Rachel del Valle | Copyrights, creativity and ‘Countdown’
Duly Noted | What accusations of plagiarism in Beyoncé’s video say about the nature of art
October 17, 2011, 12:09 am · Updated October 19, 2011, 1:04 am·
Rachel del Valle
Beyoncé’s music video for her latest song “Countdown” is the visual equivalent of an episode of Gilmore Girls. Each bit of the brightly colored three minutes and 30 seconds is rife with references to late 20th century pop culture. Piet Mondrian, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Fame, Philip Glass, Diana Ross, Flashdance, Andy Warhol, Blow Up, among others, make an appearance.
One of these allusions includes a few seconds of Beyoncé dancing behind a window, running her fingers through her hair, tugging on the collar of her ripped shirt. The scene is nearly identical to one featured in a 1996 short film Rosas danst Rosas by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Where is the line between homage and plagiarism drawn? When does a clever tribute overstep its legality? Should De Keersmaeker feel honored? According to her dance company website, she doesn’t. But she’s not angry either. Instead, she is very coolly accusing one of the biggest pop stars in the world of plagiarism.
The exactness with which the scene is copied, right down to the bangs swinging across Beyoncé’s forehead, suggests that the producers of the video weren’t looking to subtly lift some dance moves out of laziness. Given the context, the scene is undeniably meant to be an homage.
Just because the scene being referenced isn’t as iconic as others in the video, such as the bit from Funny Face in which Audrey Hepburn dances in skinny black pants, doesn’t make it any less of a reference.
Incidentally, that same clip of a bobby-socked Audrey was used in a Gap ad campaign from a few years ago. In that case, the rights were paid for to use the footage — the scene was taken straight from the 1957 film.
I remember thinking it was strange that Gap decided to pay royalties that particular season to advertise, essentially, the same black pants they’d been selling for years. I never really liked the commercial because I love the film and thought the manipulated sound editing was awkward. The Technicolor, cheery Gershwin musical was charming. The ad tried too hard to be edgy. Audrey didn’t look right strutting to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
My point is, just because a reference is paid for or explicitly stated doesn’t make it better. In fact, that bluntness is somehow cheapening. It turns a tongue-in-cheek allusion into an endorsement. Subtlety is what makes references interesting. Some people will get it, some people will not. Sure, there’s a certain degree of cultural snobbery in that, but it’s true.
I don’t think that every time someone says, “We’ll always have Paris,” or “May the force be with you” or “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” a nickel should be paid to Warner Bros. or Lucasfilm. Points of cultural reference are meant to be fluid, breathable, flexible. Once we start putting limitations on them, they lose their power to connect artists and audiences through generations.
An artist doesn’t create something so that it may be read or watched or listened to and then tucked away into the subconscious of the observer. Art is made so that it can become an active part of your life.
Take filmmakers like Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, whose works are highly referential. Should they be penalized for drawing on past movies for inspiration in their own films? It doesn’t make sense to ignore the long body of work that has come before your own. Personally, I enjoy literature filled with influences of other creations. There’s obviously a difference between paying homage and Jennifer Lopez ripping the backbeat of her latest song from some obscure European club music. But there’s something to be said for nodding to your influences.
There is an inherent vulnerability that comes with making your work available to the world. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. There’s no taking it back. But that’s one of the great things about art. It takes on its own life apart from the creator. It’s also a tricky thing to deal with, especially in the 21st century.
Rachel del Valle is a College sophomore from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Duly Noted appears every Monday.