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Olivia Rodrigo and The Issue of Imitation in the Arts

It seems the new it girl on the block, Olivia Rodrigo, emerged out of nowhere – and yet, her name gravitates to headlines just as her songs do the top of the charts. She’s the new voice of her generation, and Zoomers across the world are blasting her music in their rooms and their cars in a way reminiscent of how Millennial teens turned Taylor Swift into the soundtrack of their generation not that long ago. And yet, it seems that Olivia Rodrigo hasn’t reached the height of her fame without help – and it hasn’t escaped the notice of some of her critics.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, Rodrigo may have been flattering a few of her predecessors a little too obviously, and they – and their fans – are feeling a little uncomfortable about it.

First came a few raised eyebrows after some listeners noticed a striking similarity between Rodrigo’s angry punk-fuelled bop, Good 4 U, and Paramore’s 2017 hit, Misery Business (from the album Riot!). The choruses of the song were so similar, in fact, that some Tiktokers took to overlaying them, and other creators blended them into a mashup that, honestly, sounds like it could have been one song in the first place.

While some listeners accused Rodrigo of “stealing” the melody of the song, others, like one Reddit user instead asked ‘What if good 4 u is the response song of the ex-girlfriend mentioned in Misery Business?’. This question, rather than framing Good 4 U as the product of theft, posits that it is in fact the result of a creative process in its own right.

The user who proposed this idea continued that “both songs allude to a period of two weeks after a break-up. Two sides of the story does seem to be a common theme through the two songs, ‘good 4 u’ basically refers to the ex-partner clearly doing great, being a better person, having a better career, etc after their breakup, and ‘Misery Business’ confirms this with the line ‘I watched his wildest dreams come true, And not one of them involving you.'”

It’s the kind of deep-dive that, really, one would only find on Reddit, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point.

Good 4 U is not the only creative offering that Rodrigo has come under fire for, though. More recently, the artist has received criticism from Courtney Love herself – rather than her fans –, who claimed that she copied one of her Hole album covers.

Olivia Rodrigo and Courtney love
the Live Through This album art next to Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour Prom image

Love criticized Rodrigo for ripping off her album cover for Live Through This in a promotion for her upcoming concert film. She went as far as to call it “rude” and “rage-inducing,” and urged the Disney star to send her flowers and a note to apologise, or atone, or something.

It’s not hard to see why Love was triggered by the image, as they are eerily similar, both displaying the artists in prom crowns, in front of a purple backdrop, with make-up running down their faces. She clearly didn’t take Rodrigo’s image as a compliment, even if that’s how it was meant in the first place (but how are we to know?).

Clashes like these have supporters in both camps raising their voices (or typing in all caps online), but more importantly, it sparks an interesting topic of debate. Firstly, about what originality in the arts actually is (or isn’t), and secondly about how homage can be misconstrued as theft.

Rodrigo herself publicly claimed to love Love’s Live Through This album, so it’s not a stretch to believe that she was in fact inspired by the cover art and wished to emulate it. And all art is inspired by something, isn’t it?

Now, I’m not a particularly ardent fan of Rodrigo’s myself, but I think there’s something to be said about the fact that nothing we create anymore is truly original. Truly original thought is, arguably, impossible. Artists of all kinds have been putting their own unique spin on the work of those before them for as long as art has been around, and expecting that to stop seems both naive and somewhat boring.

I don’t recall hordes of internet users getting upset by how Normani obviously paid homage to artists like J-Lo and Beyonce in her 2000’s inspired video for Motivation, so why should Rodrigo not be offered the same benefit of the doubt?

As human beings, though, we do love having something to shout about, and when we have nothing better to criticise, artists come under fire for how they choose to flatter the others who inspired them. Whether you love Olivia Rodrigo and her music or not, it’s hard to deny that stories like this make good headlines – and we can all do with a distraction from time to time.

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