Last week, an Instagram post emerged highlighting the similarities between a dance routine from Beyoncé’s Formation Tour and the work of artist Alexander Ekman. Those familiar with Beyoncé will remember that this is far from the first time the Lemonade singer has been accused of heavily borrowing, if we’re being generous—or outright stealing, if we’re not—the work of others.
A segment of the choreography in her 2011 video for “Countdown” bears a striking similarity to a routine by Belgian dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The dance moves from her hit “Single Ladies” are clearly a reference to Bob Fosse and her performance at the 2011 Billboard Awards garnered controversy for its resemblance to a previous performance by Italian singer Lorella Cuccarini. Beyoncé later said she used Cuccarini’s performance as inspiration.
The issue of artists taking ideas from other artists has existed for as long as people have been making art and Beyoncé is far from the only star to be “inspired.”
In the music video for “Stronger,”and, frankly, most of her career, Britney Spears imitates Janet Jackson’s famous chair dance from “Miss You Much.” Lady Gaga has been under scrutiny a number of times for copying the work of others including Madonna, French artist Orlan and songwriter Rebecca Francescatti.
Recently, it emerged that Drake’s video for “Hotling Bling” is a rather clear riff on the work of artist James Turrell, whose installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was visited by Drizzy before the video was shot. And this is to say nothing of the many, many other musicians who have been accused of ripping off the music of other artists. Hell, even Shakespeare probably “borrowed” a few things here and there.
Everyone is inspired by someone and, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. Still, these examples highlight the very thin line between inspiration and plagiarism—referencing someone’s work and simply ripping them off.
We’ve all heard the probably incorrect Pablo Picasso quote: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” What this meant is that great artists are able to take inspiration from others and turn it into something better or at least unrecognizable from the source.
It’s also important to remember that stars of Beyoncé or Lady Gaga’s caliber are almost certainly not concocting these references by themselves. They have teams of creative directors and costume designers and a host of other creatives who help make this art happen. It is feasible that in some instances the pop star in question may not even be aware of where their choreographer’s new, brilliant idea came from.
Still, that does not assuage them from guilt. It seems like much of this could be solved by a simple credit to the original artist. The credits for Lemonade were fascinating precisely because they were so expansive and provided a glimpse into many of the factors that brought the project together. Including Ekman’s name in the Formation Tour credits likely would have gone a long way insofar that often, people just want to be acknowledged for their contribution or influence.
(The choreography of Beyoncé’s dancers is almost identical to Ekman’s performance, but at the same time, he did not invent the concept of dancing in water, so a credit, more than a check, seems to make sense here.)
Pop artists today must feel a touch of chagrin considering that not long ago, they could have gotten away with these imitations in peace. On the flip side, they also probably wouldn’t have been exposed to those works in the first place without media like Tumblr and Instagram.
There is something to be said of a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between mainstream art and that which is more obscure—wherein the Lady Gagas and the Taylor Swifts claim inspiration from another artist, credits them appropriately and opens their work to a much wider audience.
The obvious fact, of course, is that in order for that symbiosis to work, the inspiration must be acknowledged. I’m not confident that doing so would completely appease the artists who are doing the inspiring, but it’s got to be better than relative invisibility. Nothing exists in a vacuum, least of all art.