Thicke as thieves? Photo: David Buchan/Getty Images
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Tracey Thorn: Your songs are like your children – you have to wave them off into the world

Copyright law encourages artists to feel they're in control of what they've made. But in reality, a song is a different thing once it leaves its creator.

There’s been much talk these past couple of weeks about ownership of songs, sparked by the disputed ruling that has left Pharrell Williams liable to the tune of $7.3m over similarities between his “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”. Many interesting and well-informed pieces have been written about this already and I’m not going to add to the conversation, except to say that I was as surprised as anyone else by the outcome. But it set me off thinking about the difference between the legal concept of ownership and a more nebulous, emotional feeling about whether or not songs belong to us.

Copyright law ensures that we writers earn money from our songs, and establishes our rights over the material we have composed. So don’t get me wrong – I benefit from it and am grateful for it. And yet, in some strange way, the idea of owning a song doesn’t always feel true.

Once you have written it and recorded it, and especially if it has then gone on to be a hit, a song slips out of your grasp. Played all day long on the radio – half-heard by people who are doing other things, or taken to heart by some who find that it tells the story of their life and speaks all the words they cannot say – a hit song “belongs” not to the writer, but to the listener. You wave your songs off into the world like children, hoping for the best for all of them. A hit is the child who becomes a star, soaring out of your orbit and control, swaggering about with a new identity all of its own. Sending cheques home.

This is how I feel about the Everything But the Girl song “Missing”, and it might explain why in some ways I’m less protective of it than its fans. It took the music a long time to reach its final, successful incarnation, a meandering journey in which it assumed various forms along the way, leaving me uncertain which version is the real one. And the lyrics were written at home in a scruffy notebook and tell a fictional story that never felt quite real to me, but did to so many who heard it.

I think it was Jerry Dammers who once said that you don’t ever really finish songs, you just abandon them to the public. “Missing” was found on the doorstep by millions of people who adopted and cared for it. One of those was a singer called Newtion Matthews, who sang the song on BBC1’s The Voice, weekend before last.

He spoke of how much it had meant to him, describing “a time when I was down and out and I had lost my way . . . a tough time – I was a young guy and I didn’t have anywhere to live”. And then he funked it up, in a brassy Mark Ronson-type style, taking the song somewhere new and different. Losing the melancholy, he replaced it with a kind of urgency and defiance, perhaps summoning up the feelings that had got him out of that dark place. To me, it all seemed entirely justifiable, and so I was puzzled by people who rushed to tell me on Twitter that he’d murdered it, or been disrespectful. But maybe that’s because – to come back to the point I made at the beginning – those fans feel like they own the song more than I do.

Anyway, poor Newtion got voted off and sent home, proving to me again (this is the third time I’ve seen the song in a contest – it popped up on the Italian X Factor, and before then in a previous series of The Voice) that “Missing” is not an obvious choice. It’s a hard song to sing. Not, I hasten to add, because of the vocal range (there is none to speak of) but the vocal tone, which may, after all, be essential to its success, however much you vary the arrangement.

In my favourite ever review (quoted in Bedsit Disco Queen) the journalist James Hunter described my singing of the song as being “full of her radical mid-range rationality”, but that quality is no use at all in a singing contest, where what is needed is an opportunity to impress, with high notes, ad libs, bells and whistles. “You made that song your own” is the great compliment from the judges. Funny how hard that is for a singer, when it’s what every listener does.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.