Last night, as Taylor Swift pulled a classic derail on Nicki Minaj’s very important VMA tweets, Twitter user @chaelinfenty brought up an interesting point: “can we talk about how taylor’s video isn’t original and was copied from a group of four WOC, 2NE1,” she wrote, not a question but a declaration.
Side-by-side, it’s pretty stiking.
Now, of course the VMAs don’t mean shit: they’re a big money-maker and marquee event from a television channel that hasn’t played videos for coming up on a decade. But they’re also a vessel of public recognition and a way to solidify a pop canon. No matter what your feelings on the merits of Minaj’s “Anaconda” video, it is a valid point to be made that music awards—whether MTV, the Grammys, the AMAs, basically any show that isn’t prefaced by the words “Black” or “Latin”—reward and reinforce videos and songs predicated on the concept that white is somehow more right.
“Bad Blood,” Taylor Swift’s blockbuster starring a cavalcade of her friends—models, actors, musicians—and cameos from the likes of Cindy Crawford and Jessica Alba, was nominated for Video of the Year, Best Collaboration, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Direction, Best Editing, and Best Visual Effects. But what do those accolades mean, if the clip copied K-pop girl group 2NE1, one of Korea’s biggest worldwide musical acts and whose lead CL is currently being managed by Scooter Braun, set to make a huge debut in the US later this year?
Here’s “Bad Blood,” which was released on May 17, 2015, and has been viewed over 362 million times.
And here’s “Come Back Home,” which was released March 4, 2014, and has been viewed over 39 million times.
While the overall plot is very clearly different— “Bad Blood” has more of a Bond-style action theme, where “Come Back Home” focuses on more clearly sci-fi elements of revolution and virtual reality—it’s well known that music videos are storyboarded as meticulously as any movie, and where the specific video shots do cross over, they are nigh identical.
Joseph Kahn, the director of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” is a longtime, South Korean-born director who’s shot music videos for 15 years. He’s also responsible for iconic and well-known clips like Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas,” Backstreet Boys’ “Backstreet’s Back,” Smooth da Hustler’s “Hustler’s Theme,” Destiny’s Child’s “Jumpin Jumpin,” Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew,” and Mariah Carey’s “Boy (I Need You).” Looking at his videography, clearly Kahn is no stranger to crafting stylish, futuristic-looking clips, nor is he afraid of packing a long narrative into a quick, five-minute video. Alternately, in November, he spoke with the Korea Times about getting back to his “Korean roots,” and that he “pay[s] full attention to what’s going on in my field, it’s my job.” It seems highly unlikely that any storied, thorough music video director would have missed a high-profile video from arguably K-pop’s most celebrated girl groups.
But does it even matter? (K-pop fans think so.) Plenty of music videos have been accused of copying those before him, including Beyoncé’s “Countdown” and Lady Gaga’s “Do What You Want,” with varyingly negligible results—we’re all bombarded with tons of visual and audio media every day, and since the “Blurred Lines” verdict the line between stealing and homage has been hotly debated in the art worlds.
Still, when art by powerful people “borrows” from those in less powerful positions—even if the “less powerful” are pop stars in their own right—it reinforces those power dynamics, and continues to undermine and devalue the work of women artists of color and/or lesser fame. This is the point Minaj, in her way, was making, and the one that Swift—who has both tried to copyright African American Vernacular English and recently launched a campaign called “Ladies First”—was too blind by her own privilege to see: that no matter how popular Minaj is now or will be, she will likely never receive the same respect as her white peers, women and men alike, unless there is systemic change within the music industry and, to a larger degree, the whole stupid culture.
UPDATE: Joseph Kahn responds:
I need to lodge a complaint against an article you posted about me where the writer accused me of plagiarizing a Korean music video on Bad Blood. 1. I never saw that video and 2. all of the comparisons are common sci fi tropes - city, cars, helmets, body scans, flares - all recropped without context. Furthermore recording screen grabs and accusing others of copying their groups is apparently a very common hobby of Kpop fans. If you view both videos, aside from the uncontextual limited screen grabs, you will quickly see they are completely different videos.
But an even more questionable tactic of your writer is where she accused me of likely copying because of I am Korean born:
I never said I was going back to my “Korean roots.” The article she is mentioning is here:
The Korea Times author wrote “Roots” in the title in context of questions he was asking about my family. There is never any mention of Kpop in the article. The quote about “my attention” is in context to the business structure of my field:
The implication your writer is making is explicit: I am a foreigner born overseas and I am trying to reconnect with my birth country and have obvious motive to copy it.
I do not listen to Kpop. I am American. And this is an unethical, slandering article.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.