Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Mapping Beyoncé's 'Hold Up'

When I first heard Beyoncé’s Lemonade I thought we were entering a new age of sophistication when it comes to sampling. Not only are the sampled tracks musically appropriate, they are thematically appropriate too. On this album of infidelity and heartbreak we hear excerpts of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’ by Andy Williams, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' pleading ‘Maps’, and Isaac Hayes’ version of ‘Walk on By’, in which we find another protagonist who ‘can’t get over losing you’. There’s a whole lot of signifying going on.
            It would seem that the use of samples is more contingent, however. Take ‘Hold Up’, which incorporates the sample from Williams and the interpolation from ‘Maps’. This song has a complicated genesis and was not originally intended for Beyoncé. In fact, it began as nothing more than a Tweet, which was sent in 2011 by Ezra Koenig, the singer of Vampire Weekend. He paraphrased ‘Maps’, writing to his followers, ‘hold up . . . they don’t love u like i love u’.
            Three years later, Koenig was invited by the producer Diplo to contribute hooks to some loops. One of these loops featured the introduction to ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’. The recording was of interest to Diplo for its kitsch ska rhythm, rather than for its lyrical content. Koenig thought back to his Tweet. He introduced a new melody to his reworking of ‘Maps’. He also added a supplementary, Biblical refrain: ‘can’t you see there’s no other god above you, what a wicked way to treat the man who loves you’. Beyoncé heard this version. Koenig’s lyrics were changed to ‘no other man above you, what a wicked way to treat the girl I love you’. He has stated that ‘from there a lot of other people got involved in writing the verses, things changed, but essentially the hook stayed the same’. Even so, he was still not sure if it would make Beyoncé’s album or if he would use it instead as a Vampire Weekend song.
            It did appear on Lemonade. In the process ‘Hold Up’ was transformed. Koenig has stated, ‘The idea that those words now are contextualised by this album, by the video, by her as a performer and curator, I like it  . . . 99% of the world will always hear those words and associate it with Beyoncé now. And that makes sense . . . I wrote this hook - of course I feel some sense of ownership over what I did - but it doesn’t feel like my song, she really did bring a deeper resonance and meaning to it’. She brings new significance to the Williams sample as well. So maybe the use of those sources is not so contingent after all.
            Although Koenig now views ‘Hold Up’ as Beyoncé’s song, this is not the story told by the songwriting credits. She has had to split the royalties with 11 other writers, including Koenig and Diplo. Moreover, it has been claimed that the contemporary songwriters get minor shares in the work, while the authors of the sample and the interpolation get the majority income. From this perspective, Beyoncé is not creating a new work; she is instead giving us her version of two old ones.
            The generous shares for Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, the writers of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’, are understandable. Diplo’s loop of this recording is used for the duration of ‘Hold Up’; it is the musical bedrock of the entire track. Their credits also follow standard sampling practice: if a recording is used prominently, its songwriters will be rewarded handsomely.
            The use of ‘Maps’ is different, however. Although Beyoncé credits it as an interpolation, it is arguable that this really is the case. There is no use of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ melody or of the feel of the track. The only thing taken is the paraphrased lyrics. These were written by the band’s singer, Karen O, but due to American joint authorship rules each member of the group receives royalties for their re-use in ‘Hold Up’. But why do they receive anything at all? ‘Hold Up’ takes eight fairly commonplace words.
One reason is that their origin can be traced. Koenig’s Tweet and his openness about the genesis of ‘Hold Up’ have made it clear that the words were taken from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' song. A second is that American writers are becoming increasing litigious in this area, as the various accusations against the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ attest. Ultimately, in crediting ‘Maps’, Beyoncé and her team have taken heed of the old adage that where there’s a hit there’s a writ.
There is one final quirk of copyright law. If ‘Maps’ has been called ‘They Don’t Love You Like I Love You’, the re-use of these words would probably have escaped without charge. It is not possible to copyright titles. Hence, Calvin Harris and the Disciples’ ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ does not credit the Bee Gees, and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ does not credit the Julie London song. It is also the case that ‘Hold Up’ does not credit previous songs that have used the same title. In addition, future songs called ‘Hold Up’ will not have to credit Beyoncé’s either. That’s as long as their usage is restricted to these words. If they sample Beyoncé’s recording, however, they will have to credit ‘Hold Up’ and all the other works it includes. We will end up with a recording with vast songwriting credits. Post-structuralists will be happy too. There will be multiple resonances. Listeners will variously recall Beyoncé, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Andy Williams, Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Ezra Koenig, Diplo and more. Bring on the endless play of signifiers!