Before Sam Smith postponed his February 2 appearance at KeyArena and then swept the Grammys on February 8, raking in four awards, the young British songwriter was quietly stewing in a pot of hot water. Details emerged toward the end of January that he had, in fact, kind-of-sort-of ripped off Tom Petty—the title track from Smith’s chart-topping Stay With Me bore an uncanny resemblance to Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”—and had settled out of court, striking a deal that earned both Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne a reported 12.5 percent writing credit on the track.
Petty played it cool, saying he had “no hard feelings” and that “all my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door, but in this case it got by.” Smith’s representatives were equally cordial, claiming Smith and the song’s other writers, William Edward Phillips and James John Napier, were “not previously familiar with the 1989 Petty/Lynne song.”
That quote strikes me as odd, because claiming the entirety of Smith’s songwriting team had never heard one of Tom Petty’s biggest hits is more likely bullshit. Yes, Smith was born three years after its release in a different county, but saying you’ve never once heard a song so well-etched into the American classic-rock songbook, a beloved canon with far-reaching tentacles in the Western pop world, is like saying you have no idea who Paul McCartney is (we’ll get to that later). I wasn’t born during their heyday or in their country, but I know who the Beatles are. (There’s some irony in the example, too, since Petty’s involvement with members of that group is common knowledge—and George Harrison actually plays guitar and sings on the song in question.)
Just as different bands share members, they also share themes in their work, forms and ideas floating around in the collective pop consciousness. Those themes—catchy hooks, pleasant melodies—are why the majority of the world prefers pop[ular] music in general. But as we see here, so many of them are not original—not by a long shot.
Why? Because there are only so many notes in the musical language, and riffing off already established ideas has been going on since . . . forever. Killing Joke’s “Eighties” undoubtedly inspired Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” There’s a striking similarity between Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” and Pearl Jam’s “Given to Fly.” Led Zeppelin, it’s long been noted, appropriated the Southern blues of artists like Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson in its own edgy, soulful rock—and is currently being sued by the band Spirit for stealing the famous intro to “Stairway to Heaven” from its song “Taurus.”
There’s an excellent scene in the second season of Louie (Louis C.K.’s dark, brilliant comedy show on FX) when the comic confronts fellow comedian Dane Cook, whom Louie has long implied stole three of his jokes. Cook has been upset for years and denies it, but Louie is reticent to back down, so to speak, because, as he says: “I don’t think that you saw me do those jokes and said ‘I’m going to tell those jokes, too.’ I don’t think there’s a world where you’re that stupid. Or that bad a guy. I do think, though, that you’re like—you’re like a machine of success. You’re like a rocket. You’re rocketing to the stars, and your engines are sucking stuff up. Stuff is getting sucked up in your engines, like birds and bugs and some of my jokes . . . I think they just went in your brain, and I don’t think you meant to do it, but . . . they got in your brain, you shat them out. Maybe it was inadvertent, but maybe it did happen.”
While Smith probably didn’t set out to steal Petty’s song, he also probably didn’t take the time to reflect on the idea that a song like Petty’s might already be in him. That doesn’t excuse the giddy part of the Twitterverse that believed Kanye West discovered McCartney—but perhaps, the next time the next big thing steps up to receive a Grammy, he or she might pause to thank someone like Tom Petty, whom Smith neglected to mention in his acceptance speech, for giving him the idea.