined because I didn’t want to be the angry kids’ next target, but I always thought Warhol was pretty OK. Sure, he took previously existing images and sold them as his own, but to me, he was perfectly entitled to do so, because he changed them and remixed them in such a way that they became his own. And after taking a class on modern art and learning about the commentary on the materialism and mindlessness of the era that accompanied his works, my outlook on his art became even more justified.

I’m not saying that I’m a particularly huge fan of Warhol’s, and I’m not out to defend his work — you can tell him to do whatever you want with his screen-printed bananas. But his pieces do raise interesting questions regarding ownership, originality and imitation. Is it stealing if the image (or, for that matter, the song lyric, the film scene, the guitar riff) is removed from its original context? Is it copying if new meaning is assigned to the idea, if it’s used for a new and different purpose? Is originality in the content or the intent?

The more I think about it, the more uncertain I become. I have a hard time coming to terms with the thought that every artist I’ve ever admired was merely copying someone who came before him. But then again, isn’t that just the way the creative process works? We build off of established concepts, we bounce ideas off of one another, we learn and draw inspiration from those who’ve come before us. Something can’t come from nothing; you can’t have the remix without the original. And who’s to say there’s anything less to be said about the remix? After all, it’s not the first version of “Ignition” that make us want to get up and dance.

 

Clare Donnelly is a senior in the College. She can be reached at donnelly@thehoya.com. Leap Into The Void appears every other Friday in the guide.

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