Why Tom Petty should back down

In 1986, Van Morrison, rock-era Romantic and eternal Mr. Grumpypants, decided he’d had enough. He’d held hands with a “Brown-Eyed Girl,” he’d folded prayerful palms to a “Beautiful Vision.” Now it was time to point his fingers.

More specifically, to point them at those who he felt had made off with his musical style. On “A Town Called Paradise,” he sang:

“Copycats ripped off my words/Copycats ripped off my songs/Copycats ripped off my melodies.”

With this rare burst of lyrically blunt anger, Van Morrison captured a feeling that’s become increasingly common: the feeling that pop music, far from being a haven for creators, is actually a den of thieves.

Tom Petty apparently shares this attitude. Upon noticing that the chorus of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” was similar to his own “I Won’t Back Down,” Petty confronted Smith, demanding a significant slice of the songwriting royalties. Smith, who claims he never noticed the resemblances between the two songs, paid up.

As Smith’s star rises, Tom Petty’s coffers will be filled accordingly.

This whole case may seem like amusing Buzzfeed fodder, but I think it’s worth saying a word or two about it, because it  gets to the heart of some fundamental issues regarding originality and legality in the pop music industry. And the more I examine those issues, the more I think that Petty was wrong to go after Smith.

First of all, it’s eminently clear to any listener that Smith’s song is not, content-wise, a “rip-off” of Petty’s. Do the choruses share a basic chord progression? Pretty much. Is the melody similar? Yes, but there’s enough variation between the two  that they would never be mistaken for one and the same.

But a discussion of musical thievery must involve something more than the basic notes. If we look beyond said notes (which are, again, not even quite the same), we see two radically different pieces of music with incidentally similar features. Petty’s song is a towering paean to ragged, drag-your-self-up-the-mountainside self-empowerment, while Smith’s plays like the sorrow-drenched love-child of Goffin/King and Mary J. Blige.

These pieces may share notes, but they do not share sounds. This case fails the Van Morrison test. No one ripped off Petty’s words OR his melodies.

Some may argue that it doesn’t matter; willingly or not, Smith still ripped off a lot of his notes.

But here’s the thing: both Petty and Smith traffic in the sort of music that, like folk and blues, creates profound emotional reactions from very basic musical patterns. That’s not a dig at them. After all, as Hemingway taught us, something that looks simple can be very hard to craft. But when you’re working from limited musical material, like Smith and Petty are, there’s bound to be some overlap.

I should note, I suppose, that Tom Petty tried to handle this whole situation privately, and that once it hit the news, he publicly forgave and even praised Sam Smith. Still, it seems to me that there’s something uncouth and depressing about someone of Petty’s wealth and status going after an aspiring young songwriter due to some passing melodic similarities.

Petty, like Morrison, may feel like “copycats ripped off his words.” He’s certainly entitled to that feeling, and to expressing it. But, for the love of all that’s good about basic pop music, let’s hope that copycats don’t rip off Petty’s actions.