This weekend, Kanye West released a music video for “All of the Lights,” the fourth single from last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The video, directed by hip hop music video stalwart Hype Williams, features West, Rihanna (who is apparently incapable of wearing any substantial form of clothing), and Kid Cudi. It’s a pretty straight forward video: a little girl walks home alone, Kanye dances on top of a couple of cop cars, Rihanna and Cudi perform under a spotlight.
But, of course, it wouldn’t be a Kanye event if it were controversy-free: Minutes after “All of the Lights” hit VEVO, Twitter (and Gchat and Facebook and YouTube and the blogosphere) picked up on, to put it euphemistically, similarities between some parts of West’s video and the opening titles to Gaspar Noé’s award-winning, anxiety-inducing psychothriller Enter the Void. Almost exactly like Enter the Void, “All of the Lights” features a series of strobe-lit, rapidly edited, full-screen typefaces spelling out the song’s lyrics. (In Enter the Void, the text spells out the names of the people who worked on the film. When it was released last fall, Noé’s titles were lauded not only for their stylistic ingenuity, but also for flouting the standard of creating titles that are generally very, very readable.)
Some have suggested that, by being such a blatant appropriation, the video is more of an homage to Enter the Void than a rip off. But wouldn’t an homage require either West or Williams to publicly address the source of their inspiration, or otherwise give Noé some sort of credit? Until either of them makes their approach and intentions known—and that seems unlikely, considering West’s very public anti-media blitz at New York Fashion Week—it’s difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt. Until either of them says otherwise, it will appear as though they are trying to pass off Noé’s ideas as their own.
Ironically, the fallout comes only days after Rihanna found herself in a similar predicament: Last week, photographer David LaChapelle, known for his bright, candy-colored, sexualized celebrity portraits, launched a $1 million lawsuit against the pop star. LaChapelle alleges Rihanna’s music video for “S&M”—which, by the way, has been banned in a number of countries—was “directly derived from and substantially similar to” his work with other women, including Lady Gaga.
It’s not too much of a surprise. After all, pop stars have tended to play the role of curator, not creator. They (or their people) find what all the hip kids are doing, siphon it through their various filters, make it palatable for the undiscerning masses, and, ultimately, profit from other people’s creativity. It happened with blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, punk, you name it.
In recent years, chief Black Eyed Pea Will.i.am has ripped off the styles of electronic musicians like Boys Noize, Timbaland has borrowed from dancepunk duo Crystal Castles. And it doesn’t happen just in music either: Snickers was embroiled in a huge controversy over an advertisement that practically frame-for-frame imitated a Spike Jonze skate video; Beyoncé has been accused of copying Santigold’s trademark backup-dancing duo.
Referencing, re-working, and being inspired by other people’s work has long been a part of the creative arts; musicians, filmmakers, and writers have done it for decades, and with great success. Hip hop, in particular, relies heavily on that notion. “Rapper’s Delight,” the 1979 Sugarhill Gang song generally agreed to be the first successful commercially released rap song, lifted an entire string section from Chic’s “Good Times.” (Nile Rodgers of Chic later admitted he thought “Rapper’s Delight” to be an innovative and important song.)
In hip hop, using someone else’s work as a starting point has long been considered kosher. Stealing someone else’s work in its entirety, on the other hand, is not. Yet that is what Kanye West and Hype Williams have done with the “All of the Lights” video. The video is not a take on Noé’s titles; it is essentially a duplication of them. It does not reference Noé’s titles; it copies them.
Of the millions of hits that “All of the Lights” has received in a matter of days—and Rihanna’s “S&M” in a matter of weeks—it’s safe to assume most of those viewers have never heard of, let alone watched, Enter the Void or been familiar enough with LaChapelle’s work to identify the obvious usurpation of his style. While music videos are a form of art, they are also largely promotional tools used to sell music (and they have become money-makers in their own right, through the ad-sharing network VEVO). In effect, West and Rihanna are benefiting hugely from other people’s ingenuity.
As the Internet makes it easier for those in the creative arts to make their work available to any corner of the planet and as the structures that made it difficult for people to access anything other than pop music become increasingly irrelevant, you’d imagine a tendency to defer to or collaborate with lesser-known artists. (West collaborated heavily with Bon Iver on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, rather than simply imitate his signature vocals.) After all, our society has become incredibly litigious, with artists carefully guarding their own work as much as they borrow from their peers.
It’s one thing for Beyoncé to borrow elements from Gaga’s style who co-opted Madonna’s style. But for a pop star with a global reach of several million to, essentially, take credit for the creativity of someone with considerably fewer resources is not only a legal problem, it’s an ethical one. We may not expect originality from our pop stars, but is integrity too much to ask for?