Let’s not be too sure that “Music Copyright Infringement Is Beginning To Make Sense Again.”
According to Bloomberg Law, Nickelback just got sued because their hit “Rockstar,” according to a musician named Kirk Johnston, sounds too much like his own “Rock Star” track, which as you might’ve guessed is similar to Nickelback’s at least in that both are about wanting to be rock stars.
Reportedly the complaint says Nickelback’s “Rockstar” copied “substantial portions of the tempo, song form, melodic structure, harmonic structures, and lyrical themes” from Mr. Johnston’s version. Those sound like words a forensic musicologist might say, but it’s hard for me to believe the musicologist followed up with, “yep, you should definitely go to war with that.”
Care to hear it for yourself? This appears to be the song he’s talking about.
And of course, this is Nickelback’s Rockstar.
So let’s just look for what the complaint directed us to look for.
It begins with “substantial portions of the tempo.” We’ll knock this away expeditiously. Even if the two songs share the entirety of the tempo, we don’t much care. And “substantial portions of the tempo” is just a weird thing to say even at the fore of a list, as here.
:: shake that off ::
“Substantial portions of the song form?” Well, again, even if the entirety of the songs’ forms were identical, the form, like tempo, is just not where you want to hang your hat unless you’ve employed a pretty novel form. The form of Johnston’s “Rock Star” is an 8 bar blues. That’s not remotely novel.
“Substantial portions of the harmonic structures?” The harmonic structure of Johnston’s “Rock Star” is that, again, it’s a blues. It’s the sort of thing you’d hear referred to as “One Four Five” or “Three Chord Rock;” so, super duper common chord progression. Nickelback’s harmony is very different, and relies on what musicologists refer to as “borrowed chords;” a common device in rock music. The most simple way to describe it is that Nickelback’s “Rockstar” is in the key of G major, but it’s chord progressions are almost constantly borrowing chords from the “parallel minor’ key of G minor. More specifically the “natural” minor; same letter name, “G;” but a different mode, with different notes. So no, I’d say not “substantial portions of the harmonic structures.”
Melodic structures? Gotta tell you, I’m not interested in critical listening again to double-check — it’s late on a Friday in the middle of shelter-in-place on the warmest day so far this year and my office is way too hot to stay in here any longer — but if I remember correctly, anyone with a one-octave range could sing the entirety of both tracks. So there are going to be some notes in common. But go back to what we said about the harmonic structure of both songs? When Nickelback’s Rockstar moves to chords borrowed from the parallel minor key, the melody in-kind moves over to that key’s scale-tones, so the notes that give the songs most of their respective character — let’s call these the high-value notes — they tend to be dissimilar.
Back to the lyrical themes, there’s no question we’ve got two songs about rock stars called “Rock Stars.” Again I’d refer you to the earlier remarks about arguments on which you don’t want to hang your hat.
I seem to recall both songs mention “tour buses.” Maybe that’s something.