Nineteenth-century American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox once wrote that, "A poor original is better than a good imitation."
Clearly, this notion is lost on today's gatekeepers of Western culture, as there's never been a time when the cannibalization of the past has been so prolific, and, sadly, so profitable. This despite (or perhaps, due to) living in an age where our access to information, to potential wellsprings of inspiration both mainstream and obscure, has never been greater.
Of course artists of all stripes have been pilfering the works of their forebearers for eons. It's not only tolerated in the creative community but, at least in an artist's early developmental stages, encouraged. But when this process was once a means to an end — a circuitous route for an artist on the way to finding his or her own voice — today it's business as usual.
The music industry is littered with examples of creative robbery, sometimes flagrant, sometimes not. One of the biggest songs of 2014, Sam Smith's soaring ballad, Stay With Me, so closely resembled Tom Petty's late '80s hit, I Won't Back Down, that an agreement was reached between the two singers to credit Petty as a writer and pay him 12.5-per-cent of all future royalties. (It also earned Petty a couple extra Grammys for his trouble.) And with record labels in a perpetual state of panic, and radio stations' playlists chopped down to miniscule proportions, it's become a near impossibility for fresh blood to seep through.
If there is a glimmer of hope it can be found in the realm of TV, where, thanks to a glut of new viewing platforms that aren't as beholden to the almighty advertising dollar as the networks, there are greater risks being taken than ever before. Thanks in part to the surprising success of in-house Netflix productions like Orange is the New Black and its largely female cast of prisoners, we're starting to see actors and plotlines that don't fit the traditional network mould. Without it, it's a safe bet that we would never have seen Transparent, a beautiful, little dramedy available through Amazon Instant Video, take home a Golden Globe and Director's Guild award last month. Starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman, the show deals with sexuality, family dynamics and all those important yet subtle details that often get overlooked on TV. It's the rare series that pulls you in not with a half-baked conceit or over-the-top zombie-on-human violence, but with strong writing and a stellar cast. A ratings juggernaut it is not, but it is a small step forward in an industry that, at least on the Big 3 networks, has become stale, stodgy and woefully predictable.
But there are perhaps no more egregious offenders of this most heinous type of copycat crime than in the movie business. While Hollywood has long been the domain of creative looters, the art of homage appears to be lost. Film history is packed with examples of quality book adaptations — Gone with the Wind, Godfather, Forrest Gump, to name a few — but studio execs nowadays are not nearly as interested in prestige as they are in empire building. Wrap your head around this ditty: Between now and 2020, there will be 32 films released based on DC or Marvel comic books and (at last count) a ridiculous 70 sequels or franchise installments planned. This is great news if you like watching muscle-bound Hollywood A-listers trying to cram into spandex tights, or if you can't wait another moment for that Terminator-branded collectible mug, but not all that great if you value good storytelling and originality.
With box office numbers dwindling, major studios are no longer even willing to entertain the notion of risk-taking. Playing it safe has become the name of the game and that's only going to get worse now that the good people at Sony Pictures have fully sworn allegiance to their North Korean hacker overlords. Ugh.
The saddest part about the creative stagnation that seems to have taken root in our cultural sector is that it gives young, up-and-coming artists no real motivation to try anything new — at least if they have any inklings of making a living anytime soon.
The best way to fight this growing trend is with our wallets; if we stop supporting absolute junk then maybe the powers that be will finally realize we crave something more. But when billions worth of marketing dollars are spent every year trying to convince us to keep consuming the artistic equivalent of a Big Mac, how are we ever going to realize what we really want is filet mignon?