Crying in the Club: Songs within songs and intertextuality in pop music

By Patrick Metzger

Camila Cabello’s hit, “Crying in the Club,” is a tale of the desperate emotions we all feel when faced with a world-shattering breakup. The protagonist addresses “you,” and we feel as if she’s speaking directly to us: “You think, that you’ll die without him / You know, that’s a lie that you tell yourself.” But she quickly shifts into command form, demanding human contact, “Put your arms around me tonight.” It becomes clear (especially when preceded by the dramatic “I Have Questions” as the prelude to the music video) that our hero is indeed the one in need of comfort. She is telling herself that she needs to have a good time, that she needs to get over her past relationship, that, “There ain’t no crying in the club.”

Just when she needs it most, a melody comes out of the ether. And what is there to comfort this tragic character in her loneliest moment? Why, it’s a song from 1999 when Cabello was 2 years old. The exact melody from the pre-chorus of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” appears to be playing in the song’s titular club.

In the age of sampling, it’s easy to miss this particular “song within a song” variety of intertextuality in pop music, but it is very apparent in “Crying in the Club.” Cabello (and her co-writers and producers, including Sia) is not simply using the melody from another song in order to provide a pleasant but meaningless musical accompaniment. She’s not only using the melody to evoke the sound of her crying. The Christina reference is diegetic—it feels like “Genie in a Bottle” is playing in the actual scene described. Cabello is creating a genuine dramatic portrait that immediately places the listener within the world of the song. Because of this evocation, we can so vividly imagine the juxtaposition of the upbeat “Genie in a Bottle” playing in the background as we hold back tears, watching couples dance all around us.

Good songs can totally envelope us in their worlds. We become engrossed in the rhythm, or transported by the lyrics, or simply entirely lost in the grain of a singer’s voice. The song provides an escape, or perhaps a new perspective on the events of our real life; sometimes it provides a reflection on the hard or beautiful days of our past. It gives us something to believe in. This effect is all the more powerful when we go one level deeper and find ourselves merging two memories or two emotions or two genres into one. Our cognitive dissonance is soothed and the paradox of our life seems to make sense for one beautiful moment.

The songwriting techniques being employed in “Crying in the Club” are not new. There’s a long history of songs alluding to each other, and there’s a spectrum of song citation from casual reference to direct sampling.

Covers

The most common category of song reference is the cover—the staple of pop music where an artist simply performs the entirety of another artist’s song. A great cover has the potential to move people and bring out new and hitherto unrecognized qualities of a song.

A cover can even overtake the original in cultural awareness, as in the case of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower.” Hendrix’s version rose to #20 on the Billboard charts, and Bob Dylan said of it, “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way. I liked Hendrix’s record, and ever since he died, I’ve been doing it that way.”

Sometimes a unique poignancy arises from the context of how, when, and where a cover is performed. Bruce Springsteen’s performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” in 1985 (and many times since then) brought an immediacy and profundity to the song in that era of privatization and job loss. When Rufus Wainwright sings “One Man Guy,” he’s not simply expressing the individualism and self-reliance that his father, Louden Wainwright III, implied when he wrote the song—Rufus gives the song new meaning as a ballad of commitment to the man he loves. Andra Day was recently a guest on The Daily Show where she performed a haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s protest song about lynchings in the south that was popularized by Billie Holiday. In the wake of acts of white nationalist terrorism in Charlottesville, VA, Andra Day’s performance is particularly powerful.

Humans are a storytelling species, so when a song is layered and evocative of a larger cultural narrative, it has the potential to move us, to transform us.

The subtle nod

A song can make use of subtler allusions, as in Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” which details his sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. In this case, the line “Your heart was a legend,” refers to Joplin’s hit, “Piece of My Heart.” In “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), Chuck Berry says “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes,” a reference to (and perhaps ridicule of) the Carl Perkins song “Blue Suede Shoes,” released that same year and famously recorded by Elvis Presley

In these instances, the references happen solely within the songs’ lyrical content. It’s a direct, conversational aside with no melodic hints or attempt to place the listener within two simultaneous song worlds.

Sampling

Since Lee “Scratch” Perry and other Jamaican dub producers started using pre-recorded reggae rhythms in their songs in the 1960s, sampling has been a staple of contemporary popular music. Through the use of extracts of other songs, musical and cultural contexts can be layered on top of one another. The most deeply developed instantiation of sampling is found in hip hop.

