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Blogger Book Club: The Art of Imitation

By Brian Sacawa

Everybody has their vices. Mine is listening to pop radio in the car. (And
watching Law & Order.) I like to do this
for two reasons: 1) I genuinely like some of the songs, and 2) out of
curiosity, since I am often puzzled by what pop culture deems “good” music
and think that repeated listenings will reveal the reasons for its
popularity to me. Anyhow, on a recent drive I noticed some striking
similarities between “The Way I Are” (feat. Keri Hilson and D.O.E.) by
Timbaland (released July 9, 2007) and “Circus” by Britney Spears (released
December 9, 2008). I made a mashup of the two tracks to better illustrate
these likenesses. Here’s what you’ll hear: Timbaland Bridge–Britney
Bridge–Timbaland Chorus–Britney Chours.


Ummm… Let’s compare. Same tempo, though we can let that one slide since
successful pop songs only work at certain tempos. Similar, almost
identical, melodies and melodic contour. But what I found most exceptional
was the cadence and rhythm at which the lyrics are delivered. These songs
were not written by the same person, nor did they have the same producer,
though Britney did work with Danja, who produced “The Way I Are”, on her Circus album. And she apparently used samples from “The Way I Are” for a
mashup with her track “Gimme More” for an interlude during her 2009 The
Circus Starring: Britney Spears Tour.

(For the record, I don’t know if Timbaland has a serious musical agenda or
artistic vision or what his views are concerning ironic references, but I
think he’s a slick sampler and pop music semiotician: semi-buried in the
background of “The Way I Are” is a sample of “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa,
while the recurring “Yeah!” and “Talk to me, girl” that precedes the
bridge sound suspiciously like the “Yeah!” and “Take it to the
bridge/chorus” in “SexyBack” (released July 7, 2006) by Justin Timberlake
(or is it Timbalake?).)

This is nothing new for pop music. And as Lessig points out, this kind of
“sampling” is the norm in jazz. In fact, “building on the creativity of
others before” (p. 103) is how an aspiring jazz artist is often measured.
Have they absorbed the language of the art form’s innovators? Can they
play Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” solo verbatim not because it’s the only way
they know how to blow on the tune but simply because they’ve paid their
dues? Can a trumpet player play like Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Lee
Morgan, Clifford Brown, Randy Brecker, and Tom Harrell and still have
their own distinctive voice? In jazz improvisation, a sly reference to the
past in a contemporary solo speaks volumes about the artist who was
creative enough to work it in.

I’ve always thought that the amount of “copying” in pop music greatly
exceeds the amount of innovation. The few innovators there are–say The
Beatles, 1980s Michael Jackson, Nirvana, or Dr. Dre, to name only a
few–do their thing and then have to watch as the rest of the industry
emulates them. Is this imitation done out of reverence to these
ground-breaking artists like a jazz musician paying homage to the greats
of his instrument in an improvised solo? Maybe for the high school kid in
a garage band, but in general I think it’s mostly driven by economics. The
innovators innovate and then everyone else files in behind their sound to
capitalize on what’s hot. I just wonder why Britney is allowed to be so
blatant while someone else might get sued? Where’s Joe Satriani when you
need him? I guess in a different way, this also speaks volumes about the artist.


  1. That sample is like distilled aural crack. I cover my ears and yet I can’t stop. It’s made for some very embarrassing dancing incidents today. Be glad you can’t see! It would only compound the car crash aspect.

  2. Did you see that Britney lifted her “If you seek Amy” bit from Ulysses? I thought that was precious.

  3. She’s so deep.

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