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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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I've Heard That Somewhere: 'Glee' Covers 'Baby Got Back,' And It Sounds ... Familiar

Jan 18, 2013

This morning, musician Jonathan Coulton (who plays on the NPR show Ask Me Another, but whom I've never met) posted a link to this cover of "Baby Got Back," which just came up today on an unofficial but previously accurate Glee YouTube channel that previews upcoming songs.

Coulton thought it sounded ... rather like his existing cover of "Baby Got Back." And he said they never asked, never got permission, and never compensated him.

If you're wondering why it struck anyone as odd that two versions of the same song would sound the same, you perhaps don't know the original, which doesn't sound too much like either of these.

Now, this is certainly not the first time a Glee cover has sounded a lot like another arrangement. When this came up on Twitter this morning, people in particular brought up Petra Haden's version of "Don't Stop Believin'," a very similar version of which was in the Glee pilot, and Greg Laswell's version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," which is very similar to a version Glee used, and which Laswell complained about.

Glee is a show full of covers; it covers other people's work every week (often to the artist's enormous benefit), and it seems that it concerns itself with the rights to the original song, not to the most similar cover, even if that cover was a pretty specific inspiration. And that perhaps makes some sense, at least sometimes — one could argue that any version of "Don't Stop Believin'" arranged for show choir could wind up at least something like Petra Haden's; there's the potential for a slippery slope and an unmanageable cascade of paperwork, given simultaneous invention and whatnot.

After all, if an infinite number of monkeys in an infinite number of YouTube videos play "Somebody That I Used To Know" on an infinite number of zithers, two will sound almost exactly the same. (We know because in 2012, this pretty much happened.)

With that said — and this has common-sense but perhaps not legal force — people respond to this kind of thing based on the thoroughly extrajudicial principle known as ex post oh come on, now. The music Coulton's version uses, which the posted Glee version uses just about exactly as they found it, doesn't come from the original at all. All that comes from the Sir-Mix-a-Lot original, really, are the words. All the music is from Coulton's version — every note, every phrasing, every beat. Not only that, but they either didn't know or didn't care that when he changed the name "Mix-a-lot" to "Johnny C." in the lyrics, he was referring to himself. So the Glee version still says ... "Johnny C." (This occurs at the 2:17 mark in ... both videos above.)

That's where you bring in the also extralegal notion known as res ipsa oy.

If you're, you know, inspired by something a guy did but you intend to stay on the right side of the line a lot of people draw using their internal sense of what's fair and not fair, you've got to leave out the part where he says his name. (Perhaps Coulton's next cover should include his Social Security Number.)

As of this afternoon, Fox has no comment on the situation.

This is the kind of PR tangle in which creative people sometimes find themselves now, where social media magnifies what offends people's sensibilities, such that it matters less whether you're going to get sued and more whether people are going to remember it forever. Almost 100,000 people follow Jonathan Coulton on Twitter, and they have long memories and enthusiastic typing fingers, and nothing makes fans more enthusiastic and instantly mobilized than the sense that somebody is doing wrong to an artist they love. And for it to be Glee, a popular show that a lot of people who like cool indie musicians have, shall we say, issues with? It's really not surprising that the story took off, and led to all kinds of chatter about all these past covers that people kind of wish had been credited.

The good news is that it probably wouldn't take very much to turn this around; even an acknowledgement that this was a special case where the arranger deserved a phone call and should have gotten one might be a start. Of course, if they do that, they have to figure out what to do going forward, and at some point, it becomes a bigger problem than Jonathan Coulton.

It's possible that it's going to turn out here that it would have been smarter to call the guy in advance, in retrospect.

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