When Public Enemy samples James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” on “Fight the Power,” they’re making a connection to Brown’s statement that “We got to get over before we go under,” but they’re also placing themselves in the context of NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” which similarly samples “Funky President.” When The Honey Drippers song “Impeach the President” is sampled by The Notorious B.I.G. (in “Unbelievable”) or by Nas (in “I Can”) or by artists in over 700 other songs, an undeniably slick beat is coupled with the subversive message that The Honey Drippers were originally sending during the Nixon presidency.

The apotheosis of sampling is the mashup, wherein the art emerges purely from the conjunction of already-existing songs. One might not think it possible, but this genre has its masterworks. Girl Talk’s album All Day is a raucous 71 minute journey through every possible sonic landscape, comprised of 373 distinct samples of musicians from Nine Inch Nails to Miley Cyrus. Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album artfully combines The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album using audio exclusively from those sources. Several tracks from The Grey Album showcase how intertwining two songs from different worlds can make a third independent statement of its own.

In “December 4th,” for example, Danger Mouse brings together the instrumentation of The Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son” with the lyrics of Jay-Z’s “December 4th.” Both are origin stories of a sort. In place of the words “Born a poor young country boy,” we hear “I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves who made love under the sycamore tree.” We experience the emotional settings of the two narratives simultaneously, and in the process we get a little closer to the generalizable truths of birth, growth, and death—the inevitable phases we all experience as children of this planet.

In bringing together hip hop, folk music, classic rock, and electronic music, mashup artists also bring together the audiences of all these musics. A diversification process takes place, removing the genre filters that previously kept some listeners away from a particular song. There’s power in the global unification of people around really good dance music from artists of every background.

Of course, record companies are not fans of the mashup. Section 107 of the Copyright Act outlines “fair use,” and allows for the unlicensed use of copyrighted works in situations like critique, satire, and homage, which would seem to cover mashups. However, a controversial decision in the 2005 case of Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films (which penalized N.W.A. for using a 2 second guitar sample) set a dangerous precedent that has spooked most musicians. YouTube came under scrutiny in 2014 for making a private deal with Universal Music Group (UMG) to remove videos that contained any instance (fair use or not) of UMG-copyrighted material, even though YouTube otherwise encourages fair use. This, along with other instances of mashup-blocking by private companies, seems to have slowed the momentum of mashup culture. The emergence of mashups was fueled by music and video sharing platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud. But when record companies cracked the whip, these companies caved, despite the fact that songs that are included in mashups actually see a corresponding increase in sales the following year as people fall back in love with the original track.

So you won’t find Danger Mouse’s Grey Album on YouTube. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney has commented that he saw The Grey Album as a “tribute,” and Jay-Z has said he was “honored to be on…the same song with the Beatles.”

Ripoffs

Sometimes imitation goes too far and becomes a ripoff—an idea from a previous song becomes a critical part of the new song without giving credit, compensation, or homage to the original artist. This is most egregious when a power dynamic is at play, with a more famous artist taking credit for the work of a less famous one.

Examples abound, but one of the most memorable instances is Michael Jackson’s use of the vocal breakdown and aspects of instrumentation from Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” in his song “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The “mama say mama sa mamakusa” that Jackson used is essentially a nonsense adaptation of the way that Dibango plays with the word “makossa” (“ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-makossa”), which means “dance” in Duala, one of the languages spoken in Dibango’s home country of Cameroon. After Thriller was released in 1982, Dibango brought a lawsuit against Jackson. Jackson acknowledged that he had been influenced by Dibango and the two settled out of court.

Jump to the year 2007, and who should jump into the makossa game but Rihanna with her hit, “Don’t Stop the Music,” which samples “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” while developing a whole new musical soundscape. In 2009, Manu Dibango again filed a lawsuit, this time against both Rihanna and Michael Jackson. However, it turns out that because he had withdrawn legal action a year earlier after winning a case requiring that his name appear in the liner notes for the songs in future publications, the judge determined that he had waived his right to seek further damages, and he lost the case. It’s hard to know just how much Dibango would have made from the royalties had he been properly compensated to begin with, but with Thriller being the best-selling album of all time at over 60 million copies sold, one can understand his frustration.

Credit where credit is due: the makossa style in general can be traced back to Emmanuel Nelle Eyoum, whose rhythms and instrumentation influenced Dibango. Eyoum, in turn, was influenced by Cuban and Congolese rumba, and the influences go back ad infinitum.

So here, a song within a song became an avenue for the appropriation of the music of another artist. While “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Don’t Stop the Music” are both masterfully crafted works of pop music, they are somewhat tarnished by this complex backstory.

Songs Within Songs

Somewhere in the middle ground between a subtle nod and a full-blown ripoff is a kind of alchemy that brings out the essence of the previous work, honors it, and then builds something entirely new with that foundation. “Crying in the Club” does this nicely, and a number of other songs can be cited in this regard.

