I’m going to skip the usual rambling preamble and get right to it. This is a short list of established artists stepping away from their own style and copping moves from other established artists. Feel free to throw some others into the comments, if you have any.
~ David Bowie, “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” Bowie has always been a slithery chameleon, but rarely has he so blatantly appropriated a single artist’s whole aesthetic. In this would-be late career rejuventation, he and longtime collaborator Eno stole Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails schtick lock, stock, and barrel. It’s a little weird hearing the pasty one croon over this music, and ultimately the song is a bit of a mismatch because Bowie just isn’t immature or one-dimensional enough to do the seething angst thing Reznor made his trademark. I’m not much of a NIN fan (in case you can’t tell), but there’s no denying that “Closer” is the song that “Filthy Lesson” wants to be.
~ The Rolling Stones, “Their Satanic Majesties Request” This was before the Stones really became THE STONES, and certainly their early works were, shall we say, a little more obviously derivative than the mid-period classics. But this album earns a special place on this list by basically announcing itself as a Sgt. Pepper’s wannabe. It’s one of the most infamous examples of a big band following another band’s lead, and it gives ammo to the Beatleistas out there who think the Stones were merely the top of the second tier. On the plus side, this album does include the great “She’s A Rainbow.”
~ Madonna, “Bedtime Story” Our list’s second slithery chameleon was never shy about borrowing ideas from anyone and everyone, but this is one of the only times I can think of that she flat-out sounded like someone else. Bjork gave Madonna a demo of this song, which her team of writers spruced up and prepped for her to take a run at. The effect is a bit bewildering – it pretty much sounds like Madonna covering a lower-rung Bjork song – and ultimately one feels like Madonna is a little girl tottering in her mommy’s heels. It’s made even more delectable when you hear the story that Bjork intended the lyrics as an indictment of Madonna’s shallow aesthetic.
~ MC Hammer, “The Funky Headhunter” Hammer wasn’t the only guy who heard “Fuck Wit Dre Day” and “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and decided that his career too could be revitalized by whiny synths, P Funk rhythm sections, and a Cali gangsta delivery. (Ice Cube was another prominent example, dropping “Lethal Injection” – a decent slice of derivative g-funk but ultimately the beginning of the man’s long tailspin.) But what elevates Hammer above the others is how ri-goddamn-diculous he sounds doing it. “Oaktown” has a signature Dre synth and burbling bass track, and Hammer intoning beauties like, “Do you know about my city? The city of Oak!” “Gapped teeth in yo mouth, so my dick’s gotsta fit” it ain’t. The highlight is the semi-hit single “Pumps and a Bump,” which I have long resisted analyzing, because the title and chorus are so idiotic that it is truly one of life’s purest pleasures to listen to. Please, Hammer, don’t hurt ’em.
~ Modest Mouse, “The Devil’s Workday” Even for the Mouse this is an aberration. It’s plop in the middle of their commercial breakthrough album, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News,” and yet it diverges as far as possible from both the buoyant sound of the first few tracks (including “Float On”) and also the standard, spiky Modest Mouse approach. Instead, it sounds exactly like Tom Waits: 50% “Bone Machine,” 50% all of his other (post-balladeer) albums. It’s not bad, but I feel like they could have comfortably left this one for the inevitable rarities compilation. (Probably spent some label dollars on that horn section though, and thus were forced to include it.)
~ The Eagles, “One of These Nights” This is a strange entry for this list because the artist it so clearly resembles – disco-era Bee Gees – didn’t really come into being until the same year this song/album came out. It seems unlikely that the Eagles went forward in time a couple years and decided to go back and make a “Saturday Night Fever”-style hit; more likely, the Beegs and the Eags were listening to the same shit (r&b, early 70s soft rock) and came up with the same conclusion. It’s just that the Eagles did it once, and the Bee Gees turned it into a modus operandi. Still, it’s weird to hear this on the radio and think to myself, every single time, “This is a Bee Gees song, right? Oh wait…”
~ Dave Barry, “Big Trouble”/”Tricky Business” (token book entry) Dave Barry does basically one thing, which is a genial, goofball humor column with nothing offensive about it, bejewelled with a handful of stylistic tics that were initially funny and have since been run into the ground. But what happened when Dave wanted to do a second thing? It ended up being a couple of Elmore Leonard-lite novels. Reviewers were obliged to describe them as a hybrid of Leonard and Barry’s own sense of humor, but in truth these books are only about 20% more comedic than their inspirations, and in most other respects are pretty much Xerox copies, right down to the Miami setting. Even the “Big Trouble” movie looked a lot like an adult contempo version of “Get Shorty.”
~ Steven Spielberg, “AI” (token film entry) Spielberg famously took Stanley Kubrick’s long-fussed-over script for “AI” and wanted to carry on the master’s last project as a sort of tribute to him. It sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. Spielberg uses a lot of Kubrickisms throughout, subverting his own natural tendencies, until the awful ending that feels a lot like the director just couldn’t take it any more and was forced to compromise his own material, lest his soul be swallowed into the same black nether-pit that Kubrick’s had gone down. Interestingly, I feel like Kubrick could have filmed the exact same ending and made it seem much more dark and pessimistic (see: the soldiers singing the Mickey Mouse song at the end of “Full Metal Jacket”). In Spielberg’s hands, though, it feels like an essentially optimistic man searching for any ray of light he can allow into the pervasive darkness. (He did a much better job letting the material resolve itself with “Munich.”)