Rihanna has gotten this down to a science. She uses this technique in “Cheers ( Drink to That),” which samples Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” and references R. Kelly’s “Remix to Ignition” and Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.” In “SOS,” she samples Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (itself a cover of Gloria Jones’ original) as the main texture for the song, including the lyrics “toss and turn I can’t sleep at night,” with even a casual reference to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” The lyrical themes in “SOS” are amplified by our awareness of  “Tainted Love’s” melodramatic narrative, which deals with attraction to the things that hurt you. Rihanna brings this home with the line “It’s not healthy for me to feel this way.” The protagonist is caught in a cycle of self-destructive behavior and the collision of these electrifying melodies beautifully articulates just how good it can feel to make bad decisions. With the construction of the sonic texture of these songs, Rihanna and her producers are showcasing their awareness of the pop medium, placing this new work in the context of classic songs that have come before, and artfully constructing a song that can bring the listener into multiple worlds at once.

The Beatles have their own kind of mythology. Their song “All You Need is Love” musically quotes not only the French National Anthem, but a previous Beatles song—“She Love You.” “Glass Onion” is a classic example of a self-referential song that builds on the band’s own lore, with instrumental references like the flute that evokes “The Fool on the Hill,” and lyrical references like “I told you about Strawberry Fields,” “The walrus was Paul,” “I told you about the fool on the hill,”and “fixing a hole in the ocean.” George Harrison followed this thread even beyond the breakup of the Beatles in his song, “When We Was Fab,” which is an entirely reflective ode to when he was a part of the Fab 4, and references “I Am the Walrus,” “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” the Bob Dylan song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” and includes many subtle allusions to other songs in the Beatles canon. The recent song by Super Doppler, “We Are Doing Fine,” picks up the mantle where the Beatles themselves left off and weaves together a tapestry of melodies suggestive of The Beatles’ music. In the chorus, trumpets play the exact melody from “Penny Lane,” and throughout the song, both “Yesterday” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” are evoked in the melody and instrumentation, making for a perfectly nostalgic journey.

In all these cases, our familiarity with the originals makes us into an instant sweetheart audience. The Nostalgia Pendulum is definitely at play here in many instances. We know we’ve heard the song before—maybe we can’t quite place it, or maybe we had our first kiss in high school to it, or maybe we always thought it was a little too cheesy but now it kind of works in this new and remixed rendition. Whatever our relationship to the song, it makes us co-conspirators in the crafting of the song’s universe because all of our own memories are instantly embedded in the fabric of the music.

Who Owns Music?

Mashups, sampling, and songs within songs raise intriguing questions about who owns music.

Music is a fundamentally social activity. It is created for the ears of other people, for dancing and lovemaking, for culture critics to analyze, for social change movements to rally around. 98% of humans have the foundations for singing—perceiving music and judging whether it’s in or out of tune. So we all benefit from music, and most of us can participate directly in the creation of and appreciation for music in one way or another.

And yet, if you open your mouth to sing a song that somebody else recorded, depending on the size of the stage you’re standing on, somebody may track you down for a royalty check. That joy and that life that echoes and trembles through the bones of the other people in the room where you’re performing—that arose not merely from your own mouth or hands or heart. It was born out of something from long ago, from the heartaches and mystery of other minds. The way we currently deal with that complexity is by saying that the people who write songs “own” those songs, but in an age of social media and remix culture, the old models of ownership and compensation in the music industry are rapidly breaking down.

How do we best honor musicians—these brave wizards of the eternal mystery—in life and in death?

There are no easy answers here. After all, the masters whose music has lasted for hundreds of years do not collect royalty checks. Johann Sebastian Bach gets no worldly benefit from performances of The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. We cannot give a home or health to the nameless harpist of Ireland who brought us “Aislean an Oigfear” (best known as the melody for “Danny Boy”), or to the past griots of West Africa who conjured “Lambang” from the balafon. But during their lifetime, musicians in all of these cultures received social standing within their culture, often getting direct patronage from the government for their contributions to society.

We should take care to remember and value that there is magic in the time travel that music offers. For every time we dance to the music of the masters, or take up a fiddle and weave the bow over their ancient tones, they are alive inside of us.

As Westworld tells us, “Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died, they simply became music.”


More examples of songs within songs can be found below. For more on sampling and remix culture, check out Mark Ronson’s TED Talk “How Sampling Transformed Music” and Kirby Ferguson’s series “Everything is a Remix.” Huge thanks to all who helped with this list: Amie Anderson, Chris Faroe, Dan Anderson, and many more. And to Toby King and Pat Muchmore for teaching me about Makossa and where music comes from.

 

 

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